The SENCO journey - transitioning to a strategic role: Guest post from Malcolm Reeve, AET

One of the significant requirements of the Children and Families Act 2014 (known in SEN circles as ‘The SEND Reforms’) encompassed the redefinition of the role of the SENCO.

Schools are legally required to have a SENCO, and if they are new to the role, they have to attain the National SENCO Award within three years of taking up their post. 

Previously, the role of SENCO has sometimes been seen as ‘the person who helps the children with SEN’; they might have had a group of learning support assistants at their disposal to help them with this role. However, the reforms, and the SEND Code of Practice which arose from them, makes it absolutely clear and incontrovertible that SEN is everyone’s responsibility and that the progression of children with SEN cannot be seen as just one person’s responsibility anymore.

The Code of Practice makes it clear that teachers are responsible for the progress of children in their class, even when they are supported by, or working with, a Learning Support Assistant. Thus the SENCO needs to move away from a ‘doing role’ to a ‘strategic role’ where they ‘advise’, ‘liaise’ and ‘ensure’.

The reality is that this aspiration is not easy to achieve and the implementation of this across schools in England presents a significant challenge both for the SENCO, for wider leadership teams, and for the school as a whole.

Malcolm Reeve, Executive Director for SEND & Inclusion at Academies Enterprise Trust.

How the ‘strategic challenge’ plays out

It is often overlooked that the SENCO can run the largest provision in a school; keeping a watching brief on all children and looking after a SEN Support list, which can sometimes contain 20-30% of the whole school.

This year the average SEN Support list in a mainstream school in England is between 14 and 15%. The requirement for the SENCO to adopt a strategic role is to be welcomed, but in achieving it the challenge plays out in four main ways:

  1. The extent to which the Headteacher, and whole school senior and middle leadership team, accept their responsibility to ‘lead SEN’ and how much they support the SENCO in achieving a strategic leadership role.
  2. The extent to which the SENCO is able to adjust his or her thinking to a strategic perspective and adopt the ‘tools’ of strategic leadership.
  3. The extent to which teachers rise to the challenge of being ‘teachers of SEN’ and equip themselves both with approaches and skills which reflect this in practice.
  4. The extent to which Learning Support Assistants become more specialist in the support they offer around the four main types of SEN.

This blog is focusing on how the SENCO adjusts their thinking to a strategic perspective and adopts the tools, which will assist them.

SENCO top tips

  • The Code of Practice and the law on SEN are your ‘bibles’- know them inside out. IPSEA run an excellent course (cheaply) in SEN and the law.
  • Read and understand your school’s strategic development documents (SEF, School Development Plan) and agree with SLT how the longer term vision of SEN is threaded through these and embedded in school improvement thinking.
  • Develop a relationship with the SEN governor and discuss the vision of SEN with them. Meet with them prior to full governing body meetings to discuss SEN provision and outcomes.
  • Use data on the composition of the SEN support list, and the progress which pupils with SEN are, or are not, making, to inform effective intervention and staff deployment. Discuss these with phase leaders in primary schools and heads of department in secondary schools.
  • Use the data to develop an SEN action plan or transformation plan that clearly links with the whole school improvement plan.
  • If you are not a part of the leadership team (the Code of Practice states that a SENCO will be more effective in their role if they are), discuss with your line manager how you can influence SEN strategy with their support.
  • Establish your role in supporting and developing high quality teaching for all throughout the school by conducting SEN ‘learning walks’ (sometimes with the Headteacher and members of the SLT).
  • Prioritise SEN CPD for staff and investigate different models that you could use in your school (coaching, sharing of good practice, Lesson Study etc.)
  • Meet with parents and inform them of your strategic role. Invite them to be part of a parents’ forum or ‘SEN Committee’ where they can influence SEN strategy e.g. by reviewing SEN info report / policy.
  • If you’ve not done it already, complete the National SENCO award.

Moving to a more strategic SENCO role can seem daunting, but armed with the right approach and with the support of the whole leadership team your school can make a world of difference to the children and young people you support.

Malcolm Reeve is Executive Director for SEND & Inclusion at Academies Enterprise Trust (AET).

Malcolm is a National Leader of Education and was a judge at this year’s Shine a Light Awards.

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  • More funding has just been announced for children's mental health services, but there's a long way to go

    Fergal Roche

    Fergal Roche, CEO of The Key, writes about school leaders’ concerns about pupil wellbeing.

    At the end of last month, the government announced that it is to invest £143 million in improving children’s mental health services in England this year – welcome news, surely, but will it make enough impact?

    In the school year just gone, The Key asked some of the country’s school leaders what health and safeguarding issues affecting their pupils they were concerned about, if any. Top of the list was children’s mental health, with 67% of those surveyed saying this was a worry. Domestic violence and cyber bullying were next, of concern to more than half of those surveyed (58% and 55% respectively) – followed by bullying and obesity (38% and 36%).

    All such issues not only have implications for the classroom – affecting pupils’ concentration levels and consequently their grades – but also life beyond the school gates, with unresolved issues likely to have a serious impact on children’s prospects.

    School staff work tirelessly to do the best for their pupils, and increasing numbers of schools are employing their own counsellors or drawing on voluntary services to tackle the complex issues they’re facing. We, too, have seen leaders coming to The Key for help with things like writing a mental health policy, how to boost children’s self-esteem and what to do if a pupil is self-harming.

    However, many of the school leaders my team and I speak to are frustrated at not having access to the professional support they need to best help their pupils.

    Gary House, headteacher of Lady Hawkins’ School and Sixth Form in Herefordshire, explained that as well as a range of social factors, he sees his pupils contending with pressure after pressure in a school context. He’s also worried about the impact of the extra pressure on school staff who aren’t equipped to provide specialist help:

    “With declining social services support due to diminishing council budgets, more and more is having to be dealt with in schools. We take our duty of care seriously, but to do the best for our students, specialist mental health support services are needed. If we are not careful a dangerous cycle will develop; students worrying and teachers suffering as they worry about not having the specialist skills to support students in need of mental health care.”

    Our survey found that Gary’s view is mirrored across primary and secondary, maintained, academy and privately-funded independent schools; the profession wants to help but specialist support often isn’t available locally.

    I know of a secondary school in north London that is fortunate to have a CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health services) worker based in school once a week to help identify and support students in need, as well as train and supervise staff. The school has other fantastic initiatives too, such as non-teaching managers for every year group, who carry out daily check-ins and build up good relationships with students and parents. It also has an effective transition programme which ensures its pastoral team receives essential information from primary schools, so it can make appropriate support available to incoming students as soon as possible.

    Sadly, not every school has the resources to offer this type of support structure, but there are other things schools can realistically do – for example:

    • Collaborate with other schools locally and look into jointly hiring a specialist
    • Arrange wellbeing training for staff from multiple schools locally, and/or hold regular cross-school meetings to share experiences and views
    • Dedicate some form/tutor time to discussing subjects like cyber bullying, keeping safe and managing stress

    Even with such measures, there’s only so much that schools can achieve alone, and our survey findings on school leaders’ concerns suggest that there is a long way to go. The government’s promised investment in addressing children’s mental health issues is a good start; let’s hope it’s directed in such a way that all schools up and down the country can call on high-quality specialist support to protect the wellbeing of children and young people in their care.

    For further information on The Key visit or follow on Twitter @TheKeySupport / @TheKeySL.

    Follow Fergal Roche on Twitter @FergalRoche

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  • Parents as partners for better speech, language and communication outcomes

    Shona Crichton from The Communication Trust writes about 'Parents as partners for better speech, language and communication outcomes'.1

    We know that children make progress in any area of their development when they can be supported to thrive in the place and with the people where they spend the most time and who know them best. Parents are experts on their children and provide information that is integral to ensuring that a child or young person makes the best progress that they can. However there may be challenges when striving to achieve good practice for including parents in supporting children’s speech, language and communication development.

    The new SEND Code of Practice highlights the importance of engaging and involving parents and families. Those working with children and young people with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN), or any SEND, have a responsibility to ensure that parents are engaged with and involved in decisions that affect their child.

    It’s likely that every practitioner reading this blog has examples of times where we achieve true collaborative working with parents, and times when it doesn’t work so well. What is it that we need to be aware of when working with parents to support their child’s speech, language and communication at home?

    Ensuring parents are real partners - Parents want to be included as real partners, with true collaboration taking place. The challenge is not only that every child is different, but every SLCN is different, and every family is different. Taking time to share with parents their experiences of home life and their child’s SLCN, and your understanding and perception of the child’s strengths and needs will help towards partnership working that is meaningful to both parent and practitioner.

    It doesn’t have to be extra – Discussing what home life is like with parents provides an opportunity to think about how language and communication can be woven in to elements of daily life that are happening already. For some parents, the thought of squeezing extra in to busy lives is just not manageable. However, the beauty of speech, language and communication is that it’s part of everything that we do. Discussing what life is like for families and working together to think about where and how speech and language targets might sit in their daily routine can be a great first step to integrating targets in to daily life. Prepositions in the bath or practising turn taking during tea-time means that speech, language and communication targets can become part of daily life.

    Consider parents’ views and wishes - The Better Communication Research Programme sought views of parents with children with speech, language and communication needs. Findings from this paper show that parents are generally concerned with long term outcomes for their children – parents want their children to be included socially and to achieve independence. As practitioners working with children and young people with SLCN, our skill is in understanding parents’ long term wishes for their children. We can then break these down in to manageable, attainable short term targets that link with the long term aims that everyone can work towards achieving.

    Keep parents informed – The same research also highlighted that parents like to be kept informed of how children are getting on in achieving their objectives, and that this was different across the parents who were interviewed – some wanted a weekly update on progress, others were happy to meet to discuss targets on a 6 monthly basis. Discuss with parents how and when they’d like to discuss their child’s progress with you.

    The Communication Trust is a coalition of over 50 not-for-profit organisations with expertise in speech, language and communication and SLCN. Although our main audience is the children and young people’s workforce, we also have some information that’s useful for parents as do many of our members. Take a look at our website for more ideas and resources to help you encourage parents to support their children’s speech, language and communication development at home.

    [1] Throughout this article, the term ‘parent’ refers to any person who is the child or young person’s main carer.

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