Meet the expert > Pearl Barnes

Pearl Barnes

Pearl Barnes, President of NASEN (National Association of Special Educational Needs), tells us about her varied career, including work in the neurology, brain function and genetics industry, teaching in both mainstream and SEN schools, and how she is now running her own training consultancy.

Pearl BarnesMy Qualifications and Experience...

My original study was for an honours degree in Biomolecular Science. At that time, in the early-mid 1980s, molecular biology was a rapidly developing field of science, with genetic engineering, cloning and research into Aids being at the forefront of scientific research. I was particularly fascinated with neurology, brain function and genetics. I studied at the only university which offered this course in Portsmouth.

It wasn’t until six years later, after working within the industry, that I retrained as a teacher. I took a Post Graduate Certificate in Education (P.G.C.E.) at St. Lukes, Exeter University, specialising in mathematics. After a further break from study to raise my growing family, I studied with Plymouth University for a Masters in Special Educational Needs.

Although I specialised in specific learning difficulties, I was particularly interested in the impact of multiagency provision and support and my final dissertation researched this field. I have more recently studied for a PGCertEd in Early Mathematical Development and a Certificate of Competence in Psychometric Assessment.


Professional Experience...

My professional experience has been somewhat varied and unconventional. Although I originally trained to teach older children, I began my teaching career as an Infant school teacher, teaching a class of mixed Y1/2 pupils.

Following a break to have a family, at which time I began studying for my Masters in Special Educational Needs, I returned to teaching within a school for children with severe, multiple and profound learning difficulties. I taught children with severe autism, cerebral palsy, Downs Syndrome and many other lesser-known syndromes and disabilities. Many children were non-verbally communicating and I learnt to sign at this time.

I also worked as a volunteer within a local Opportunity Group – which is pre-school provision for children with Special Educational Needs. This provided me with the opportunity of researching early identification and obtaining experience of working within a utopian multiagency setting, where therapists and educationalists worked side-by-side.

I then moved on to work within Base provision for children with identified needs described as Significant Additional Educational Needs. Many pupils presented with multiple categories of need, including speech, language and communication needs and emotional and behavioural difficulties.

I developed an outreach service to local schools across the region and developed multiagency links with health professionals to provide joint working within the educational setting. These therapy groups were highly successful and I would say were a highlight of my career.

Enjoying the outreach side of teaching, which involved working with a number of settings and professionals, I took on a role of Teacher Leader (Consultant) for the new initiative called ‘Every Child Counts’ (ECC). This intensive intervention programme was funded through the government to improve the mathematical attainment of the lowest 5% of the population.

As a consultant within the research and development phase, I was involved in the development of the programme in addition to supporting teaching staff to deliver the programme. ECC was, in my view, an example of excellent practice.

However, as all good things seem to come to an end, the programme in its original form is being discontinued with any new funding being devolved directly to schools, preventing many Local Authorities from being able to continue to employ their Teacher Leader.


What are your current projects?

I am now working as an independent consultant, drawing together all this specialist experience and knowledge. I provide training and consultancy for teaching and non-teaching staff in mathematical difficulties and other aspects of special educational needs, in addition to offering specialist diagnostic assessments of pupils who may be experiencing atypical specific learning difficulties, which may not fit neatly into a single category. 

My aspiration is to manage a multidisciplinary training and assessment centre. I have written a number of book and resource reviews and articles regarding mathematical difficulties and I am in the process of putting together my first book relating to assessment. I have a number of ideas for books, particularly for improving mathematical difficulties; it is finding the time to write that is the issue.

As President of nasen, I am involved in the development of SEND at a national level, and have recently been involved in conducting a consultation for the SEND Green Paper. I would like to see much more integrated working between health and education, a fairer system of identification and intervention which meets the individual needs of children, based upon their profile of needs and not the provision available. 

Nasen has recently been awarded a grant from the Department of Education to develop awareness training in general SEN and quality first teaching and I am a member of the steering group overseeing the project.


Who have you worked with?

In the past I was a member of the Children’s Emotional Wellbeing Group at the Royal College of Psychiatrists. I worked with fellow health professionals to promote awareness of child mental health issues and the importance of early identification and understanding.

We were particularly keen to develop training for teachers in emotional wellbeing. The group was led by Prof. Susan Bailey OBE, an eminent Forensic Psychiatrist who worked on the Jamie Bulger murder trial.

I also worked with Prof. Christopher Gillberg to look at the overlap between Autism and ADHD. I would really like to meet Baroness Warnock as education is intrinsically linked to politics and I believe the only way to improve outcomes for children and young people with SEN and disabilities is to influence policy.


What inspired you to get into this field?

My son, Joshua. Josh was born at home and on Christmas Day, which felt like I had hit the jackpot – it was a wonderful experience. I immediately knew there was something wrong. He had developed viral pneumonia within days of his birth and was rushed to a paediatric intensive care unit over 100 miles away. He eventually pulled through, due to the outstanding care he received in hospital, but during his subsequent developmental checks with the paediatrician I became aware of his developmental delay.

His difficulties were mild and very subtle and in order to gain a greater insight and understanding into his difficulties, so that I could help in any way possible, I began to research the field of SEN. I found I had a deep interest in the nature-nurture debate and researched the neurological aspects of SEN as I had the original biological knowledge and interest from my first degree.

I also found I became passionate about policy development at this time, as it seemed to me that there were so many legal loopholes and so much bureaucracy it was a wonder that any child ever managed to have their individual needs met.


If you weren't a specialist teacher what would you be?

As a child, I always wanted to be a vet as I cherished my pets. But I realised that there were many aspects to being a vet which I would find hard. I would still like to be a scientist, finding a cure for cancer or ME. I also have a dream of opening a school in Africa for orphaned children.


What do you do when away from work?

I love cycling and walking. I live in a beautiful part of the country and try to get out on my bike 2 or 3 times a week, cycling through the lovely Dorset/Somerset border countryside. My holidays are always in the hills usually of either the Yorkshire Dales or the Lakes – I feel completely at peace when on the open fells and moorland.

I have walked many long-distance footpaths in my day and would like to cycle from Lands End to Jon o Groats. I do, however, also love history and exploring the wonderful historical aspects of our world. I also sing with a local choir, and I attempt to play the piano and guitar.


Quick Questions: 

What's your favourite book?

My favourite book is, and has always been, The Railway Children by E. Nesbit. I remember I used to listen to a oral record (an old album) of it when I was lying in bed suffering from mumps! I love the way the children are so united in their adventures and their love for life which extends their childhood – a very different era to that of today.

What's your favourite album?

I don’t really have a favourite album. I have different tastes in music to reflect my different moods. I love The Priests, Classical Guitar and other classical albums with Faure, Bach and Vivaldi coming out as my favourites. I always enjoy singing with Elton John, the BeeGees, the Beatles or Wings when driving and I listen to jazz when in the company of others.  

Whom do you most admire, and why?

There are so many people to admire and who never fail to astonish me. I particularly admire Oscar Schindler and Corrie ten Boon who both risked their lives to help Jewish people during the Nazi occupation and Second World War. Nelson Mandella never ceases to amaze me with his courage and dignity. Martin Luther King who gave his life for the freedom and liberty of Black Americans.

William Wilberforce, for his patience in pursuing the abolition of slavery 200 years ago. But there is one person who stands out above all others for her innocence as her youth was tragically stripped away whilst she patiently reported the events of the Secret Annex. Anne Frank was a young lady with wisdom beyond her years. She endured psychological and physical torment, demonstrating the spirit of purpose to look forward with faith and determination, to never look back and never lose heart when all seems hopeless and lost. 

Pearl Barnes is President of NASEN. You can find out more about NASEN's work on their website -


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