How will the Government’s new NPQ SENCO qualification improve SEND provision?

A school’s commitment to inclusion can easily be measured in three core ways: whether the SENCO is given the time and team to advocate for its children with identified needs; whether it values its SENCO with seniority of position within the Senior Leadership Team; and whether it pays its SENCO with parity to other roles that ensure legal compliance for the protection and support of vulnerable children (eg Designated Safeguarding Lead).

These core indicators will heavily influence whether a SENCO is able to foster a culture of inclusion within a school. Some schools are leading the way, whereas others still have a long way to go. For me, at the heart of the debate of the value of the existing NASENCO award over the DfE’s proposed NPQ SENCO professional qualification, is whether the latter can take school leaders on a journey to making their settings more inclusive, where everyone is truly valued and feels like they belong.

Will the NPQ prepare new SENCOs for a complex and highly skilled role?

In a previous SNJ article, Tristan Middleton has skilfully argued that the less academically rigorous NPQ qualification risks watering down the knowledge of SEND, the critical awareness of problems, and the conceptual understanding of complex issues related to inclusion in schools. Graeme Dobson built upon this with his recently published research that clearly demonstrates that Government data around NASENCO Award holders is woefully inaccurate, therefore any suggestion of the insufficiency of the Award itself is not based on robust evidence.

These are really important questions that do need careful consideration by the Department for Education, both in terms of ensuring the content and design of the NPQ SENCO is fit for purpose. However, and perhaps more concerningly, is the question of how seriously the DfE has taken its own responsibility in the past for ensuring schools have been compliant with the law around the NASENCO. This is something that the National SENCO Workload Survey (NSWS) research team have also raised in recommendations from our own research (2018, 2019, 2021).

Some NPQs (eg Leading Behaviour and Culture NPQLBC) run for 12 months and their course content is equivalent to about 82 hours of study. Higher-level NPQs such as the Headship NPQH run for 18 months and study time is pitched at 112 hours. Both courses have similar structures, covering a blended learning approach including face-to-face sessions, online training, formative assessments, performance coaching and a final summative assessment ranging from 1500-2500 words. Both of these are considerably less than the NASENCO which currently demands 600 hours of study.

It could be argued that 600 hours of study is very challenging for professionals who are already struggling for time in a complex and challenging role (70% of SENCOs do not have enough time.1 If the time constraints of the current NASENCO are unrealistic, does this mean it is badly-pitched at its core market?

That said, reducing a qualification from 600 hours to just 82 (a drop of 86%) or to 112 (a drop of 81%), is conceivably just as unrealistic in terms of wanting to build positively on the quality and impact of the NASENCO. I think this should cause concern for all, and those writing the NPQ SENCO framework do need to think carefully about how it will ensure the depth and breadth of the role is covered within its curriculum - and covered well.

Questions and challenges for the new SENCO NPQ

Time aside, when I reflect on my own NA SENCO experience, the aspects I really valued were having a mentor, and spending time critically thinking about real-world issues, for example, how was I going to deploy my Teaching Assistants for maximum impact? An NPQ SENCO, if it were to follow a similar format to the current NPQH, could potentially meet this need really well.

Perhaps a greater challenge is not the content or the format per se, but the quality of the formative and summative assessments. How will the NPQ SENCO be assessed and how will that be quality assured? With the growth of AI tools such as ChatGPT, arguably we are reaching a point where the independent study essay is dead. Certainly, in my own school, colleagues are setting essays for homework with caution.

Instead, perhaps some or all assessments should be driven by observations of real-world scenarios that are competency tested, not dissimilar to a driving test. For example, can the SENCO lead a multi-agency meeting such as an Annual Review? Can they carry out in-school screening assessments? Are they able to build trusting relationships with families and children? Can they lead a staff training session? Can they have challenging conversations with positive outcomes for children and young people, with colleagues, the LA, and families alike? For me, these are the hallmarks of an effective SENCO. I wonder if the NPQ SENCO can get this aspect right, could it not only future-proof itself from digital development, but significantly influence and improve daily practice in schools at the same time?

What could the NPQ SENCO include to positively develop SEND provision and leadership in schools?

With the above in mind, the kind of curriculum I’d like to see in the NPQ SENCO includes training and discussion around how we identify need, and how best those needs can be met. In my view, this is one of the greatest weaknesses across schools currently.

Local authority-employed specialists are thin on the ground these days and the NASENCO does not routinely upskill teachers to carry out reading, spelling, handwriting speed, working memory, and visual processing tests. These are really vital in helping to establish any cognitive barriers to learning. Whilse the NASENCO encourages SENCOs to engage in research, e.g, around what works in maths or reading intervention (and there’s strength and great intention in that), this is something offered by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) anyway.

Therefore, perhaps academic research skills could be replaced by course content time spent on more operational or strategic aspects of the role, such as designing and evaluating a provision map or analysing cohort data and producing an action plan. Could an NPQ SENCO make a formative assessment around these aspects of the role?

A role to train other staff in SEND with confidence

I’d also like to feel confident that future SENCOs are skilled in delivering quality, evidence-based training that makes a difference in classrooms across their school. Training adults is not vastly different to teaching children, but it can be intimidating standing up in front of colleagues. It can also mean SENCOs spend a lot of time in their holidays planning staff INSET training which, if it’s not an area of expertise, can be challenging and time-consuming. A qualification that trains SENCOs to lead teacher training and development, mirroring the work covered in other NPQs, could also really improve the effectiveness and consistency of practice across schools.

Finally, entering the world of the SENCO means working collaboratively with a wide range of teaching colleagues and external professionals such as educational psychologists, speech and language therapists, social workers and CAMHS, to name but a few. These colleagues all have their own areas of expertise that aren’t always school-centred and who may be working under different ethical guidelines to schools. It’s often the SENCO who has to take a range of advice and translate it into the school context, finding workable solutions between differing views and the limitations of a school policy, timetable or budget. Enabling SENCOs to understand how the role intersects with other professionals and agencies, building diplomacy skills and keeping the child’s voice at the centre, is also key to effective provision and therefore is important to include in the NPQ.

The big question remains though, what evidence-base is being used to establish the proposed NPQ SENCO curriculum and its content? Is it as robust and as rigorous as the NASENCO, with its careful consideration of current research and its commitment to embracing the complexity of SEND? Will the Expert Advisory Group draw upon a wide-enough knowledge and experience base, ensuring they’re incorporating a range of views including NASENCO graduates and current providers, to ensure the NPQ SENCO is tailored appropriately? This must surely be an opportunity to move from consultation to co-production, meaning the result could be something that has real potential to impact on improving outcomes for children with SEND.

How could the NPQ SENCO link with other NPQs to help integrate the role and its school impact?

Arguably one of the best aspects of an NPQ SENCO is its integration into the current suite of National Professional Qualifications so that, rather than being a standalone qualification, it would be on a par with other, more mainstream, qualifications. For me, conceptually this is absolutely the right positioning for a qualification that seeks to highlight the importance of integrating SEND in schools. The NSWS research is clear: SENCOs are too often left to make big decisions alone, excluded from ‘the room where it happens’ and considered the only person responsible and accountable for SEND. This absolutely needs to change.

Interestingly, in what I perceive to be a marked shift in DfE protocol, the current Expert Advisory Group putting together the NPQ SENCO Framework is accountable to the Department’s central Schools team, rather than the SEND team. This, for me, is a hugely encouraging development which sees a centralising of responsibility for SEND at the national level and a greater commitment to ‘joined-up thinking’. The fact that the DfE SEND team have never made schools accountable for upholding the law around SENCOs completing the qualification and has no reliable data on the uptake of the NASENCO, should raise serious questions about their desire and/or ability to genuinely influence and improve practice in schools at whole school level.

For me, bringing the NPQ SENCO together with other NPQs is also a fantastic opportunity for cross-pollination of course content, and is certainly relevant for all three of the reformed NPQs and vice versa. But I hope the qualification itself commands greater desirability, by aligning itself within the more common career qualification trajectories. The SENCO and Headteacher roles have much overlap. What if the NPQ SENCO became a more commonplace stepping stone to Headship?

If the increase in profile and impact of the NPQ SENCO can take school leaders on a journey to making their settings more inclusive, where everyone (staff, pupils and parents) is truly valued and feels a sense of belonging, the impact of the change will far outweigh any loss of academic rigour of a Level 7 qualification. It would be tragic, however, if it is poorly implemented and becomes ‘a sticking plaster’ that doesn’t move the inclusion agenda at the forefront.

How can we prevent poor and chaotic implementation that would undermine and destabilise a mandatory and highly important qualification?

If the 2014 SEND reforms are anything to go by, any sector professional will be rightly worried about the potential for abysmal implementation and drastic under-resourcing of a new NPQ. This could lead to the discrediting of a legally-required qualification—one that’s currently widely valued and respected, just as it is.

With this in mind, I would suggest teams involved in bringing the NPQ to life need to seriously consider just how they are going to implement this well and what types of challenges might they need to predict and prevent before launch.

For what it’s worth, here are some of my own suggestions:

VisionHow can we help everyone to understand the reason for this change and what the NPQ SENCO hopes to achieve (that is different to what we have now)?
SkillsHow can we ensure the quality of the NPQ isn’t compromised by such a huge reduction in hours and rigour of assessment processes? What are the non-negotiable skills we want SENCOs to have? How can we ensure SENCOs are able to deliver on them in practice once they have completed their NPQ SENCO?
IncentivesHow can we help schools with funding to be able to support the implementation of NPQs? Will there be criteria for funded support, as other NPQs do now? How can we make the NPQ SENCO an attractive course to complete for a wide range of teaching professionals who are looking to develop their Leadership skills?
ResourcesHow much support and direction will Providers need in order to deliver a high-calibre qualification particularly if leadership of SEND is not in a course leaders’ previous expertise or experience? How can Providers ensure NPQ SENCOs receive quality coaching in the field of SEND if the Government currently don’t hold data about who is an experienced SENCO? How will this new award be carefully quality assured and by whom?
Action PlanHow can Providers apply to deliver the Award? What are the important timescales to factor in? How will the introduction of the NPQ SENCO affect the current Code of Practice – how will the wording be changed, when and by whom?


[1] Curran, H, Moloney, H, Heavey, A and Boddison, A (2018) It's about time: the impact of SENCO workload on the professional and the school. Bath Spa University, Bath.

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Hannah Moloney
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