Have SENCO’s the support and authority they need to instruct staff on SEN?
From 1992, it has been a requirement to provide beginning teachers with a basic introduction to SEN as part of their initial training. For the fulfilment of the standards for Qualified Teacher Status (QTS), competency in teaching pupils with SEN and disabilities is specified, yet academic research has repeatedly shown that the quality of SEN input during initial teacher training (ITT) is poor, and as a result, newly qualified teachers (NQTs) do not feel confident in this aspect of their role.
It may be surprising to learn that no specific guidance is in place which stipulates the content, amount of coverage and nature of delivery of SEN input during teacher training. There are fundamental flaws in the teacher training system regarding SEN, and as a result, academics, Ofsted and the UK government have repeatedly called for improvements, yet no significant changes have ever been implemented. SEN content in training had changed very little in the last 35 years – a scenario which has been likened to a Groundhog Day. Despite SEN input during initial teacher training being widely understood to be inadequate, bizarrely no alternative strategy has been put into place to specifically address it – perhaps other than the expectation that the SENCO could, and should, advise and train their colleagues. But how realistic is this for a SENCO to achieve?
A poisoned chalice?
Since the introduction of the SEN Code of Practice in 1994, the SENCO has had a training element specified as part of their role in whole-school strategy development and management. The Code has been revised and updated over the years, but has always continued to refer specifically to the SENCO’s “pivotal” role in training, advising and leading colleagues to improve the quality of teaching for children and young people with SEN. By assigning the SENCO a much more explicit role in leading and instructing others in schools it perhaps goes some way to admit that ITT does not fully prepare teachers for inclusive classrooms, as there is no other area of teaching where the need for additional instruction is required and stated. However, similarly to ITT, it was never specified how SENCOs would ensure they had the opportunity, time, resources and support from colleagues and senior management to train their colleagues. It seemed to be implied that there would be no opposition or challenges to overcome. Yet influencing the practice of others is not an easy feat.
Referred to as a “poisoned chalice” over 20 years ago, the SENCO role was then described as “difficult, if not impossible”. In the years that followed, the SENCO’s remit widened, as policy acknowledged more than the day-to-day operations of the role were needed. Although policy intended that the SENCO position was that of a whole-school inclusive leader who operated with the support of those above them, and their colleagues, the reality is often a single practitioner, with sole responsibility, working in isolation.
It can be argued that, sadly, many teachers still do not recognise that they are responsible for students with SEN. I believe that this can be sourced back to having a poor introduction to this aspect of teaching during the initial training phase. Lack of opportunity to discuss the theoretical underpinnings of inclusive education, either in training or when in post, could lead on to the development of negative or uninformed attitudes towards inclusion. Furthermore, the very existence of the SENCO role and their departments could contribute to the view that teaching children with SEN is a specialist, separate job and therefore limited or no action by mainstream teachers is required. The creation of SEN departments, and the presence of other adults in the classroom such as teaching assistants, whose job it is to work specifically with individual children with SEN and disabilities, often by withdrawing them, could be seen to de-skill mainstream classroom teachers and send a confusing message about responsibility.
SENCOs are charged with the task of changing practice to be more inclusive, but may not have the authority to do so. Policy expectations assume a leadership role and a rank which commands respect and ensures compliance, and as such it was suggested that due to the level of responsibility and scope, the SENCO should be a member of the school’s senior leadership team. However, initial findings show that this recommendation has not been taken up by schools. In a nasen study of SENCOs, only 33 per cent of secondary school respondents were on the senior leadership team. It is unsurprising that lack of status is cited by SENCOs as one of the key inhibitors to their performance. If SENCOs do not feel they have the standing to insist upon practice changes and/or their colleagues don’t recognise their authority to train them, then another barrier to practice change has been created. If a SENCO is not on the senior leadership team, what guarantees are there that colleagues will respond positively to the advice, instruction and feedback they are given, and what follow up procedures are in place to ensure accountability?
The development of SENCO’s knowledge and skills has been brought into greater focus by the creation of specific CPD for the role. Since 2009, it has been a requirement for every new SENCO in a mainstream school to gain a Master’s level qualification called the National Award for Special Educational Needs Coordination within three years of their appointment. Influencing practice is specified in the form of five outcomes, though “Strategic development” and “Leading, developing and supporting colleagues” are the most pertinent two here, and by including these aspects, the Award reemphasises the leadership and training elements of the role.
Although the routes into teaching are now more varied than ever, what is not changing is the prevalence of children with SEN being taught in mainstream classrooms by often ill-equipped mainstream teachers, supported in an almost impossible task by the SENCO. The SEN Code of Practice was informed by the general principle that schools should and could meet the needs of children, yet the training provision does not seem to have kept pace. This might become increasingly crucial if the role of training teachers is increasingly devolved to educational settings as a replacement for traditional higher education routes. What potential role could and should SENCOs have in this process?
Kate Sarginson is an experienced teacher and SENCO who has worked in specialist, mainstream, state and independent education. She has a Masters in Inclusive Education, is currently completing an MPhil in Education (where she has researched the role of the SENCO in influencing practice) and will be starting a new role as an assistant headteacher in January 2018.