SENCO basics: My research defining the role of the modern SENCO

SENCO basics: My research defining the role of the modern SENCO

Tania’s note: Hannah Moloney was the author of a research study into the SENCo workload that I wrote about on SNJ here. She’s a current class SENCo, researcher, and sat alongside me as a member of the national Nasen/Whole School SEND Expert Reference Group “Every Leader a Leader of SEND", aimed at improving the SEND expertise within schools.

SENCO basics and what I learned from my research

Key facts:

  • SENCO stands for ‘Special Educational Needs Co-Ordinator’. Sometimes it is also known as SENDCO - the D stands for Disabilities.
  • The SENCO co-ordinates provision for children who may be falling behind socially, academically, emotionally or physically compared to their peers and/or who have a recognised disability which benefits from additional in-school support. Where relevant, they will work with outside agencies (in health, social care, the charity sector, the police etc) to manage or support this.
  • Every state school must, legally, have a SENCO. Most independent schools have one too, but do not legally have to.
  • Every SENCO must, legally, be a qualified teacher and then have completed a Masters level qualification in SEN Co-ordination within three years of starting the post, if they started after 2009.
  • The SENCO should use the Code of Practice (2015) to underpin their decisions and provision in school. They should also be familiar with the Equality Act (2010) and the Children’s and Families Act (2014).
  • It is advised that the SENCO is on the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) but it is not mandatory.
  • Every school should have a ‘School Information Report’ which is an explanation of the school’s SEN provision, updated annually, available on their website.
  • Every school should have a SEN governor.

In practice, a SENCO’s time is spent on the following types of activities:

  • Liaising with parents, the Local Authority (LA), external agencies, class teachers, previous and subsequent schools/colleges to support transition
  • Managing meetings, paperwork, data, whole-school initiatives to improve SEN provision, line managing SEN staff, supporting whole-school decisions about timetabling and qualifications, reviewing and maintaining the internal SEN register, conducting SEN reviews of provision, reporting to governors and SLT
  • Training staff at INSET days and after-school meetings, organising external training, providing guidance in pastoral support and sanctions. 
  • Working with students – assessing or organising assessments, leading or overseeing interventions, arranging exam support (such as extra time)

The role is varied, time-consuming and highly demanding. It requires ever-increasing levels of knowledge and working practice, alongside the kudos to lead within a challenging school environment. It demands an emotional, moral and time commitment above and beyond many roles in school. It also requires the support of the headteacher and the governing body to be truly effective. 

The bullet points cited above attempt to define the role, however, research conducted in 2018 aimed to establish how the role was being enacted in reality, three years after the changes legalised in SEN provision in 2015. The findings show that what is possible in practice is still a long way from the ideal described in the Code of Practice; and that provision still varies significantly.

What my research told me about the modern SENCO

The research showed that 71% of SENCOs really enjoy their role. The reasons cited for this included the opportunity to make a difference and the interesting challenges that the role presents. However, the research also painted a bleak national picture about the way in which the role is often disempowered within school settings, through decisions at national-, local- and school-level.

Legally, every school must have a SENCO, but currently, there is no national mandatory time allocation for SENCOs and, as such, time to be able to complete the role is a significant variable across the country. It is true that the role of the SENCO in practice varies considerably depending on the size, phase and socio-economic profile of the school.

However, current time allocations do not reflect any consistency or strategy around decision-making. For example, from the 2018 data, we know that SENCOs working in ‘average sized primary schools with average levels of SEN’ are given anything from ‘no time at all’ to ‘five days a week’ to do the job. There is clear systematic inequality which does need rectifying and the consequences of this on children’s outcomes are likely to be significant.

To try ensure better provision, as a parent/carer, some of the first questions you might want to ask the SENCO at a prospective school are: How many children are on roll? What percentage of SEN do you have? How much time are you given to complete your role? The time allocation given will provide you with an indicator as to whether the SENCO will be able to effect their legal duties well; and give an indication as to how much the Headteacher prioritises SEN support. 

Alongside lack of time, a commonly cited complaint was that legal paperwork and daily admin tasks consumed the most time and kept SENCOs away from fulfilling other aspects of the role, such as working with teachers in their school to help improve outcomes for children and young people. These included writing the paperwork for Education Health & Care Plan (EHCP) applications and reviews, writing Higher Needs Funding applications, communicating with the Local Authority (LA) about children and placements, analysing data. The commonly cited solution to this is for the SENCO to have administrative support, but research shows that only 23% of SENCOs have access to administrative support. Again, as a prospective parent, you may want to ask about administrative support available to the SENCO. 

A whopping 92% of SENCOs hold other roles as well – the majority have teaching commitments and approximately a third are also Safeguarding leads, Designated Teachers for Looked After Children and/or EAL-Co-Ordinators. Membership of SLT varies – approximately 50% hold this additional role. In essence then, a SENCO is not just a SENCO and many other responsibilities are likely to be juggled alongside it, which could help to explain why less than a third of SENCOs feel their role is understood by colleagues and that 74% frequently feel frustrated by the lack of time they have to enact the role. Only 26% of SENCOs feel the role is manageable for one person.

How can parents and carers help to influence and support decisions around their child’s education?

 One of the reasons I championed the research into the role of the SENCO was because, as a practicing SENCO myself with a passion to see all children accessing a positive education, I have often felt that there are systematic limitations which prevent the role being fully optimised.  There are some brilliant schools out there doing a fabulous job. There are many, many committed SENCOs who are valiantly battling in very hostile conditions; but the question we all face, as stakeholders in SEN provision often with differing views and limited resources, is how we navigate those challenges to form a team around the child, keeping them at the centre: challenges, which can sometimes cause people on all sides to feel powerlessness and frustration.

 Being knowledgeable about the difficulties you believe your child is facing and also having some idea about the types of support that could be in place can help (have a look at my What To Do advice leaflet here.) Remember, SENCOs do not know everything – the field of special needs is a diverse and ever-changing one and they may not have knowledge or experience of your child’s particular profile. Representing your child’s needs and suggesting strategies which you have found that work can also be very helpful; as well as vocalising any fears and worries about the consequences of these difficulties on your child’s future. This can enable the SENCO to adopt your suggestions, to reassure you, or to suggest solutions that may help.

Time aside, the role of SENCO and the way it is managed can vary greatly in different settings – most obviously between primary and secondary, where larger structures do not enable the same processes to be managed in the same way. (A classic example of this is pupil profiles and IEPs, which are possible within a small setting but become unmanageable in a larger one. If a SENCO is not doing them, it may be because they have found them to be an ineffective use of time and prefer a different solution. It is worth taking the time to ask the SENCO about what they find works rather than assuming or expecting a consistent approach between schools.) 

In reality, if you are finding that your child is still struggling or support is not very forthcoming, it may not be the fault of the SENCO, but the consequence of a national curriculum design which is often considered inflexible and unsuitable for some learners; the local authority, whose funding decisions and assessment procedures are outside of the remit of the SENCO; or, the school decisions taken by the headteacher and governing body around funding, time allocations or the team around the SENCO – some of which will be in response to very challenging financial demands upon many schools nationally. It is worth considering what the root of the problem might be and then it is advisable to talk to your local SENDIASS service to support you in any meeting you might have about your child’s needs. Asking what you can do as parents/carers to help, too, is also a way to build a sense of team around your child.

Maintaining a positive and collaborative relationship is the best way to influence support for your child in the long term, whilst also advocating for your child’s needs now and in the future.

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Hannah Moloney
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