The role of SENCO is one that requires strategic thinking, with policies that must work across key stages and that are inclusive of extremely diverse educational needs. Not only that, the potential (actual) workload generated requires SENCOs to have slick procedures in place to manage what must be done day-to-day. Saira Saeed offers her advice on what to prioritise when new to the SENCO role.
It is my longstanding belief that the role of the SENCO is one that has been desired by many but obtained by few and retained by fewer still. Why? It is categorically one of the most challenging and underestimated roles you can hold in an educational setting and I say this as someone who is both a SENCO and a Designated Safeguarding Lead.
However, it is also one of the most rewarding roles and one where you can develop significantly as a teacher and leader. The role of SENCO is not new to me; it’s the most long-standing role in my professional repertoire, yet I can still recall my first year as a SENCO as it if were yesterday, with the mountain of paperwork, acronyms, overworked Local Authority colleagues and the line of parents venting at me due to their frustrations with an underfunded and understaffed system.
However, I also remember the tearful parents thanking me for securing the correct support for their children, the children who settled into mainstream education and felt like they finally belonged, as equals to their non-SEND peers. I also remember the colleagues who were grateful for being able to understand and cater for the needs of their SEND learners due to CPD I had delivered and the Ofsted inspectors who told me that my passion and skills made me an asset to my school.
The first year for any SENCO is arguably the most difficult, but not impossible to complete. As such, this article lists some advice for aspiring and new SENCOs.
- Identify your SEND learners
Your role is SENCO, which is an acronym for Special Educational Needs Coordinator, hence the accurate identification of your setting’s SEND learners is key, especially if you are in a mainstream setting where they can get lost in the myriad of other learner groups (non-SEND: PP, EAL, More Able and so on.)
A SEND register should exist, which lists all students in your setting, per year group. (Software such as Arbor allows you to create and import this in a matter of minutes.) I have many memories of triangulating data and involving numerous external agencies in order to hone this register to ensure it was accurate; no easy feat I assure you, but absolutely required.
Some suggested reads to help with this:
‘Essential Guides for Early Career Teachers: Special Educational Needs and Disability’ (Anita Devi, 2020) – Don’t be fooled by the title, it is as invaluable to experienced SENCOs as it is to ECTs or new SENCOs!
‘The SENCO Handbook: Leading Provision and Practice’ (Sarah Martin-Denham & Steve Watts, 2019)
‘The Lone SENDCO: Questions and Answers for the Busy SENDCO’ (Gary Aubin, 2022)
2. Reach out to your families
I can still recall the first time a parent shouted at me about how their child was being failed by the system and it was upsetting, as I felt personally attacked. Upon reflection a few days later, I realised she was hurting and venting at me because she didn’t know what else to do. As SENCO you must never forget that you may be responsible for 25, 70 or more students on a SEND register but for a parent/carer of a SEND child, THEIR child is the most important to them. Their child’s dreams matter and deserve to be realised.
This is something that needs to respected and understood because a SENCO’s job is challenging but parents of a SEND child live with their child, thus manage their respective needs all the time and this is not without impact on them and/or other members of their family.
If you are active on Twitter, I would advise following some well-known parents of children with SEND, to see what this might look like, thus gaining a better understanding of it. Beth Wilson (@Beth_Tastic), Ben Newmark (@bennewmark), Marie Martin (@martinimarie), Taneisha Pascoe-Matthews (@Mellow_Pascoe) and Helen Ashby (@HelenAshby72) are particularly useful to follow, as they give you an honest insight into their lives, values and feelings; insight that is most invaluable for all SENCOs (not just new or aspiring ones).
One of the first things I did in my first year as SENCO was to collate parent voice data for every child on the SEND register. A letter was posted informing them of who I was and why I wished to hear from them, a Microsoft Form was emailed out, phone calls were made (by myself and the TAs) and multiple coffee mornings were held to make the process accessible to as many parents as possible.
I also ensured that these weren’t a novelty, instead ensuring that they occurred at key points throughout the academic year so that I could gauge their responses to SEND provisions at my setting. I can safely say that a lot of parents knew nothing about SEND, their child’s rights and so on, so I always made sure that I regularly shared information about local support groups and CPD opportunities with them.
That being said, there were some parents who knew as much as I did (eek!) but rather than be intimidated by them, I celebrated them and utilised their expertise. Honestly, don’t ever see knowledgeable parents as a threat, they almost never are. On the rare occasion that they might try to use their knowledge to undermine you, lean on your line manager/SLT for support because nobody has the right to mistreat you regardless of their knowledge; everyone is learning.
3. Know your team
Contrary to a common misconception, as SENCO you are NOT solely responsible for the SEND provisions at your respective setting: ‘The SENCO has day-to-day responsibility for the operation of SEN policy and co-ordination of specific provision made to support individual pupils with SEN, including those who have EHC plans’ (SEND Code of Practice, 2015). SEND, just as Safeguarding, is everyone’s responsibility.
Notably, one of the most significant updates to Keeping Children Safe in Education 2021 places a much-needed importance on SEND learners, as their needs create additional barriers for staff to recognise signs of abuse and neglect, thus effectively safeguard them. In short, SEND should matter to everyone in your setting.
In light of this, it is worthwhile to undertake a staff voice and also a skills audit for them in order to see what (if anything) needs addressing. I have vivid recollections of doing this for the first time and being speechless to discover – amongst other things – that very few staff knew who the EHCP students in my setting were, what an EHCP was and thought that certain SEND learners misbehaved just because they were ‘naughty’! Reader, these particular students weren’t naughty, they had ADHD or ASD respectively and were receiving minimal support from support staff who themselves had little to no training.
As your setting will no doubt cater for students with a range of needs, it is inevitable that you will work with many external agencies too: PSS, an EP, CAT and so on. You will also have contact information for key staff in the LA (as the LA has many responsibilities too!) Get to know as many of them as possible – especially your LA links – and utilise them whenever necessary.
Lastly, network as much as possible with fellow SENCOs; Twitter is again great for this. I myself am one of the moderators of the SEND Twitter Community. Reach out to others. You will gain knowledge and reassurance and make some good professional links too.
Some suggested reads to help with this
The pastoral team are those you will work particularly closely with in order to ensure that SEND learners are treated fairly (including making sure that relevant policies are fully inclusive). Take a look at some of these books to help you inform your work with Pastoral leads, Heads of Year, etc.
‘The Complete Guide to Pastoral Leadership’ (Amy Forrester, 2022)
‘The Behaviour Manual: An Educator’s Guidebook’ (Samuel Strickland, 2022)
‘After the Adults Change. Achievable Behaviour Nirvana’ (Paul Dix, 2017)
‘Running The Room. The Teacher’s Guide to Behaviour’ (Tom Bennett, 2020)
‘The Ladder. Supporting Students towards Successful Futures and Confident Career Choices’ (Andrew Bernard, 2021)
4. Lead strategically and operationally
‘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’ (SEND Code of Practice, 2015).
Throughout my career thus far, I have been a SENCO as a member of Middle Leadership, Extended Leadership and Senior Leadership and in all honesty, the level of leadership itself did not impact my work. What did impact my work was the level of autonomy I was given, as well as my own ability to lead both operationally and strategically when required; confidence is absolutely key here – believe in yourself! Teachers are more likely to be invested when they are trusted (not constantly judged), given time and guided by a knowledgeable leader who empowers them.
Some recommended reads to help with this
‘Great Expectations: Leading an Effective SEND Strategy in School’ (David Bartram, 2018)
‘The Leadership Book: A Step by Step Guide to Excellent Leadership’ (Neil Jurd, 2020)
‘Leadership Matters 3.0: How Leaders at All Levels Can Create Great Schools’ (Andy Buck, 2018)
‘Intelligent Accountability: Creating the Conditions for Teachers to Thrive’ (David Didau, 2020) – definitely one to share with your line manager/SLT!
5. Keep the importance of pedagogy in mind
I have worked in schools where seeking an investment in SEND (CPD-time, staff interest, value in SLT’s eyes, etc) was a battle and I have also worked in schools where I was able to make SEND a priority without any struggle. How? Amongst other things, I leaned on The Teachers’ Standards; namely, Standard 5.
Yes, the SEND Code of Practice and multiple laws should be enough but The Teachers’ Standards are far easier to share via CPD sessions, which is why I tend to share this with staff prior to introducing them to legislation. They also add that extra layer of accountability. This has served me particularly well when faced with conversations about ‘bottom sets’, ‘simplifying the curriculum’ and ‘they can’t do that GCSE option, it’s too hard’ (cue lengthy sigh of despair.)
Once I had staff investment in SEND (ie staff understood how important SEND learners are and how important staff are in ensuring these learners have access to a broad and balanced curriculum) I needed to provide guidance on how to make the curriculum accessible.
Some of my most successful CPD sessions for staff ensured that (a) staff gained a better understanding of how SEND can manifest in a classroom setting and (b) staff left the CPD session with ‘takeaways’ to help them address this and support student progress.
Staff were reassured that what works for SEND learners, will work for every learner; it’s not additional work. Moreover, I made it crystal clear that progress would not necessarily look the same for all SEND learners, especially in direct comparison to their non-SEND peers.
Some suggested reads to help with this
‘Teaching Walkthrus 3. Five-Step Guides to Instructional Coaching’ (Tom Sherrington and Oliver Caviglioli, 2022)
‘The researchED Guide to Special Educational Needs: An Evidence-Informed Guide for Teachers’ (Karen Wespieser, 2021)
‘Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide’ (Yana Weinstein, 2018)
‘Anna Murphy Paul’s The Extended Mind in Action’ (Emma Turner, David Goodwin and Oliver Caviglioli, 2022)
‘The Inclusive Classroom: A New Approach to Differentiation’ (Daniel Sobel and Sara Alston, 2021)
6. Never stop revisiting statutory guidance and the law
Be kind to yourself – you can’t be the all-knowing oracle. The world of SEND is laden with laws and statutory guidance (I haven’t even touched upon the medical side of things in this article). There is a plethora of information to remember and refer to, which is made even more challenging by the fact that much of it is forever being updated.
Ensure you familiarise yourself with key laws, as well as statutory guidance including: Children and Families Act (2014), Equality Act (2010) and the SEND Code of Practice (2015) to name but three.
It is also worth getting a subscription to a reputable organisation such as NASEN, as their publications will help you keep up-to-date with key SEND news and reforms etc. If on Twitter, Special Needs Jungle (@SpcialNdsJungle) are also a brilliant source of information, as well as IPSEA. The latter is an organisation that runs regular CPD on SEND Law for professionals and parents.
Some suggested reads to help with this:
An example of SEND Funding explained (Birmingham Local Offer, 2022) – please note, this Local Offer website is for Birmingham in the UK, every LA will have their own LA Offer website. Ensure you familiarise yourself with any LA websites that apply to your setting’s cohort. For instance, if your setting is based in Birmingham but has students who live in Sandwell too, then ensure you engage with both LAs (Birmingham and Sandwell.)
‘How Grand is 6 Grand?’ (Garry Freedman, 2020)
‘The SEND Green Paper – how can we move towards a more affirmatory conception of SEND and learning disability?’ (Ben Newmark & Tom Rees, 2022)
7. Invest in your wellbeing
The role of SENCO is one of the most exciting, pivotal and rewarding roles I have ever undertaken. However, I have also, on many occasions, sat in my office wanting to scream, through sheer exhaustion as well as frustration, at the ongoing misconceptions about SEND (eg the idea that EAL is a category of SEND – ugh!).
Consequently, it is paramount that you make time to ‘switch off’ from work completely every day, as this job (like most in education) will consume you if you let it.
Sacrilegious as it will sound to many, do not keep a stock of chocolates, soft drinks and coffee in your room/office ‘in case of emergencies’ either; treat yourself but please do so sensibly. The job is strenuous as it is, hence being and staying healthy is absolutely paramount. Now, I do have a penchant for bonding with a Bounty or pack of Bourbon biscuits after a particularly challenging day but this is only on the odd occasion, not a daily occurrence.
Have a snack drawer by all means but stock up on healthy treats that will give you much-needed energy boosts; protein bars, fruit, nuts (only keep nuts if your setting isn’t nut-free and you don’t work with any students who have severe nut allergies), seeds (particularly squash and pumpkin), as well as Green Tea (Matcha has a particular kick to it!)
I have deliberately suggested a range of reads that are mostly succinct and not dear in cost, as I wish to give you some variety. I also am fully aware of the lack of time and CPD budgets that many SENCOs face. By all means, purchase as many of these books as you so wish – and as your pocket allows – but where possible, ask for your choice of books to be purchased in your school as part of your own CPD or for a staff CPD library (if your setting has one). Also, do not feel compelled to read any of them from cover to cover; ‘dip’ into them as required.
All in all, the world of SEND is always evolving, hence your role as the SENCO will too. Prioritise your SEND learners and their families, collaborate with colleagues and external agencies, keep holding your LA accountable (remember the law, as well as statutory guidance) and most importantly, ensure you eat healthily and take toilet breaks on time!
The role will always be challenging, so learn from every mistake and celebrate every win, no matter how small. I guarantee that even the smallest win will make a BIG difference in the life of your SEND learners, as well as their families.