New SENCO research questions the SEND Review’s “irresponsible” plans to downgrade the NASENCO award

with Dr Graeme Dobson, University of Birmingham

We are anticipating the publication of the Department for Education very shortly. One of the major proposals was upskilling the SEND workforce, something we can all get behind. However, one of the plans within this is to abolish the Level 7 NASENCO award that SENCOs must start within three years of being in the role. While we’d like a shorter timeframe for the NASENCO, the DfE has decided instead that it’s all a bit too much and should be replaced with a National Professional Qualification (NPQ). An NPQ is a less rigorous, less academic award that NASENCO providers say is essentially dumbing down the role.

But what evidence is the Department is relying on to make these proposals to replace the award? While the answer is ‘we aren’t sure’, there is some new research, out this month, in the wake of the proposals. Dr Graeme Dobson of the University of Birmingham, has published The 2022 SEND Green Paper and the SENCo: more evidence on demographics, qualifications and leadership status….

The evidence is lacking to dump the NASENCO award by Graeme Dobson, University of Birmingham

According to the recent SEND Green Paper, the supply and quality of SENCOs appear to be two issues for schools. Indeed, one contributor to the review suggests that:

 ‘I work with all our local mainstream schools. Having a good SENCO is beyond vital, but almost impossible to find.’

In order to resolve this issue, it is suggested that the current National Award for Special Educational Needs Coordination (NASENCO) is replaced by a National Professional Qualification (NPQ). Yet beyond the one anecdotal comment above, no evidence is presented to help us understand:

  • Is there actually a problem with the ‘supply’ of SENCOs? 
  • What has happened to those who have achieved the NASENCO award?
  • Will changing from the NASENCO to the NPQ improve training?

Is there actually a problem with the ‘supply’ of SENCOs?

Evidence would suggest no.

A recent Freedom of Information request revealed that over the period of 2017-2020, the number of teachers within the role has remained stable, although there has been a slight increase in SENCOs working part-time. As experienced teachers, many SENCOs are aged over the age of 30 with an even spread between the ages of 30-59. There is a slight ‘bulge’ of SENCOS between the ages of 40-49, so there appears to be no immediate need to replace SENCOs.

Indeed, in 2020, there were 2903 (out of over 20,000) SENCOs who were over the age of 50. This suggests that the majority of good headteachers should already be in the succession planning stage for the minority of SENCOs who may be leaving the role within the current ten-year period. Unless, of course, SENCOs are leaving the role for other reasons.

What has happened to those who have achieved the NASENCO award?

Evidence would suggest that the Department for Education (DfE) does not know.

According to DfE data, only 1,464 teachers held the NASENCO across all settings in England in 2019. This figure includes those who are currently SENCOs and those who have since been promoted or moved on to other roles.

It is highly likely that this figure is woefully inaccurate, given that:

  • There are over 20,000 maintained schools
  • There are over 460,000 teachers
  • According to LLSENDCiC figures, providers have been training approximately 3000 SENCOs per annum through the NASENCO award since 2009.

It’s surprising, given that since 2009 the award is a legal requirement, the numbers are not tracked by the Teacher Regulation Agency, Ofsted or the DfE. This is tantamount to negligence, especially as it is possible to download qualifications and proof of most other awards from the website of the Teacher Regulation Agency.

Dr Graeme Dobson is wearing a suit and tie, with dark hair at the sides
Dr Graeme Dobson

Investigation into numbers needed

Rather than proposing yet another qualification, perhaps there needs to be an investigation into the supply of teachers who have already gained this award. Potential questions could include:

  • Have they been promoted out of the position after the award?

If this is the case, it may suggest that the impact of the NASENCO is much deeper and positively impactful than otherwise imagined.

  • Have they completed the award for other reasons such as professional development?
  • Have teachers left the role of SENCO having completed the award?

The problem is we cannot answer these questions because the DfE holds no accurate evidence to consult. Conducting major reviews and making policy changes without understanding the current landscape is irresponsible at best.

Will changing from the NASENCO to the NPQ improve training?

The evidence suggests that the proposed training will be less thorough and less demanding. Although this may be good news for those having to take an award, it may not be for the children with SEND and the parents that have to often advocate and fight for them. A brief outline of the differences are outlined below:


The current NASENCO is a Level 7, postgraduate certificate established within an internationally recognised qualification framework. To be compliant with this, the student is expected to undertake approximately 600 hours of study and to be able to critically interrogate research, policy and data. This should support them in writing a series of assignments to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of these areas.

National Professional Qualifications

These are competence rather than knowledge-based learning, so more akin to awards granted for work-based learning rather than those that provide chartered or qualified status. They deliver specific, and often restricted and ‘approved’ research and content. The time allocated for study, and rigours of assessment within the existing specialist NPQs are significantly less than the study time currently expected within a Post Graduate Certificate such as the NASENCO over the same period. Indeed, the DfE suggest in their marketing materials that over a course duration of 18 months, an applicant for one NPQ should embark on up to two hours’ study a week to be assessed by a single 2500-word case study.

Why is it important to look at the differences between the two awards?

Given these considerations of content, time, assessment, and the lack of the development of critical skills, the NPQ would appear to be a significantly lesser qualification. This move towards nonaccredited status therefore risks SENCO de-professionalisation, an issue not faced by other professionals who provide high levels of advice to support children with SEND e.g., educational psychologists and speech and language therapists. Given this, and the NPQ’s focus on work-based learning, it would appear to assume that prior to embarking on the proposed NPQ, many SENCOs have sufficient knowledge of SEND by holding additional qualifications in this field. Yet there are no data provided in the review to understand whether this is the case. Indeed, another Freedom of Information Request revealed that approximately only 10% of SENCOs have any additional qualifications, apart from those gained to become teachers.

Despite this, SENCOs are the most likely members of staff within schools and settings to provide support to staff to help children with SEND at the point of need. Additionally, they mostly coordinate and deliver continuing professional development to staff within schools and settings with regard to understanding and supporting learners with SEND. Consequently, their knowledge base and critical understanding of a complex field must be sufficient to perform these key functions.

What would further help the review?

  • The Green Paper should be making proposals based on robust evidence. Given that the population of SENCOs illustrates that there is no immediate threat of SENCOs retiring, there needs to be some consideration about why people leave the role or people are ‘impossible to find’.
  • We need to know who holds the NASENCO award. It may be that this is more impactful than the DfE think.
  • The suggestion of implementing an NPQ needs to be at least paused until a full review of qualifications is undertaken by a body that is independent of and not appointed directly by the DfE.

Only then, will we make well considered decisions based on evidence.

A full, open access document on which this article is based can be found here.

About Graeme Dobson

Dr Graeme Dobson is an Associate Professor at the University of Birmingham. Amongst other duties, he leads the NASENCO programme at the University. Graeme is a qualified teacher who has enjoyed a range of positions in schools and local authorities. His profile and research can be found here

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