The Education and Skills Committee report on SEN includes a brief but important analysis of the role of the SENCO, which highlights a major gap between policy rhetoric and reality.
The report notes that the DfES has placed a great many responsibilities on the shoulders of SENCOs but has not ensured that SENCOs are always given the appropriate training – or the appropriate authority – to be able to undertake these significant responsibilities.
Despite the recommendation in the Code of Practice that SENCOs should be part of a Senior Management Team this is often not the case (1) (p73, para 319). The report cites the following evidence given by Baroness Warnock to emphasise this concern:
"They were at the beginning senior teachers, but [...] there is now a very large number of schools where the SENCO is actually a teaching assistant and not a teacher at all, with no experience, and they are no longer a member of the senior management team but someone with peripheral duties to see how many children there are in that school who are getting this, that and the other..." (p74, para 319)
The point being made here, is not that teaching assistants are unimportant – they clearly do significant and very effective work in supporting pupils and administering and organising SEN provision – but that the strategic leadership role of SENCOs has been marginalised, and that this problem has been exacerbated by workforce remodelling, the introduction of planning, preparation and assessment time (PPA) teaching and learning responsibilities (TLR).
In arguing for both qualified teacher status and a senior leadership role for SENCOs, the report draws on evidence from research undertaken on behalf of the NUT published earlier this year. (2) An even more recent report by Ofsted3 highlights the effectiveness of ‘resourced’ mainstream SEN provision, noting that it is characterised by high-quality and experienced teaching and commitment from school leaders.
In the report two key recommendations regarding the role of the SENCO are made. There is nothing new in these but they are still very important, and the fact that they have been included in the report at all highlights how policymakers have taken their eye off the ball in recent years and failed to invest in the workforce. This is particularly the case with regard to professional development for both SENCOs and other members of the school workforce, but is also a reflection of a failure to clarify the key roles that are critical to the implementation of policy. Instead, as the select committee has accurately observed, policy has been strong on responsibility but weak on conceptualistion and support.
The recommendations also have significant implications for:
- schools (eg governing bodies, designated SEN governors in particular, headteachers and senior leadership teams)
- key local authority staff (eg SEN/ inclusion advisers, advisers with a responsibility for professional development, school improvement partners, parent partnership officers, choice advisers)
- inspectors (eg HMI, Ofsted)
- parents and carers of children with special needs
- a range of agencies and services including voluntary organisations working to support children with SEN under the Every Child Matters policy initiative.
1. Special Educational Needs, Volume I: Report, together with formal minutes (House of Commons Education and Skills Committee, Third Report of Session 2005-06) was published on 6 July 2006 Ref HC478-I). London: The Stationery Office Ltd. The report can be accessed in the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee section of the UK Parliament website at www.parliament.gov.uk. Volumes II and III of the report (HC478-II HC478III) contain written evidence presented to the committee. 2. MacBeath, J, Galton, M, Steward, S, MacBeath, A and Page, C (2006) The Costs of Inclusion: A study of inclusion in English primary, secondary and special schools. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Faculty of Education. Commissioned by the NUT.
3. Inclusion: does it matter where pupils are taught? Provision and outcomes in different settings for pupils with learning difficulties and disabilities. Ref: HMI 2535. Available online at www.ofsted.gov.uk. This report was published shortly after the select committee’s report. Disappointingly, the report fails to acknowledge the contribution that many SENCOs make to the development of effective SEN provision in mainstream schools.