If we truly want effective SENCOs, the government must act to make it possible

The Special Needs Jungle Coronavirus Survey sought the views and experiences of over a thousand parents and carers of children and young people with SEND between 3-30th June 2020. The National SENCO Workforce Survey 2021 sought the views and experiences of over a thousand SENCOs in schools across the UK between 24th August and 5th October 2020. This article draws both data sets together to compare their findings. The full Survey reports can be found here: SNJ summer survey and BathSpa SENCO workload survey 2021

Without doubt, the effects of Coronavirus on education and on families have been catastrophic. Covid-19 has drastically exposed and further exacerbated a SEND crisis that both SNJ and the National SENCO Workforce Survey team, amongst others, have been campaigning about for a long time.

The data is stark, both from families and from schools. But when you compare our two data sets, they are also remarkably similar. Where we found SENCOs often on their knees with the workload, claiming “it felt desperate at times”, the parent-carer survey by SNJ exposed gut-wrenching experiences with one parent stating that other than a weekly phone call “the only resources … sent … [were] a list of websites and a pencil in an envelope.” 

Where we found SENCOs often on their knees with the workload, claiming “it felt desperate at times”, the parent-carer survey by SNJ exposed gut-wrenching experiences with one parent stating that other than a weekly phone call “the only resources … sent … [were] a list of websites and a pencil in an envelope.” 

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Differentiation and Support from Schools

A SENCO: “The pandemic highlighted staff training needs… some teachers did not consider the needs of their pupils with SEND and did not provide them with differentiated, scaffolded work for them to access.”

A Parent-Carer: “There was zero differentiation for her – I told the school at the beginning that I couldn’t do the classwork with her so they just printed off some word searches and sent them home and said that the most important thing was her mental health.”

Whereas 63% of parent-carers disagreed or strongly disagreed that work was suitably differentiated for their child, our survey of SENCOs couldn’t have agreed more. We found that nearly three-quarters of SENCOs highlighted differentiating learning online as a key concern. When asked about provision, parents-carers and SENCOs sadly agreed: the vast majority in both surveys felt that (virtual) support for pupils and families had been poor; again with over three-quarters of SENCOs stating that this was a challenge. Access to appropriate hardware and adequate data was a difficult, with 70% of SENCOs highlighting this as problematic for their schools. 

Throughout the initial period of the pandemic, the SNJ team worked extraordinarily hard to highlight legal changes via the Coronavirus Act 2020, bringing the relaxation of EHCPs and the term ‘reasonable endeavours’ to meet those needs. Both surveys demonstrated significant frustrations with the completion of risk assessments to review the health, care and learning support needs of ‘vulnerable’ pupils with over half of our respondents stating that this was an issue. 

Where parents-carers decried their exclusion from the process – three-quarters of parents did not know whether their children had them or not, and only 9% had been involved in any way – SENCOs were equally frustrated, but for slightly different reasons. “The expectations on completing risk assessments and reviewing them fortnightly alongside parents and children was overwhelming. I have 30+ EHCPs so this took up an incredible amount of time.” And “Much of my time was taken up in trying to complete ECHP ‘risk assessments’ which felt like a paper exercise and of no direct support to the child.”

Lack of dedicated time to make a positive difference

Of the SENCO surveys' findings over the last three years, one of our biggest frustrations is a lack of dedicated SENCO time for practitioners to actually make a difference - a lack of time to actually enact the requirements of the Code of Practice in practice. The result, when time is unbearably tight, is that meaningful processes of co-production with parents-carers, effective training and support for teaching colleagues and scaffolded, high expectations for pupils, simply become a paper exercise with minimal tangible benefits and outcomes.

As a survey team, hearing from over 5000 SENCOs over the last three years, we know that:

  • that until the person facilitating this role is full-time and entirely dedicated to SEND, we are unlikely to see those ‘aspirations’ for the Code, meaningfully come to pass.
  • We also know that, until every SENCO is on their school’s Senior Leadership Team (currently only 50% are – over two-thirds are in primaries, but only around a third in secondaries), their influence across their school is limited.
  • We are seeking a change in the law to effect a significant amplification of the SENCO voice so that, by default, the voices of families who feel excluded and let down by the systems and structures of school provision are reflected in future strategic, high-level decision making processes in every single school across the country.  

Support and communications from local and national government

A SENCO: “Everyone was left to their own devices with little direction. When asking for advice from the LA it took me five weeks to get a reply.”

A Parent-Carer: “My local authority sent a letter dated 10th May which arrived on 4th June 2020 informing of the relaxation of the law on EHCPs the only communication I have had and not worth the paper or postage due to the timing of the document”

Another of our SENCOs’ deeply held frustrations is around expectations and communications from local authorities, but this extended to central government during the pandemic. Only 10% of SENCOs were happy with the support they received. Of the rest, 64.4% wanted more support from central government and 57.2% wanted more support from their LA. This was echoed by the parents-carers who contributed to the SNJ survey, of whom 80% expressed some degree of unhappiness about Government guidance (59% were very unhappy).

This, of course, in both groups extended to the headline-grabbing woeful distribution of digital devices and the deep social economic divisions between families within the UK. As SENCOs, we would like to see the provision of digital learning not just developed to close social-economic gaps, but actively capitalised upon to provide greater support for the significant number of children and young people (SNJ puts it at 38%) who actually thrived without being forced to endure anxiety-inducing insufficient educational provision, sensory overload and social challenges in school settings – to name but a few.  

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Moving Forward….

Both families and SENCOs want to look forward and learn from their experiences and (again, demonstrating how similar our underlying views really are) our aspirations were strikingly similar.

  1. Improving effective communication with families

Whilst it is true to say many parents-carers still felt that communication had been poor, 84.2% of SENCOs felt that their communication with families had been of greater focus and something they wanted to continue and develop. In fact, there were success stories.

“The relationships built with parents through regular phone calls and communication is something that I do not want to lose. I hope to continue to build upon this as it has been invaluable in building trust, understanding needs and building on a child and family centred approach.” SENCO Survey

  1. Improving differentiation and developing the universal offer of SEN Support in schools 

There are lessons to be learned from the fact that 37% of children with SEND found their anxiety increase without the support and structure of a school day, but 38% of children with SEND found their anxiety reduce (SNJ, 2020).

“Many of our pupils with EHCP’s thrived during home-schooling when there were less communication and social expectations on a day to day basis, they were happier. This shows that these young people are still finding school a stressful place to be and our practice requires further development.” SENCO Survey

More than half of SENCOs were clear that they wanted to think differently about access to the curriculum for pupils (and families) in their school. 

  1. Planning and preparing for future Emergency Responses

Both families and SENCOs would benefit from schools having pre-prepared policies to support leadership teams when an emergency crisis response is required, which could range from the physical closure of schools through to the long-term absence of the SENCO, to ensure the support around pupils with SEND is protected.

“We've encountered good intentions and sympathy, but no-one knows how to do this effectively.” Parent

Overall, both SNJ and the National SENCO Workforce Survey teams are united in their views that the pandemic has not caused these issues, but simply amplified them. As Tania Tirraoro pointed out, “We would like to emphasise that the current SEND crisis long predates the pandemic. Coronavirus has simply exacerbated existing issues for families”. The SENCO Workload survey team have evidenced repeatedly over the last three years that workload expectations for SENCOs are unrealistic, specifically when looking at the time they are given to enact the role and the limited influence they often have in strategic decision-making. But, there were examples of good practice and positive outcomes in this crisis which shows that with dedication and commitment, the SEND crisis can be turned around:

“We were on our knees as a family two weeks into lockdown with increased violence and aggression. School has saved us. Their support has been fantastic and we are extremely grateful for them allowing our child into school during term time and during half-term holidays. They've been a lifesaver and we couldn't have asked for more. Yes, our child’s school placement is an independent specialist one which costs the LA an absolute fortune, but they've earned every penny. They understand our child’s needs 100% and they cope with more than anyone should have to really.”
Parent Comment in SNJ Summer survey (PDF)

We’d like to see this type of support in mainstream, state-funded provision universally. From a SENCO-specific perspective, this would involve a full-time dedicated SENCO, funded by the Government, where the SENCO must be on the school’s Senior Leadership Team and where the professional in this position has the respect and authority to carry out the changes that they know are needed and are trained to deliver. We also want a wide and skilled team around the SENCO to support children’s needs effectively, much earlier on, before they escalate to tribunals and specialist school levels.

Ultimately, the data sets show that families and SENCOs are overwhelmingly united about their aspirations for children and young people with SEND. We hope that the review of the Code of Practice in 2021 will bring much-needed tightening of the law in practice.

Download the SENCO Survey 2021 as a pdf here

Also read:


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