The changing role of SENCO

Written by: Daniel Sobel | Published:
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Absolutely brilliant article! The role of special needs and the SENCo have changed. Initially ...

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Schools are finding it hard to recruit successful SENCOs. Daniel Sobel believes this is down to the changing requirements of this broad and vital position. He looks at the modern SENCO role

A recent survey by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) found that only 14 per cent of SENCOs were recruited with ease, while 56 per cent recruited with difficulty and in 30 per cent of the cases, the school failed to recruit.

We have waltzed slap-bang into a national crisis and no-one seems to have woken up to this problem or is doing anything about it.

Since there is such a broad reach for the SENCO role, what sort of person are we looking for, what do we need to prioritise, and what can we get someone else to do?

The traditional SENCO

In the past, the stereotypical SENCO has been seen as the sensitive one, often slightly eccentric (yours truly) and happy to be based in that room under the stairs or down the quiet corridor away from the bustle of normal school happenings.

Students were removed to this special room, those who needed extra attention. That role required patience to work with socially awkward and frustrating students (and their parents), the ability to adapt resources for a broad spectrum of needs, and healthy bouts of resignation to the lengthy paperwork, the outside agencies that were forever lacking and unavailable and, of course, the teachers who would expect them to take all the responsibility for any student with an SEN label.

You could hire that SENCO – it was clear what you needed and there were plenty out there.

The new SENCO

Thanks to Ofsted, the SEND Code of Practice and the Teachers’ Standards, we have seen a significant attitude shift – from keeping those SEN students in that back room to making them a central measure of a successful lesson.

“Rapid and sustained progress of all groups” is interpreted to mean that the students beyond the edges of the average need to be making significant progress in a teacher’s class for it to be considered any good.

When SEN students do not make adequate progress then it can call into question the ability of that teacher, but also your broader school system and its capacity to accurately identify needs.

SEN is no longer something that happens in the room down that quiet corridor, rather it is taking centre stage as a top Ofsted priority. Our SENCO needs to get this to happen – but not from the quiet of their office where they are busy slaving over yet more local authority paperwork and babysitting those same students who have been excluded from class again.

That sensitivity, which was the hallmark of the SENCO, is no longer a top priority. The new SENCO is someone who can think in whole-school leadership terms, has great communication skills with staff and a deft ability to get your school into gear for the Ofsted challenge. That’s a different SENCO altogether – a different job description requiring a different type of person.

What you need from your SENCO

The modern SENCO needs to be outstanding at the following aspects – but even more than that, outstanding at doing all of these concurrently:

  • Can not only get all the ridiculous paperwork done quickly but can actually manipulate the system to get what both the school and student need with tenacity, calm and a willingness to go the extra mile.
  • Can handle challenging parents, usefully share the burden, and support the senior leaders. They spend 90 per cent of their time managing the top 10 per cent of students and know how to stop a bad situation spiralling out of control.
  • Can provide bite-sized information to teachers about their students on a regular basis, are available as a go-to person for continuous teacher support, and can even help nurture the relationship between teaching assistants and teachers.
  • Can read, use and feel at home with whole-school data such as RaiseOnline.
  • Can support whole-school planning in senior leadership meetings and contribute to both pastoral and curriculum development.
  • Someone you can rely on to ensure you are compliant with the SEND Code of Practice, Ofsted and the latest policies.
  • Can deploy resources intelligently and can accurately and dynamically meet needs with high impact and easily measurable provision.
  • Can lead on related issues such as looked-after children, narrowing the attainment gap, English as an additional language and so on.
  • Can deliver on being in and out of classrooms supporting teachers with their differentiation and personalised learning on a daily basis.

Recruitment advice

So what can we do? First, think more in terms of recruiting your SENCO as a senior leader, possibly at the deputy head level. One headteacher told me they had advertised three times for an assistant head SENCO role with no success. I got her to reinvent the position at deputy head level – it was filled quickly. This does have implications for getting governors on board and budget, but needs must.

Think more about someone for their generic leadership skills, their proven capacity to coach teachers in teaching and learning, and whether they can demonstrate any prior sensitivity to SEN or vulnerable students.

This takes us off piste from the usual SENCO to someone who is more of a generic whole-school leader. I think SEN specifics can be learnt in the role, whereas it is much harder for someone with a Master’s in SEN to learn the requisite leadership skills.

The point above will make more sense if you expand the role to more of an INCO (an inclusion coordinator) with responsibility for all areas of inclusion without forgetting the stretch and challenge end as well.

Lay out your expectations that this role will involve getting all staff up to scratch with SEN.

The teacher’s point of view

I think the most crucial shift in the secondary school SENCO role is from just “supporting” the pastoral team with insight, to actually getting involved with the frontline of classroom practice.

As a teacher, ideally you should see your SENCO as someone who regularly pops into your lessons to support you with differentiation, understanding student needs and personalising learning. After all, this is now a key metric for the success of your lessons.

However, my role description above challenges the common misconception that you need to hire someone as your SENCO who knows the most about, for example, dyslexia.

I would go as far as to say that what the classroom teacher knows is far more important – and I don’t mean about the generic challenges of SEN but actually knowing more about the individual’s needs to enable personalised teaching and learning. Tell your SENCO what you personally need to make this happen.

I think classroom teachers can shift around the traditional role of waiting for SENCO emails with long detailed advice that you then have to decipher and interpret.

My best advice for you is less is more, especially when you probably teach upward of 150 students per week. So this could be three or four bullet points from your SENCO of the kind of practical advice that you can apply to a bunch of lessons this half-term and then perhaps an additional three bullet points when the next half-term comes along.

Concluding thoughts

It is not an easy job really. There can’t be a one-size-fits-all model. However, your SENCO should be someone who is able to facilitate and promote everyone else delivering SEN rather than shouldering it all themselves.

  • Daniel Sobel is founder of Inclusion Expert which provides SEND and Pupil Premium reviews, training and support with all forms of inclusion.

It will be interesting to see how the 2019 OFSTED framework will impact the SENCO role.
In my experience, many senior leaders have yet to take account of the 2016 framework (in relation to the SENCO).
The impact of Progress 8 meant that leaders tended not to embrace the SENCO as a senior leader fearing that the school would encourage a greater intake of SEN which would see a drop in P8 score.
Head Teachers tend to view the role as an administrator tasked with fulfilling legal responsibilities rather than a proactive contributor to strategic planning (see Griffiths and Dubsky's Gardening vs Landscaping analogy).

A new emphasis on good character and resilience are rightly putting mental well being on the map.
Will this give the SENCO the authority needed to fulfil the requirements of the role identified in the 2015 Code of Practice.
My view is that until the legal framework 'requires' the SENCO to sit on the Senior Leadership Team as opposed to just recommending it then the role will remain fundamentally unempowered to tackle the unintended consequences of school accountability measures.

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Absolutely brilliant article! The role of special needs and the SENCo have changed. Initially support teachers supported children in class and then children were withdrawn for a specified time. Not always a cupboard under the stairs - our room was sunny and south facing. There is a need for some children to be withdrawn for specialised teaching but there is also a need for the whole class to be treated as special with all levels of work being accessed at the same time.
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