As the SENCO role continues to evolve, Mark Blois looks at its basic responsibilities and what to expect for the future with respect to new law.

SENCO status was first defined in the special educational needs code of practice (1994). This document listed the responsibilities of SENCOs. These included:

  • working with, advising and contributing to the training of other teachers
  • the teaching of, and maintaining records of, children with special educational needs
  • keeping in touch with the parents of children with SEN
  • working with other agencies, including the educational psychology service, medical and social services and voluntary bodies

Since 1994, there have been important developments in SENCO status, culminating in recent proposals that all SENCOs should have qualified teacher status. This article will examine the changes and explain what they mean for your school.

National standards

The National Standards for SENCOs (1998), introduced by the Teacher Training Agency, set out the knowledge, skills, understanding and training that SENCOs should have, to carry out their role effectively.

The national standards said that SENCOs should be skilled teachers in their own subject or phase,
and should have leadership, decision-making, communication and self-management skills.

The standards also said that head teachers should ensure that SENCOs had the necessary training to develop and maintain those skills.

The National Standards for SENCOs defined the core purpose of the SENCO and the areas in which s/he should work.

SEN code of practice

The SEN code of practice (2001) further explained and expanded on the responsibilities of the SENCO. The SENCO was now to have a more management-orientated role in relation to a child’s special educational needs. The SENCO became responsible for:

  • ensuring the liaison between parents and carers
  • ensuring that individual educational plans (IEPs) were in place
  • advising other staff about SEN and having a school policy for dealing with SEN children
  • putting in place a graduated response system to meet children’s needs at the earliest opportunity

As with the previous legislation and guidance, the spirit of the SEN code of practice (2001) implied that the SENCO should be a qualified teacher, without explicitly stating this.

‘Removing barriers’

The manager-like role was again emphasized in Removing Barriers to Achievement (2004), the latest SEN action program.

This document went further, to suggest that the SENCO should be a key member of the senior leadership team in a school so that s/he would be able to influence the development of policies for whole-school improvement.

Uncertainty over role

While the development of SENCO status, as discussed above, has seen a logical and incremental widening of the SENCO’s responsibilities, recent developments have created uncertainty over the SENCO’s role.

Removing Barriers to Achievement (see above) made changes to the fields of competence of SENCOs. It proposed that all teachers should have the skills to help children with SEN reach their potential.
This coincided with workforce remodeling within schools, with an increase in the number and range of support staff.

The introduction of teaching assistants, coupled with the effect of planning, preparation and assessment time, and the allocation of teaching and learning responsibilities points, encouraged school leaders to re-define the SENCO post and save money by appointing teaching assistants to do the job.

The future of SENCO status

The Education and Skills Select Committee report on SEN (July 2006) said that there was a lack of clarity over the SENCO’s role. The report made two recommendations about the future role of SENCOs:

Recommendation 84: SENCOs should be qualified teachers in senior management positions in the school, as recommended in the SEN code of practice. Firmer guidelines are required, not simply the Government asking schools to ‘have regard’ to the SEN code of practice. The SENCO’s role must reflect the high priority given to SEN in mainstream schools.

Recommendation 85: SENCOs must be trained so that they can keep their knowledge up-to-date. Their non-teaching time must reflect the number of children with SEN in the school.

These baseline standards for SENCOs to be given training both on and off the job should apply to all schools, including academies and trust schools. Schools should set out in their SEN policy, action to ensure that all SENCOs are monitored and supported.

The Government’s Response to the Education and Skills Committee Report on SEN (October 2006) essentially agreed with the select committee, emphasizing the importance of the SENCO role, and that the SENCO should be a teacher and a member of the school’s senior leadership team.

New regulations

The Government has passed laws to resolve confusion over SENCO status. The Education Act 2006 (s173) sets out new regulations to tackle concerns over the ‘inconsistencies in the role, status and training of SENCOs’ highlighted by the select committee, aiming to ‘improve outcomes for individual children with SEN and disabilities by ensuring effective co-ordination arrangements at school level’.
On 25 March 2008, the Government launched a consultation on the Draft Education (Special Educational Needs Coordinators) (England) Regulations 2008. The consultation closes on 17 June.

The regulations are due to be signed and laid before parliament in September. They will come into force in September 2009.

The regulations prescribe the qualifications and experience of SENCOs, setting out governing bodies’ associated functions, as well as plans for national accredited training for new SENCOs.

Regulation 3 makes specific requirements of the SENCO to be either:

  • a qualified teacher, or
  • the head teacher or acting head teacher — this situation is generally rare and will occur mainly in small primary schools, or
  • a SENCO already in the position for at least six months before the regulations come into force, who has shown a reasonable prospect of becoming a teacher within two years of the regulations coming into force.

Support by non-teaching staff

By September 2011, the intention is that all SENCOs will be a qualified teacher or the head teacher. The draft consultation does suggest, however, that aspects of the role could still be supported by
non-teaching staff — either as individuals or part of a team.

The document details other aspects that should fall to the qualified teacher. These include: the development of the school’s SEN policy; advising the head teacher, governing body and senior leadership team on resource provision for children with SEN and disabilities; and supporting other teachers — including advising them on how to modify their teaching approach for children with SEN and disabilities.

Staffing adjustments

It is not clear how many schools will have to undertake staffing adjustments as a result of this regulation, since little information exists as to the numbers of non-qualified teachers in the role.

The DCSF believes that the number of non-teacher SENCOs is about one to two per cent, or 315 staff. But a NAHT survey estimated the number to be nine per cent. Whilst this was only a small survey, anecdotal evidence suggests that the figure is certainly likely to be higher than the DCSF estimate.

Cost implications

The necessary staffing adjustment will affect individual schools, and will have cost implications at a national level.

If a school now has a teaching assistant as SENCO, it will need to move him or her to another post. An existing teacher will have to take over as SENCO — losing teaching time.

The DCSF estimates that this will cost about £2.25 million.

Senior leadership team

The intention was that the draft document would contain proposals to formalize the need for SENCOs to be members of the school’s senior leadership team, in accordance with the SEN code of practice and the select committee report.

There were objections that this was impractical. It has been suggested that where the SENCO is not a member of the senior leadership team, a member of the team should be designated as ‘champion’ of SEN and disability issues within the school.

Accredited training for new appointees

To strengthen the role of the SENCO, the DCSF has commissioned the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) to carry out research into the role. This research will include looking at how a national scheme for accrediting new appointees to the role could be developed.

The intention is for there to be an agreed training curriculum for new SENCO staff covering:

  • generic aspects
  • knowledge of key areas of SEN, such as autistic spectrum disorders.

The TDA has consulted SENCOs and other professionals, and is expected to submit its findings soon. This submission will outline initial conclusions and the further work necessary before the new regulations on accreditation can be formalized, and then implemented in September 2009.

A mandatory training requirement will not be introduced at this time, since the requirements of any such training have yet to be established. Further consultation on training will lead to future regulations on this matter.

Clarity in the future?

The role of the SENCO has developed greatly in a short period of time. The speed of this has meant that development has not always been as intended by the strategies driving it.

The recognition of uncertainty in the role and responsibilities of SENCOs has led the Government to rectify the situation by planning for significant new regulations after a formal consultation process.
It is hoped, both by Government and schools, that these will clarify the role of the SENCO sufficiently to guarantee the successful contribution of SENCOs to the academic success of children with special educational needs.

Find out more

Mark Blois is an associate at Browne Jacobson solicitors

Reader comments and questions about specific cases or individuals will not be published