Secondary SEN: Learning lessons from primary school practice

Written by: Sara Alston | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Primary teacher Sara Alston has been working as a secondary school SENCO during the past year. She reflects here on the nuanced differences in the SEND experience, how these might negatively affect SEND students – and what we can do about it

Though I am a primary school teacher, I am lucky enough to have worked regularly in and with secondary schools. However, during the last academic year, I got the chance to work in a secondary school on a weekly basis covering a small segment of a fellow SENCO’s maternity leave.

It was a very peculiar year. Due to Covid restrictions, I only met many of my colleagues online and there were parts of the school site that I have never visited.

At the same time, the experience focused my mind on the differences between primary and secondary (and the consequences of these differences for children with SEND).

We are all aware of the old cliches that secondary school buildings and pupils are bigger, the lunch routine is different, there are more subjects with a greater range of teachers and more homework. But many of the differences are more nuanced than this.

Go to SEND

As we know, in the majority of primary schools the children are based in a single classroom in the care of a consistent team of adults. When there is a change of teacher, the teacher usually comes to the children, not the other way round.

In secondaries, under normal circumstances, it is the children that move. This also applies to SEND support. In primary, even where children are going out for an intervention the adult comes to get them. However, in secondaries, though there can be support within lessons, for much of their support children need to “go to SEND”.

This means that children need to be proactive and go in search of the staff and equipment they need. This requires a change of attitude and mindset, but also an awareness of when they need help and the confidence and ability to request it. Not all children have this and it results in some missing out.

The site

Transition often includes looking at maps and walking the school site, but the issues for many children are more than just dealing with the size and complexity of the premises. It is around developing understanding about how routes around the site work and interconnect. A year on, I still only know one way to the music block. I found a child who went back to the dining hall between every lesson because he found it easier to navigate the site if he started from there. This is something that needs reviewing and re-teaching as the children learn where they might want to go and timetables change.

Social interactions

We are aware that unstructured times are different in secondary, but I am not sure we fully think through these differences. It is not just more and older children in a larger setting, but the management of the range of interactions and unknown social conventions.

This might be managing the queueing protocols in the canteen or identifying the different groups and cliques within the playground. Just think about the scenes in high school movies where the new student (and the audience) is walked across campus as the different social groups are described and they are told who to avoid.

Yet there is no equivalent induction for year 7s. The playground politics and space are complex and come without a guide. We need to consider how we support this.

The number of teachers

In secondary schools, children deal with more teachers. We understand and try to plan to minimise children’s difficulties with varied teaching styles and expectations coming from different personalities and subjects. For those who live by rules and consistency, this can be mind-blowing. This is further exacerbated when children are taught by more than one teacher for the same subject. We need to ensure that the expectations in lessons are explicit and based in consistency.

Equally, we need to consider the impact for teachers of the number of children they meet. With a two-week timetable, a PE or tech teacher might teach 500 or even up to 1,000 children and see them only once a fortnight. It is really difficult for them to get to know these children and remember, apply and adapt the support they need to succeed in lessons.

There are real issues when children are able to regulate their emotions and engage in learning in some lessons, but not in others. We can quickly get into “they behave for me” territory which is not helpful. It places unfair judgements on particular teachers. It does not look at the wider picture of what is going on for the child: the impact of the time of day or week, which other children are in the room, and the child’s strengths or difficulties in particular subjects. It is so important to remember the last five minutes of one person’s lesson is the first five minutes of someone else’s. A child’s behaviour in a particular lesson may be influenced by factors beyond that teacher’s control.

Driven by assessment

In the majority of primary schools, the class is taught as a mixed ability group facilitating the sharing of support, including for literacy across the curriculum. This is less common at secondary where the curriculum is demarcated by subjects and driven by exams. This means children are assumed to have the underlying skills – such as reading – needed to access many subjects when they may not.

SEND provision is often driven by access arrangements with a greater weight on diagnosis. This reduces the time to focus on the needs of individual children. Too often this leads to setting where all those with SEND are put together to facilitate the provision of support, regardless of ability or actual need. This can lead to increased difficulties with behaviour as children who spark each other off are placed together. It means that there is a lack of behaviour or academic role models and difficulties with providing emotional and social support to the academically able with SEND.


There are real difficulties of communicating about the strengths and needs of different children so that support can be given consistently in all lessons. Even with detailed pupil passports, teachers lack the time to read and the capacity to remember all the details, particularly as they are regularly updated. Sharing information with the SEND department about children’s experiences in different lessons, especially for those with SEN support (K code) is difficult. Much depends on the observations of teaching assistants who are not always in these children’s lessons.

Even within the lesson, there are difficulties with communication. Unlike primary where for the majority of the time the teachers and teaching assistants form a team who work together to support the children, in secondary the choice is for the teaching assistants to follow the child, so one or more teaching assistants work with a child or group of children, or for subject-based teaching assistants who work in a particular faculty.

Either the way the teaching assistant and teacher have little opportunity to communicate about the needs of and support for the child, the content of the lesson, or feedback about the learning. Teaching assistants are too often forced to wing it and learn alongside the children, which does not work well for anyone.

Too many cooks

In a primary, the class teacher is the clear lead for a particular child. In secondary this is not so clear, particularly for children with SEMH, behavioural or attendance needs, or social care involvement. To share all the information about a particular child is difficult. Where this does not happen it quickly leads to inconsistencies.

It is too easy for an inappropriate disciplinary response to be made by a member of staff who does not know or understand what else is going on for a child. Effective communication, information-sharing and referring to the lead person needs to lie at the heart of the support for a child to ensure consistent and appropriate responses.

Year 7 into 8

The academic year 2020/21 has been a year like no other in school, so we will need to remember this year that our year 8s have missed the normal year 7 experiences and much that would induct them into secondary school. They will need a higher level of support for the transition into year 8 as they learn to adapt their learning about school to a new way of being in school.


The differences between secondary and primary are fundamentally just issues of scale. Effective SEND support is dependent on us knowing our children and sharing information about them to ensure that they receive the support they need. This depends on consistency imbued with flexibility.

We need to be more ready to share ways of doing things between sectors, not just assume that they are different.

To ensure the best support for children, primary and secondary sectors need to be more ready to share good practice and learn from each other.


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