The devastating impact of the SENCo workload

SENCo laden with work with words: New research devastating impact SENCo workload

70% of SENCOs responding to a national survey said they don't have enough time to complete the demands of the role. Almost three-quarters (74%) said  they frequently feel frustrated by the lack of time allotted and half said they spent the equivalent of a whole extra day, unpaid, (meaning a six-day week) on SENCo tasks, largely because they have to squeeze it in with other expectations outside the role.

The researchers behind this new National SENCO Workload Survey are calling for legally protected time, to enable SENCOs to effectively manage the demands of the role, on top of any other responsibilities. 

The survey was launched in September 2018 by  secondary SENCo Hannah Moloney; Bath Spa University researcher, Dr Helen Curran; and Director of Whole School SEND, Anne Heavey. They worked in collaboration with nasen and the National Education Union and received more than 1900 replies from SENCos across England

The survey aimed to understand the nature of the SENCO workload, exploring the key activities of the role, particularly in the wake of the 2014/15 SEND Reforms. Questions focused on how the role was managed, in terms of time and the support they received to manage their duties. 

The research was instigated by Hannah Moloney, who decided it was about time that evidence-based, specific guidance was provided to headteachers to ensure that SENCos like her had enough time to do more than fire-fighting the role, and to bring national consistency. 

Of the two roles that are legally required in a school, the SENCO and the Headteacher, only the SENCO is required to be a qualified teacher. Furthermore, those appointed to the role of SENCO after 1st September 2009 are required to complete the masters-level National Award for SEN Coordination. This demonstrates the critical importance of the SENCO and why it matters that we give them the capacity to perform their role effectively. 

Adam Boddison, CEO Nasen

Many parents will know that SENCos often are also class teachers, year or department heads or have other additional responsibilities.  In the Green Paper for the SEN reforms, it was recommended that the SENCo be part of the senior leadership team. But by the time the SEND Code of Practice was finalised, this requirement was watered down to being virtually worthless.

 The SENCO has an important role to play with the headteacher and governing body, in determining the strategic development of SEN policy and provision in the school. They will be most effective in that role if they are part of the school leadership team.

6.87 SEND Code of Practice 2015

In fact, the report finds that SENCOs are not typically in a senior position which means they don't have much influence over whole school policy. "...there has been a clear issue relating to a disparity between the description of the post in policy and the practical execution of the role (Pearson, 2010)".  

What other roles do SENCos hold in school- teacher, head teacher, deputy head, safeguarding lead, LAC lead, pupil premium coordinator, EAL lead, None, Other
What other roles do SENCos hold in school? 

Nor does the CoP stipulate exactly how much time should be set aside for SENCo duties. Of course in hours, this will differ between schools depending on their size and number of pupils with SEND. But SENCos report--and other research also indicates--insufficient non-contact tim (i.e, without pupils) to carry out the strategic and operational aspects needed to be an effective SENCo.

The research says it could be argued that the reforms have placed the SENCo as a "central actor navigating, mitigating and narrating the changes in policy" in schools and that the remit is expanding. Partly, it says this is because they have to provide services which they can no longer access externally.  I presume this may mean CAMHS, Ed Psychs and other outreach services such as speech and language and occupational therapy.

The school should ensure that the SENCO has sufficient time and resources to carry out these functions. This should include providing the SENCO with sufficient administrative support and time away from teaching to enable them to fulfil their responsibilities in a similar way to other important strategic roles within a school.

6.91 SEND Code of Practice

Key findings

The report found that: 

  • Nearly three-quarters (74%) of SENCOs don't have enough time to ensure that pupils on SEN Support are able to access the provision that they need.
  • Less than a quarter (23%) of SENCos felt that they had enough time to ensure that pupils with Education Health Care Plans (EHCPs) get the provision they are entitled to
  • 95% of SENCOs think that they should have legally protected time to enable them to fulfil the demands of the role.
  • Nearly half of all primary SENCOs (47%) and over a third of secondary SENCOs (36%) said that they had two days or less per week to focus on the role.
  • Only a quarter of respondents (26%) felt that the role was manageable for one person
  • 43% of primary SENCOs and 71% of secondary SENCOs work over nine extra hours a week on SENCO duties. 
  • Less than half (46%) of all SENCOs felt that their role was understood by senior leaders, however for SENCOs in secondary settings this figure decreased to 26%.
  • Only 27% of SENCOs thought their role was understood by colleagues.
  • 80% of SENCOs who work in settings where the National Award for SEN Coordination is mandatory have achieved, or are currently completing, the award.
  • Only a third, (34%) said they intend to be in the role in five years time. Of the 30% who said they wouldn't be, half (49%) cited workload reasons while 45% blamed a lack of funds allocated to SEN.
  • 78% of SENCOs they were pulled away from the SENCo task to support staff and pupils with ‘behaviour management’, as well as responsibilities linked to their roles as Designated Teacher for Looked After Children or Safeguarding Lead. In addition to this, SENCOs stated that they were regularly called to cover classes.

Surprisingly, after all this, 71% still say they enjoy the role most of the time. 

"My role is understood by the head, but not understood by governors and leaders of the MAT. They want me in class teaching rather than trying to meet the needs of SEND pupils. There is an outcry when SEND pupils don’t make progress, but funds are directed towards underachievers rather than genuine SEND pupils. This is because performance management focuses on SATs progress and scores rather than the challenge of closing the gap for SEND pupils."

SENCo quote from the report

How does this affect children with SEND?

Of course, it’s not only the SENCo this pressure on their time affects. Although, as it says in the CoP, every class teacher is a teacher of children with SEND, the SENCo's role is to oversee, coordinate and provide expertise so that children with additional needs, especially those whose SEN is just emerging, can benefit from effective early intervention. And what about ensuring parents are central to the team? No time for that in this picture either.

If a SENCo is tied up elsewhere, what happens when the class teacher doesn't have any useful experience or training in SEND? That child(ren) will fall further behind, maybe disengage or begin to cause disruption, or become reluctant to go in the first place as they're not accessing the curriculum. And then their needs may become more severe, until only the large amount of support or a specialist placement, facilitated by an EHCP, can help. In the meantime, you have one unhappy, anxious, stressed child or one who acts up and ends up excluded. And that's what we're, increasingly seeing.

The thing is, I KNOW that local authority leaders know this. I’ve had conversations with senior management and head teachers who have said this to me. So why is this crucial role being squeezed?

The survey found that:

  • Nearly three-quarters (74%) of SENCOs say they don't have enough time to ensure that pupils identified as requiring SEN Support are able to access the provision that they need.
  • Less than a quarter (23%) felt they had enough time to ensure that pupils with Education Health Care Plans (EHCPs) accessed the provision that they require. 

The level of need in my school is such that the high needs children take up all my time so those who are just SEN support get very little of my attention. Pupils with SEMH [Social, Emotional and Mental Health] particularly dominate. My head teacher is very understanding and supportive but there is not enough money in the budget to allow for more SENCO hours."

"I am frequently pulled to focus on other things, particularly safeguarding, which makes planning time to do things difficult. Although some colleagues understand the importance of the role, they don't understand how long the paperwork takes. In a school with limited funding, it is difficult to support all children in the best way.

Quotes from the report

While 59% of SENCOs felt that they were able to contribute to strategic decision making in their setting, less than a quarter of respondents (23%) felt that they had enough time to reflect and evaluate on the effectiveness of SEN provision. This figure decreased for secondary colleagues, with less than a fifth (18%) stating that they felt they could evaluate provision in their settings.

The role feels like it comprises of a frantic and never-ending cycle of paperwork - referrals, ARs [annual reviews] and meeting records. There is not time for strategic work with impact nor the time to thoughtfully explore the best provision for vulnerable pupils with or possibly with SEN. This leads to long periods of time they are not having their needs met.

Quote from the report

What they want to change

Of course it all comes down to money, but the report’s authors are extremely keen to stress that it's not JUST another result of the cuts. Yes, money is at the root of many of the issues, but this is a long-standing problem. I remember it myself from when own sons were in a mainstream primary a decade ago, where the SENCo was also class teacher, year head, deputy head and head of PE.

The problem is a lack of understanding by school leaders and governors, compounded by a lack of guidance. Then of course there's the lack of money. Although the researchers cannot do much about the money problem, they want to use this research to do something about the guidance issue.

The report made quite a few recommendations for the Department for Education, for SENCos themselves and for senior leaders in schools. As you may have read in this article from Malcolm Reeve, you may be surprised at  the proportion of heads who don't understand either the SENCo role or SEN.

They recommend that:

  • The SENCO role should have legally protected time to just manage their SENCo duties
  • A minimum time requirement should be established that enables SENCOs to do their jobs effectively, taking into account the school size and its proportion of children with SEND. However as a minimum, this should be 1.5 days per week dedicated time
  • A SENCO specific strand should be incorporated within the DfE Workload Project.
  • More detailed guidance than is in the CoP should be developed for the SENco role, include guidance regarding the leadership and status of the role, and related pay.
  • A thought leadership session should be convened to enable wider stakeholders to discuss the report.

For senior leaders in schools, the researchers recommend: 

  • Leaders and governors engage with the issues identified and pledge to protect SENCO time in their schools. 
  • Senior leaders review the SENCo role in terms of time and support to encourage experienced SENCos to remain in post.
  • Senior leaders raise the profile and understanding of the SENCo within their schools and ensure the role is part of the senior leadership team.  
  • Schools look at their structure to enable the SENCo be supported, perhaps even developing a "team around the SENCO"

I think this is a very well put together report and very overdue. It should have been part of the work during the development of the reforms. While there is, of course, already guidance about the SENCo within the Code of Practice, it largely relies on SENCos already being proficient and confident within their role and able to access the National SENCo award training. It also assumes they have the time to carry it out, which from this report we can see this is far from the case.

You can watch the researchers and Adam Boddison discuss the research here

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