Overworked, underpaid SENCOs mean children with SEND “will be left vulnerable for decades”

For the last few years I've written about the annual National SENCO Workforce Survey that I help to produce with nasen and Bath Spa University. This year's update, subtitled "time to review 2018-2020" published today, has found that, "millions of children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) will be left vulnerable for decades to come if the SENCO workforce isn’t given more time, resources and support to meet the needs of all children with SEND."

The new report estimates that 55% of primary SENCOs and 70% of secondary SENCOs are not allocated enough time to complete their role effectively - with 75% and 79% of primary and secondary SENCO's highlighting that they were routinely pulled away from their role to perform other duties. 

Challenging role, challenging circumstances

Anyone who has followed our research over the last three years will know that we have exposed some challenging data on the pivotal role of the SENCO, ‘the key protagonist’ (Curran et al 2018) in providing and enabling SEND provision. Our research has shown time and time again just how much SENCOs value their role. We have a very committed workforce who feel great moral purpose, and yet we also know how undervalued the SENCO often is within schools: SENCOs lack sufficient time and strategic influence, and this significantly affects their impact across schools nationwide.

“I love making an impact on children and their families by accessing services, interventions and support they so desperately deserve. I have a real sense of personal pride!”

SENCO in survey

Our data also neatly dovetails with recent research which came out of the Education Policy Institute in March 2021, evidencing that SEND support is a "postcode lottery", largely dictated by the school rather than the child’s needs. From our research, this finding would be easily explained by the inconsistency of time and resources given to SENCOs, which are decided at individual school-level; and by the high turnover in the role.

What we need from the Department for Education

Earlier this year, the SENCO survey team met with DfE and reviewed our research findings in order to promote ways in which we believe national SEND provision can be improved. We asked for the following:

  • Enough time for SENCOs, and for this time to be statutory (rather than at the behest of the headteacher)
  • More authority for SENCOs – making it a legal duty for schools to have their SENCO on the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) (rather than it being advisory as it currently is)
  • More respect for the SENCO role – by ensuring it is paid fairly and consistently with other key whole school roles (such as safeguarding) and more consistency at a national level

We need these things set down in law because since 2018, we have shown that there has been very little (if any) improvement in SENCO workload and support. For example:

  • Primary SENCOs are twice as likely as secondary to be on SLT, but less likely to receive additional pay. 

Only a third of SENCOs in secondary schools are on the senior leadership team. This likely has a wider-reaching impact on school policy in practice.

  • SENCO pay is very inconsistent nationally.

Some SENCOs are not given any additional pay or an intermediate responsibility point (often primary) whereas others are more highly paid (often secondary). Some may ask why SENCO pay is an issue when provision for children is so short-changed. The issue, from my perspective, is two-fold.

Firstly, at a provision level, the lack of consistency in pay is a gap that enables national variation of value in the system itself (given that SENCOs essentially hold the system together). Secondly, for those of us who hold this role, (99% women), it's a role that falls foul of the Equality Act’s aims. We are highly skilled professionals and are the only role in a school where it is mandatory to achieve a Masters-level qualification. But the role is often paid significantly less than other whole school roles which command similar levels of legal responsibility. This inconsistency of pay also undermines our value in terms of influence. I firmly parity of pay will also improve the quality of provision for children and young people with SEND

  • Only 40% believe the SENCO role is manageable for one person at primary level.

These SENCOs have very little deployable admin support or a deputy. Although SENCOs at secondary have more deployable support, only 20% of secondary SENCOs feel the role is manageable for one person.

  • Between 12-14% of SENCOs leave the role every year

Workload is commonly cited as a pivotal reason for the lack of retention of SENCOs.

  • There still isn't enough time to dedicate solely to SENCO work

There has been a negligible change in time allocation for SENCOs to carry out their primary duties since 2018. On average, SENCOs in primaries have an additional 18 minutes a week, whereas SENCOs in secondaries have an additional 54 minutes per week. Neither of these improvements allow for anything like the amount of additional time that SENCOs need and have requested. In fact, given the negligible increases in time allocation for SENCOs between 2018 and 2020, based on the current trajectory it would take almost 150 years (primary) and more than 40 years (secondary) at this rate of change for all SENCOs to become full-time. 

“It is clear from both the 2018 and 2020 SENCO surveys that SENCOs do not have sufficient time to meet the needs of children and young people with SEND. Based on the pace of progress between 2018 and 2020, it will take almost 25 years (primary) and almost 40 years (secondary) for SENCOs to be allocated sufficient time to meet the needs of all children and young people with EHC plans. Worse still, it will take more than 30 years (primary) and almost 35 years (secondary) for SENCOs to be allocated sufficient time to meet the needs of all children and young people at SEN Support. During this time, millions of children and young people with SEND risk missing out on vital support.” 

The National SENCO Workforce Survey: time to review 2018-2020, Boddison et al.

The SEND Review MUST take note - and act

We’re very pleased that our research findings are gaining momentum, particularly as the SEND Review is still underway. Key organisations such as Department for Education (DfE) are looking to see how the role of the SENCO can be better supported through a revised SEND Code of Practice.

However, what is very clear from our research is that, unless expectations are stipulated at a statutory level, SENCO workload - and therefore impact - will not improve quickly enough to support pupils with SEND who need it now; and the ‘postcode lottery’ of provision will continue.


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Hannah Moloney
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