During the last oral evidence session of the House of Commons Education and Skills Select Committee of Inquiry into Special Educational Needs (22 March 2006), Lord Adonis, parliamentary under-secretary of state with responsibility for SEN, responded to a wide range of questions about current and future developments in SEN policy in England.

He was clearly well briefed and responded effectively, and in detail, to questions asked by committee members, using ‘factual’ evidence to respond to concerns about failures of the current system. He also presented a comprehensive memorandum to the committee, which fleshes out the argument for a rational, ‘we are moving in the right direction’, policy advocated by the DfES, one that rejects radical reform.(1)

This document provides a summary of policy developments in recent years, an outline of government priorities in the light of wider developments in education policy, and an updating of progress towards addressing actions identified in Removing Barriers to Achievement two years ago. The memorandum concludes with an outline of further steps towards improving SEN policy, practice and provision.

Status of SENCOs

When asked specific questions about the status of SENCOs, Lord Adonis responded in a rather less convincing manner.(2) For example, Barry Sheerman (chairman of the committee) asked him if he was worried that SENCOs were not required to hold teaching qualifications. Lord Adonis responded,

‘I think it would need to be a highly exceptional case where a school felt it not appropriate to appoint a qualified teacher to be a SENCO… but one can envisage cases where this might be appropriate… I would not want to say I could not envisage circumstances where it would be appropriate.’ (Response to question 914, emphasis added)

His argument here seemed to make use of a smoke and mirrors technique, appearing to be supportive of role of SENCOs described in the SEN Code of Practice and Removing Barriers to Achievement, but in fact not saying this at all. This is made clear in his response to a follow-up question about downgrading the role of SENCOs, asked by the chairman:

‘The issue for us [DfES] of course is whether you would actually ban any capacity for schools to engage any others than qualified teachers to be SENCOs. I can understand the judgment call on that but if the flexibility is being used to engage people who are professionally qualified in this area then I do not know that we would think that was a bad thing for a school to do.’ (Response to question 915)

The message here is clear: workforce remodelling and the flexibility this brings to schools trumps arguments about the professional teaching standards for SENCOs and their role as advanced skills teachers with a strategic and leadership remit. In fairness to Lord Adonis, he did indicate that the DfES was monitoring practice to ensure that a downgrading of the SENCO role was not taking place in schools. The Select Committee, will, no doubt, revisit this issue in its report due to be published in the early summer.

SENCO standards

When the issue of teacher training was raised by committee member Helen Jones, Lord Adonis indicated that standards for SENCOs were out of date and being reviewed (question 910) as part of a wider review of teaching standards. Evidence of who is involved in this review of SENCO standards, or how consultative this will be, was not presented to the committee. Nor was the issue of whether any new standards will apply to teacher or non-teacher trained SENCOs. Developments in this area warrant close monitoring, a matter that the Select Committee may comment on in its forthcoming report.

Notes 1. The Memorandum by the Department for Education and Skills, presented as evidence to the Education and Skills Select Committee Inquiry into Special Educational Needs (Ref: SEN 178)

2. Evidence quoted is taken from an uncorrected transcript (HC 478-x). See UK Parliament website: Education and Skills Select Committee.