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Susan Young - Education Otherwise

Susan Young gives her weekly round-up of the issues and events in the world of school leadership and management. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of NAHT.

SEN reforms and SENCOs

The new SEND code of practice was one of the many reforms thrown at English schools to implement in 2014. A year on, with the mist beginning to clear, we’re beginning to see how it’s actually working in schools for the children and young people it was intended to support. 

A really interesting bit of research on this has been published by Helen Curran, the senior lecturer for SEN Co-ordination at Bath Spa University. She’s been interviewing SENCOs about the changes at the start of the process and six months in, and her report, presented at the BERA conference in Belfast last week, makes interesting reading for both school leaders and their SENCOs, as do two of her conclusions in particular. 

She suggests that that it has been SENCOs who have been planning, training for and implementing the reforms, which may support the idea that theirs is becoming more of a statutory role. 

But, she points out, that while there has been a positive impact on parents at school level, another major impact appears to be a drop in the numbers of children officially described as having SEN. “A DfE response to the reduction in numbers echoes that of the SENCOs, specifically a clearer understanding of the definition of SEN and a clear distinction relating to SEN Support. However, this does not take into account the specific challenges faced by the SENCOs in the execution of their role and how they may be looking to manage this, through reduction of the SEND register and the creation of ‘other’ registers which do not have the statutory responsibilities as outlined by the Code,” she says. 

The priorities cited by SENCOs in implementing the reforms were led by ‘reviewing the SEND register’: 63 per cent of those questioned said it had reduced in size, either because they had gone back to the definition of SEN to reconsider whether each child actually met this definition, or because they were adding to the register only children getting SEN support. 

The report expresses concern about this approach. “Whilst it is not a requirement to have a ‘SEN register’, the Code does stipulate a number of recording requirements… this tends to be typically interpreted as the SEN register.” 

Perhaps the key issue raised through the SENCOs’ responses is a potential confusion regarding which pupils the SENCO should be concerned with. Equally it raises questions regarding how the definition of SEN is understood, how SEN support is understood as a category, and how this process has been managed with the introduction of the new Code.

Over-identification of SEN has been raised as a concern historically and it would appear that the Code has given SENCOs leverage to evaluate who exactly should be recorded as SEN. It is also important that there is continued reflection on the difference between SEN and under achievement/ lack of progress. Yet it does raise some further questions. Who exactly is identified as SEN and how is this decided? If there has been a shift in understanding, relating to the notion of who ‘counts’ as SEN Support within a school, how has this change been managed, particularly in terms of communicating this decision with parents?”

Interesting stuff: let’s whizz through some of the other findings of interest to school leaders.

Her first questionnaire, about awareness of the reforms at the start of the process, found her group of SENCOs thought none of their students were aware of the changes, and only 11 per cent of parents - both groups at the heart of what the changes were trying to achieve. The SENCOs thought that 96 per cent of their head teachers and almost 70 per cent of the governors were aware.

The research also asked about support for SENCOs, and it sounds as though schools leaders have been doing a good job. Over 60 per cent said they had this from their head teacher, a third from their governing body and 42 per cent from other SENCOs. Over 91 per cent had wanted more support in implementing the reforms, with just 13 per cent considering that their LA was ready for what was about to happen.

SENCOs were also asked about the barriers to doing their job properly: 70 per cent cited time, which Curran suggests might suggest a need to focus on capacity building in schools. However, she points out, just 22 per cent of her cohort had no other senior responsibilities. “As such it is easy to see how other priorities, linked to other roles or the school priorities, may take precedence over the role of SENCO,” the paper says.  

A third of the SENCOs questioned also mentioned resources as a problem - and that included teachers, while just over a quarter said co-operation of other staff was a key barrier. Unsurprisingly, then, 54 per cent of the SENCOs thought time would be a factor preventing them from implementing the reforms.

Six months in to the reforms, and a slightly rosier picture emerged: three quarters of SENCOs had received support from their local authority, and almost the same number from other SENCOs. However, there was a very mixed picture of satisfaction with the information received. 

The report says: “Whilst there may have been training and support available from LAs and wider SENCO clusters, SENCOs reported that competing policy issues within schools made the SEND reforms less of a priority; namely the SEND reforms were introduced on the same day as the new National Curriculum.”

Schools have done an amazing job in implementing so much, so fast. A year in though, and it might just be time to have a bit of a glance over how the SEN reforms are working in practice, if this report provides an accurate snapshot of developments. 


Susan Young is an education journalist

The full title of the paper is: Special Educational Needs and Disabilities reforms 2014 – from policy to practice: the SENCOs’ early observations of impact on children and young people with SEND, the role of SENCO and the school.

Page published: 25/09/2015