#SENDReview: Downgrading SENCO training is a mistake but protected time must be mandatory

with Tristan Middleton, University of Gloucestershire & chair, LLSCIC.

Under the SEND Code of Practice, SENCOs must be gain a Masters-level NASENCO award within three years of taking the role.

We’ve always felt this should be achieved before someone takes the role, so they know what they’re doing. However, the SEND Review is proposing to scrap the Level 7 NASENCO entirely and replace it with a National Professional Qualification.

There are positives and negatives with this. Our columnist, SENCO and researcher, Hannah Moloney, has this to say:

"Too often SEND Provision is ‘bolt-on, rather than built-in’. Rebranding the NASENCO as an NPQ helps to unify the SENCO qualification with other school professional development courses. It is however, an extraordinarily challenging role which requires high levels of academic and pastoral skill, along with enough time to enact the role. The quality of the award must be kept; and further support for SENCOs must be recognised. The SENCO role is the key protagonist in the SEND reforms. They must be protected to be able to carry out their legal and moral duties.”

Hannah Moloney

Many SENCOs feel the scrapping of the NASENCO award at level 7 is a mistake. Tristan Middleton is academic course leader, including for the NASENCO award, at the University of Gloucestershire. He is also chair of directors of non-profit, Leading Learning for SEND CIC (LLSENDCIC), a partnership that works to preserve the quality of the NASENCO award. (full bio at the end). He's written about these concerns for us today and why he thinks it's important that it is a high-level course.

Why it's vital SENCOs get the high-level training they need to support children with SEND by Tristan Middleton

The current 60-credit postgraduate course, the National Award for Special Educational Needs Co-ordination (NASENCO), was mandated at Level 7 for a very specific reason. The expressed rationale stated, “Experience to date suggests that it would be difficult to achieve the aims of the Award at a lower level.

In other words, it was very clear to central government at the time that, to be effective, special educational needs co-ordinators (SENCOs) need to be able to demonstrate attributes required of Level 7 award holders. These include the kind of systematic understanding of knowledge relevant to the SEND field, critical awareness of current problems, and conceptual understanding that enables them to deal with complex issues and make sound judgments. This ensures they have the qualities and transferable skills necessary for employment as a SENCO (UK Quality Code for Higher Education, Oct, 2014).

The complexity and challenge endemic in policy, provision, and practice in SEND work in schools and colleges now, is no less demanding than it was at the time the Level 7 NASENCO programme was first mandated. There is no reason therefore to suggest that the standard of a qualification for SENCOs should be reduced. Indeed, the Green Paper has offered no rationale for changing this requirement. 

For the reasons below, we urge the DfE to revisit the proposals for the NASENCO. To improve outcomes for learners with SEND we suggest that the DfE should:

  • Implement the revised Learning Outcomes 
  • Maintain the Level 7 nature of the award 
  • Mandate protected SENCO time
  • Mandate SENCOs as part of school Senior Leadership Teams

(While the last two points are included as proposals in the Green Paper, they must be made mandatory)

Why the NASENCO is a master’s level qualification

Chapter 3, Sections 21-24 of the Green Paper propose a significant change for the NASENCO. Currently, the Children and Families Act 2014 states that the NASENCO must be held by all SENCOs within three years of taking up their post and that it should be taught and achieved at university Postgraduate Master’s level (Level 7).

The Green Paper proposes to change NASENCO to an NPQ, without link to university Level 7 study. The current NASENCO, delivered by universities or providers partnered with universities offers significant learning for teachers, particularly in using research to bring about school improvement. Removing the Level 7 pitch of the NASENCO will mean that significant aspects of SENCO learning will be lost.

What the current NASENCO Offers 

Educators currently delivering the NASENCO, which has been running since 2009, are highly skilled educators at the head of the field, who also have wide practical experience and an extensive range of publications about SEND. For example, the highly praised Whole School SEND / DfE resource, “The SENCO Induction Pack” was written by providers of the current NASNECO and members of LLSENDCiC. Many current providers of the NASENCO have close links with Teaching Alliances, Education Trusts and local authorities as part of their delivery.

Tristan Middleton
Tristan Middleton

Is the NASENCO currently a quality course?

The Learning Outcomes were originally held by the National College for Teaching & Leadership. When this closed our NASENCO Provider Partnership took responsibility for overseeing the quality assurance of the award, with providers joining LLSENDCiC to gain our NASENCO Quality Standard. The Quality Standard ensures both consistency in quality and strict adherence to the Learning Outcomes across all NASENCO courses. There are now 41 Providers who hold our Quality Standard and sign up to our aims to continue to develop NASENCO provision in order to improve the outcomes for all learners and particularly those with SEND.

The level of quality assurance provided for the NASENCO courses is multi-layered, as university providers have their own processes of scrutiny and standards. Furthermore, the Level 7 nature of the current NASENCO has a strong focus on research-informed practice. Graduates of the current NASENCO confidently take to their individual settings the knowledge and understanding of contemporary educational research as a foundation for developing effective and innovative practice. They are also taught to lead action research, which is recognised to hold significant potential for improving school practice.

Variability of quality?

Section 21 of the Green Paper refers to “variability in terms of SENCO’s experience of the NASENCO". We would challenge this view and ask what the basis for this statement is. In 2017, the DfE commissioned Education Research with Plymouth University to review the NASENCO courses and the Quality Standards approach led by our organisation. Findings from this research were extremely positive about both the outcome of the NASENCO and the Quality Standards process. Indeed, the report recommended that all of those who provide the NASENCO should be part of our Provider Partnership.

Current NASENCO courses are evaluated both by individual providers and the Quality Standard and there is evidence from SENCOs and Senior Leaders in schools that shows graduates are more confident in their role and in their SEND knowledge and expertise. 

The Role of the SENCO

This section of the Green Paper opens with a suggestion that it is difficult to find a good SENCO. Conversations with current and past SENCOs would suggest that this difficulty is related to SENCOs having little time to fulfil their role, while working within an SEND system that has been widely described as ‘broken’, not the result of any failings in SENCO training.

Rather than implying that current SENCOs are not executing their role effectively, the Green Paper should reflect the extremely challenging situation in which many SENCOs are working. The SENCO Survey has identified that SENCOs are working with high workloads and little time, often with multiple responsibilities, trying to ensure the best opportunities for learners while working within school, LA and national funding decisions they have no control over.

How the NASENCO could be improved

As a group of 41 providers of the NASENCO, LLSENDCiC was commissioned by the DfE, through Whole School SEND, to draw up revised Learning Outcomes. A complete set of revised learning outcomes, maintaining the L7 nature of the award, while having a stronger leadership element and being aligned with the language and focus of NPQs, was presented to the DfE in 2020. Since then we have been keen to work with the DfE to implement these new learning outcomes. We would like to invite the DfE to invite us to support them to strengthen the NASENCO.  

About Tristan Middleton

Tristan Middleton is an academic course leader, including for the NASENCO award, at the University of Gloucestershire. He is also the Editor of the International Journal of Nurture in Education and Chair of Directors of non-profit, Leading Learning for SEND CIC .

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