Hazel Richards and Stephanie Brewster question whether the new NPQ qualification will equip SENCos with the theory and critical reflection needed to challenge, develop, and transform existing school policies and practices.

The national professional qualification (NPQ) will become the mandatory qualification for SENCOs from September 2024, replacing the NASENCO qualification. Teaching of the NPQ for SENCOs will begin in autumn 2024.

Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators are the key point of contact and support for children and young people with SEND, their carers, and teaching colleagues. The role is widely recognised as extremely challenging and complex. Training for SENCos has been mandatory since 2009, which is perhaps indicative of the importance of the role. Changes to training are afoot however, and this brings an element of risk or even threat not only to the professional development of SENCos, but also to the whole enterprise of inclusive education for learners with SEND. Will future SENCo training adequately support the development of knowledge, skills and professional identities, so they can galvanise change in SEND provision in their own contexts?

The 2022 Green Paper prompted much critical discussion among practitioners and educators, with a key area of concern being SENCO training. Arnold and Kilbride, for instance, challenged the implication that SENCO training is to blame for the failures in the education system for learners with SEND. These authors instead reminded us of systemic problems such as funding and inadequately protected time for SENCos to fulfil their role of strategic leadership effectively. The new NPQ risks failing to equip SENCos to offer research-based challenges to existing school policies or practices, and this has implications for SENCo competence and advocacy. We view educating SENCOs as a political and ethical task; we recognise the concept of transformative learning, in which professional learners in higher education develop a professional identity as agents of change committed to social justice, but we question whether the new qualification will equip SENCos with the theory and deep critical reflection needed to challenge, develop, and transform existing school policies and practices.

Below is a summary of some small-scale research undertaken with colleagues Helen Knowler (UCL) and Elizabeth J. Done (Plymouth University), presented at the European Educational Research Association Conference (August 2023). We aimed to explore SENCos’ perceptions of the impact of studying the NASENCo on their professional development and practice.

■ Figure 1: Changes in NASENCo students’ self-assessment of their knowledge, skills and capacity for the fourteen Learning Outcomes we investigated.

How do SENCOs rate the NASENCo?
We gathered data on fourteen of the forty-nine Learning Outcomes originally developed for the NASENCo in 2014, that particularly address identifying, developing, and rigorously evaluating effective practice in teaching pupils with SEND. As part of their course, NASENCo students self-assessed their knowledge, skills and capacity for each Learning Outcome, ‘RAG rating’ themselves as Red, Amber or Green (‘not at all’, ‘some’ or ‘full’) and providing free text commentary to explain their rating. They conducted this self-evaluation before starting the course and following each of the modules. Numerical data showing the changes in students’ RAG rated self-assessments over the twelve month period of the course can be seen in figure 1, which demonstrates how, by the end of the course, students reported major changes in how they viewed their abilities in relation to these learning outcomes.

We also analysed the qualitative data from students’ comments explaining and elucidating each RAG rating. These were very varied, and included comments like this one:

“Enabled me to complete my own research effectively to improve practice in my own classroom and also across my school setting. Completing a reflective account has provided me with research and evidence to support change that I believe will be beneficial to the children and staff and therefore improve practice. Completing action research has given me the knowledge to effectively conduct an enquiry, using research and collecting data to evaluate and improve teaching for SEN pupils.”

Figure 2 shows the themes which emerged from this analysis. Theme 1 refers to resistance to existing practice, where NASENCo students identified how they had revised their practices in response to their learning. Theme 2 demonstrated that increased confidence and stronger SENCos’ identities contribute to professional resilience. Theme 3 shows the students’ increased reflection, which had strengthened their ability to identify key contributing influences in given situations and to recognise the values shaping these. Theme 4, resources resulting from NASENCo study, included research skills, increased understanding (of theory and of research evidence), and time and opportunities during the course to study and observe practice in a way not normally available to them in their busy working days. Theme 5 shows students’ perceptions of results of their learning relevant to their setting, including increases in shared responsibility, collaboration, holistic views and provision.

■ Figure 2: Themes identified from analysis of the written commentary provided by the NASENCo students for the fourteen targeted NASENCo Learning Outcomes

Our conclusions
Our research suggests that the existing NASENCo training can promote SENCos’ confidence in leadership and engagement with research frameworks. The course supports their skills and capacity to use contextually-driven and evidence-informed approaches in their practice. As the transition towards the NPQ progresses, it is vital that the new qualification continues to facilitate knowledge building and expertise and provides opportunities for critical thinking and familiarity with both research literature and policy. In these times of uncertainty and threat towards inclusive school cultures, it has never been more important that SENCos are empowered to challenge discriminatory or unfair practices, and to advocate for better outcomes for children and young people with SEND and their families.

Hazel Richards
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Dr Hazel Richards is a registered speech and language therapist and Senior Lecturer at Birmingham City University.

X: @drhazelrichards
LinkedIn: hazel-richards-33b0a3110

Stephanie Brewster
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Dr Stephanie Brewster is Senior Lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton and course leader for the NASENCo.

X: @DrStephBrewster
LinkedIn: stephanie-brewster-22517b103

With acknowledgements to Helen Knowler (University College London) and Dr Elizabeth J Done (Plymouth University) for their part in this research and analysis.


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