The world of the SEN casework officer
Very often, when a SENCO has contact with a local authority (LA) SEN casework officer, it is at a pressure point in an individual child’s school life, during the statutory assessment process or at an annual review, for example. During that meeting or phone call, the focus is on the immediate business of catering for the needs of the child concerned, usually under the pressure of deadlines which have to be met.
What is not apparent to either party is the “back story” of the other’s job. Just as the SENCO or headteacher roles involve a huge variety of responsibilities, so the working life of an SEN casework officer involves a multiplicity of tasks relating to a large number of children and their families.
In an ideal world, there would be the time and opportunities for the relationship between the SENCO and a named SEN caseworker to develop. This would enable them to understand where each was coming from and how precisely their jobs dovetailed to produce the best outcome for the children in whom they shared a professional interest. Practically, this is not always possible. Despite the best efforts and intentions of the casework team to offer a single point of contact, the ideal of a single caseworker, who has sole contact with an individual within a school, is not always achievable. More often than not, this is because of the other demands made on that caseworker by the other elements of his/her job.
While there are many common elements, the precise roles of individual case officers vary from LA to LA. Similarly, the composition of the whole casework team, for example the balance between caseworkers and support staff, is not exactly the same in any two authorities. Smaller local authorities will have one team based together, while larger authorities can have three, four or five teams locally-based, to be closer to schools and parents, and centrally co-ordinated by one manager to ensure consistency of practice. These differences can be difficult to adapt to for a SENCO, headteacher or parent moving from one LA to another
There is no typical working week for a casework officer. There is not the predictability of an unvarying routine or timetable, but there is an expectation of the kind of tasks an officer might undertake in the course of a week. Writing tasks might include drafting a Statement of Special Educational Need, preparing a case to take to a provision panel to decide on what support a child will receive, preparing a chronology for a tribunal case or drafting a response to an MP’s letter about an individual child in his or her constituency.
Participation in meetings might include attendance at annual reviews of children’s progress and their Statements, or presenting a case for a particular child at a provision panel. A very large part of the job is conducted on the telephone, responding to first enquiries from parents, speaking to headteachers, perhaps concerned about a particular child in their school, speaking to NHS trust therapists about their input, and taking calls about transport to school. If you consider that, in my experience, the average case-load for an SEN caseworker is about 450, you can gain some idea of the pressure under which they work. Moreover, there are often additional corporate LA demands to attend to.
The purpose of listing the tasks above is not to make a plea for “The Caseworker’s Lament”, or to suggest that their working day is any more complex or difficult than someone working in a school or LA. What it does highlight, though, is that it is crucial to make the times when professionals have contact with each other, regarding an individual child or groups of children, really count. Good communication is of the essence in understanding the perspective, interests and starting point of the various parties involved in a case.
In most local authorities, SENCOs and/or headteachers serve on local authority panels, for example those established to deal with statutory assessment requests, exceptional needs funding or provision for individual children. Such occasions provide opportunities for schools and local authorities to develop a shared understanding of what they are doing, and work together towards a particular goal. The effectiveness of agreed policy statements or operational procedures can often only be fully tested when the immediate requirements of provision for an individual child are at stake.
Of equal importance is good telephone communication. Time spent on a call to make initial contact with a SENCO or a parent is time which will pay huge dividends in terms of future relations and will ultimately save time on all sides as a case progresses. A good phone call can build trust and positive working relationships; a hurried phone call or an avoided phone call can have the opposite effect. Recent DCSF research on parental confidence highlighted the importance of the initial contact in establishing parents’ trust and confidence.
It is vital that caseworkers develop the communication skills that enable them to carry out their job effectively. Telephone skills, for example, don’t come naturally to everyone, and if there is a possibility that a call will be difficult, the temptation can be to delay it. Some LAs have a rolling programme of communication skills training for local authority and school staff. These programmes include understanding other people’s positions, active listening, principled negotiation and handling disagreement.
Increasingly, caseworkers and LA managers are recognising that the skills for the job are not magically acquired. Caseworkers can now gain qualifications as part of their continuing professional development which not only update their knowledge of current legislation and practice in SEN, but also enable them to refine their communication skills. Whenever caseworkers meet up at conferences and training sessions, consistently one of the most beneficial aspects of these days is reported to be the opportunity to talk to staff from other authorities, to share experiences of best practice. Whether training, speaking to fellow professionals about an individual child or making first contact with parents and carers, it seems that BT may have got it right: “It’s good to talk!”
Continuing professional development for SEN casework staff, including regular opportunities to meet with SENCOs and other school staff, should help to ensure that when they have contact with schools and parents, then that single point in time, to discuss the child they have in common, will really count. Increasingly confident and knowledgeable caseworkers are demonstrating that they are in a better position to give SENCOs, headteachers and parents the service they are looking for.
Ian Palmer has been a teacher and local authority officer. Ian is the national programme co-ordinator for BTEC awards in SEN casework at levels 2, 3 and 4, the first professional accreditation for local authority SEN casework staff.
Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 43: November/December 2009.