Tags: CPD provision | ICT and learning | ICT Manager | SEN – Special Educational Needs | SEN provision | SENCO

Many SENCOs, though aware of the benefits of ICT, are a bit wary of its complexities. Gerald Haigh provides a user-friendly guide

ICT, properly used, can help any teacher if not to do less work, then certainly to work more efficiently, to the benefit of children and their learning. Admittedly, there are times – such as when you’re screaming, Eddie Izzard-style, at the screen, ‘What do you mean “No printer found”! The printer’s just here for God’s sake!’ when that can sound a bit hollow.

The general point, though, is true, to the extent that we have a growing number of colleagues who can’t imagine how they managed before computers appeared on the scene. If you’re not at that stage yet, then the purpose of this article is to convince you that, yes, you really are missing something. As one SENCO – a keen ICT user – says, ‘Somewhere among all the administration I have to find time to do the part of the job that I enjoy most: teaching groups and observing and supporting children in their classrooms.’

That, simply, is what management ICT is for – it’s there to take away some of the drudgery of administration so that you can spend more time on what you’re there for.

What can it do?

For a quick glimpse of possibilities opened up by good management ICT, here are just one or two jobs it will do for the SENCO – there are more, but you’ll get the idea.

With good management ICT you can:

  • Produce with a few keystrokes, a straight list of pupils on the SEN Register, and/or a list of any part of the school (year group, class, form, teaching group) with ‘your’ pupils highlighted.
  • Keep individual and group education plans in electronic form on the school network, available across the school for colleagues to refer and contribute to.
  • Keep standard forms and letters electronically as templates, ready for use when needed, and also store incoming documents scanned into electronic files.

The general principles at work in management software are:

Enter once, use many times Throughout the growth of management information systems that’s been the golden rule. Once you enter a piece of information – an assessment grade, a pupil’s name and address, a summary of attendance – into the school’s MIS it never has to be manually copied or typed anywhere else.

That means no more typing or writing lists of pupils, or copying out existing information on their prior attainment, on any register or report or letter. If it already exists in the school’s database, whenever it’s needed, for any purpose, it can be transferred from there. Virtually every school already has what’s necessary to work like this.

Cutting out unnecessary routines
As a SENCO you’re a regular and necessary user of documents, forms and letters. Your MIS can present you with a blank form – an IEP for example – and get you off to a start by filling it in automatically with whatever relevant information on the pupil already exists. It will also, often, give you guidance on setting targets – perhaps offering extensive banks of pre-written targets for you to choose from. Then, of course, whatever you end up with is safely stored in the school’s MIS, available to anyone who has the authority to see it.

General availability of information
This is the big one for me, because it addresses what is surely one of the SENCO’s biggest challenges. Jan Thompson, director of studies for SEN at The Grove, a big comprehensive in East Sussex, describes it like this, ‘It’s about getting useful information out to teachers in the classroom and getting feedback from them on children’s needs.’

That says it all. As SENCO, you and your team may know your children inside out. You know what will stretch them, what will turn them on, what will cause them to slump in despair or bridle with anger. And it’s not all in your head either, as maybe it would have been years ago. No, it’s all carefully recorded and converted into achievable small-step targets on documents meticulously compiled and looked after in your department. As Jan implies, though, what’s the use of that to the young history teacher hurrying, frazzled, from one lesson to the next, trying hard to keep 30 children at a time in some semblance of order? Is she supposed to keep popping across the campus to look at IEPs in a filing cabinet?

No, if learning support is really going to take off in a school, then special educational needs information has to be readily available, in digestible form, across the whole school. SENCOs have always known that – they’ve tried solving it with memos, meetings, summary documents, twilight training, exhortations. And yet, hand on heart, how many SENCOs have had the experience of a carefully constructed programme of intervention being compromised or set back simply because one department, or one individual teacher, has missed a key piece of information about a child? How often have you wondered why somebody didn’t report back to you on something significant in the classroom – a behaviour incident or a significant achievement?

It is this problem, more than anything else, that management software can go a long way towards solving.

How does it work?
In school you have a network of computers – certainly one in each department, and often one in each teaching base. The key is to get the important information about pupils – including details of their special needs and their individual education plans – on to the network so that everyone who has the right to see it can call it up and look at it and contribute to it.

That, in essence, is the message from Jan Thompson, whose aim has been to distribute ownership of SEN record keeping and planning across the whole staff. In that scenario, the role of the SENCO becomes one of leadership, consultancy and coordination, keeping the process on track, monitoring what’s suggested for the IEP, advising colleagues when it’s apparent that advice and guidance is needed.

There are other solutions. Another SENCO, Gill Minikin at Chalfonts College in Buckinghamshire, approaches the same challenge – that of putting classroom teachers in touch with IEPs by producing a distilled and simplified version of each IEP on a spreadsheet. A teacher planning a lesson calls up the class on his or her laptop from the school network and finds that ‘John Smith’ for example is ‘SA’ (for ‘School Action’) and goes on to read a terse and usable summary – ‘Sometimes under stress. Handwriting and presentation poor. Must wear glasses’.

It’s not the complete story, of course, but it’s there every time the teacher looks at the class list, and provides more information than many class teachers are routinely armed with. It goes without saying, of course, that access to the full suite of information on the child is there on the network if needed, with only a little more effort.

It’s the will that counts
SENCOs like Gill Minikin and Jan Thompson are bringing to life the old but enduring slogan that ‘Every teacher is a teacher of special needs’ – and they’re doing it with the aid of ICT. The technicalities here are less important than the general principle, which is that the school’s management information system, and the computer network, can work together to bring information on pupils out of the filing cabinet and on to the screens that are the basic working tools of today’s teachers. Making it happen isn’t so much a matter of ICT expertise as of leadership and imagination.

Can we do it?
Every school has a management information system – the need to transmit standard pupil data to the authority and the government mean that it isn’t optional any more. Whether it’s properly used or not, though, is something else. There’s good evidence from local authority support teams that school management software is underemployed, and that teachers and leaders aren’t reaping all the benefits.

There are four leading brands of MIS – ‘Sims’, from Capita is by far the most common, but there are others, some in thousands of schools – ‘Integris’ from RM, ‘Facility’ from Serco and ‘e1’ from Pearson. There are one or two smaller players in the field – Wauton Samuel, for example – but it’s virtually certain that one or another is sitting on your school’s computers. Each has its fans and critics but in truth they’re all well capable of looking after special needs administration and making it available across the school. Jan Thompson uses Capita’s ‘Sims.net’, particularly the functions designed to support the SENCO. She also uses ‘IEP Writer 3’ from LearnHow Publications.

How can I make it happen?
Start by asking some questions. Some you’ll direct to yourself, some to the school leadership and some, through them, to the local authority. Here they are with some answers (just mine, there may well be others).

Q Do you have personal basic computer skills – word processing, spreadsheets, database, internet access and email? If not, how can you acquire or improve them?
A Press your ICT coordinator, or work with colleagues on the European Computer Driving Licence. Details at www.bcs.org

Q Do you feel competent to make proper use of the mass of data that’s held in your MIS?
A Optimus Professional Learning has a course – ‘Making the most of performance data in secondary schools’.  

Q Do you have routine access to a computer that’s on the school’s admin network, giving you the ability to see pupil records and performance data and contribute to them as appropriate?
A Increasingly, all teachers need this, and should be pressing management for it. It’s not enough, by the way, to rely on an admin officer or a secretary. You need your own access to the electronic data.

Q Do you have a laptop that you can plug into the school network?
A Many schools now have a policy of providing a laptop for every teacher. It’s something else to press for. The advantages of being able to take your work with you are obvious.

Q Now the key questions. Do you know to what extent your school’s MIS has functions specifically to support SEN?
A If no one in school is sure about this (not an uncommon state of affairs) then approach your local authority – either learning support or MIS support. (The latter is often the better bet.) Sims (and Sims.net) has functions designed to support the SENCO, and offers as a partner product ‘IEP Writer’. Other MIS brands also offer targeted SEN support. The key is to ask the people who know.

Q Can you find training in use of the SEN software?
A Approach your MIS support team or your learning support team. (Which one’s right depends on how it’s done in your authority.)
But, above all, visit a school where it’s being done well. For this, ask the supplier of your software for a good example in your neck of the woods. Be excruciatingly polite and correct in your approach, because if they really are good you’ll want to keep in touch and pick their brains over a long-ish period.

Q Can you get into your school network from home?
A That’s not common yet, but soon it will be. Clearly it’s a mixed blessing in work-life balance terms, but just so long as you feel in control…

Finally, the big note of caution
Never forget that the information that comes out of your software is only as good as that going in. The computer is hypnotic, to the point where it’s easy to regard its output as holy writ, and forget that the information fed into it came from ordinary fallible human beings, some of whom may well have been making flaky, on-the-hoof judgements.

IEP writer



Wauton Samuel

RM Integris

Pearson e1

Becta’s list of MIS product

Becta’s report on value for money in MIS

This article first appeared in SENCO Update – Sep 2006

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