The demands of the SENCO role should not outweigh its attractiveness, warns a nasen-funded study. Sue Pearson reports on her research

In the 14 years since the role of the SENCO was established there has been limited research into the recruitment, induction and retention of SENCOs. In 2007, the National Association for Special Educational Needs (nasen) commissioned a piece of research into these aspects to inform its own work and influence national policy. The findings offer an intriguing insight into the career trajectories of SENCOs in England, the influences on individuals, and some of the implications for schools and the education system.

Methodology

The research was conducted through an anonymous postal survey sent to SENCOs in England. The content of the questionnaire was in four sections:

  • background information
  • recruitment to the post
  • level and nature of induction
  • career aspirations of the respondents.

This report of the findings focuses on the inter-connected themes of recruitment and retention. The sample (n = 500) was composed of two distinct groups. First, to try to ensure the coverage of all phases and settings, all the SENCOs (n = 164) in one local authority were included. The remaining questionnaires (n = 336) were set to members of nasen who are SENCOs working in England. This ensured that there was geographical coverage.

Findings

The overall return rate was 53%, which suggests that SENCOs are keen to have their views taken into account. A further indication of this was the proportion (58.2%) that provided their contact details so that they could take part in further research.

Background of the respondents

Questionnaires were received from all phases and settings (see table 1).

Table 1: Phase of settings in which respondents work

  Frequency    Per cent
All age 11 4.2
First school  2 0.8
Infant    17 6.4
Junior    21 7.9
Middle    8 3.0
Nursery    94 35.1
Secondary    110 41.5
No information 3 1.1
Total    226 100

The size of the schools ranged from 12 pupils (early years assessment centre) to  2,200 pupils (two 11-18 secondary schools). The level of experience of the SENCOs ranged from less than a year to 26 years.

Recruitment routes

The respondents were asked to indicate how they were recruited to the role by ticking one or more possible routes (see table 2). Some 17% of the respondents added comments, which either expanded on their response or explained different routes into the role. Several themes emerged from these commentaries.

Table 2: Recruitment routes

  Primary Secondary Total
External advert for the post of SENCO 13.2% 43.6% 26.8%
External advert for a post – including role of SENCO 13.2% 5.5% 9.8%
Internal advert for post of SENCO 8.1% 21.8% 14.2%
Internal advert for a post that included the responsibilities of SENCO 22.2% 7.3% 4.5%
Part of a rotation in school 4.4% 0.9% 2.8%
Part of a reorganisation within the school 18.4% 3.6% 11.8%
Arose through workforce reform 0% 3.6% 1.6%
Volunteered for the post when the opportunity arose 23.5% 2.7% 14.5%
Inherited when a colleague left 28.9% 27.3% 28.2%

Proactive recruitment
There has been anecdotal evidence of recruitment through the ‘tap on the shoulder’ and this survey confirmed that this does happen:

‘Head hunted’ (Primary SENCO with 90 pupils, 10.5 years experience.)

‘Advertised internally when post holder was leaving. Didn’t apply for it, but was approached by SMT and offered the post anyway!’ (Secondary SENCO with 2.5 years experience working in a school with 1100 pupils.)

Evolution of responsibilities A number of respondents explained how an initial set of responsibilities had evolved over time:

‘Worked on supply. Deputy head took on a class and I took job (SENCO) on a part-time temporary basis and eventually became permanent.’ (Primary SENCO with 10 years’ experience, working in a school of 450.)

‘Came to the school five years ago as assistant SENCO and then one year temporary SENCO and then full-time permanent SENCO’ (Secondary SENCO with four years’ experience, working in school of 1,000.)

Reorganisation
Reorganisations for special schools, or across schools, were mentioned, although infrequently.
‘Through LA special school reorganisation’ (Primary SENCO with five years’ experience, 46 pupils.)

Pragmatic arrangements For some SENCOs, there have been personal or school-based pragmatic factors:

‘This is a small school, where each member of staff has a heavy workload and areas of responsibility. There is a high percentage of pupils with a wide range of SEN. At the time, the headteacher was the only person who was able to take on the role when the existing SENCO gained promotion.’ (Primary SENCO with eight years’ experience, working in a school with 153 pupils.)

‘Husband head of village school since 1985. I did supply/part-time work, including what was called ‘remedial teaching’. Code of Practice, 1994 – I became a SENCO – and have been so ever since as a part-time post.’ (Primary SENCO with 14 years’ experience working in a school with 180 pupils.)
Analysis of the statistical data showed that:

  • secondary schools are more likely to use an external advert, much more likely to use an internal advert that includes the role of SENCO and to recruit through workforce reform
  • primary schools are likely to use an external advert, that includes the role of SENCO, to recruit through reorganisation and to recruit through individuals’ volunteering
  • there are no differences in the likelihood of inheriting the role.

Retention

The respondents were asked about their medium-term plans (five to seven years) and asked to tick a range of possibilities with an invitation to include comments, as appropriate: 53% of the respondents did not wish to continue in their current role; 40.2% were planning to retire, with some bringing forward their retirement. However, demographic factors do not tell the whole story, as illustrated in Table 3.

Table 3: Reasons for wishing to move from current post

  Primary Secondary Total
Lack of job satisfaction 13% 20.9% 14.6%
Heavy workload 33.1% 46.4% 39.0%
Ready for new professional challenge 19.9% 30.0% 24.4%
Alternative career opportunity within school(s) 3.7% 2.7% 3.3%
School restructuring 6.6% 8.2% 7.3%
Desire for increased salary 11.8% 9.1% 10.6%
Personal/family factors 17.6% 19.1% 18.3%
Retirement    36.8% 42.7% 39.4%
Other    2.9% 9.1% 5.7%

Some 11% of respondents provided explanatory or additional comments which highlighted a number of themes.

Demographics

SENCOs tend to be more experienced members of staff and, therefore, demographics are a factor, but some respondents reported that they would retire earlier than planned:

‘Dictated by age as I was 60 in February.’ (Secondary SENCO.)

‘Would have stayed for three more years, but am taking retirement earlier than planned’ (Secondary SENCO with nine years’ experience, working in a school with 1,000 pupils.)

Financial
The financial aspects of the role were a consideration for some SENCOs:

‘I also work as a SEN lecturer at a university one evening a week. I would love to do this full time but cannot take the drop in salary.’ (Secondary SENCO, with 17 years’ experience, working in a school with 2,200 pupils.)

‘Decrease in salary’ (Secondary SENCO with nine years’ experience, working in a school with 1,100 pupils.)

Frustration
Individual reported frustration with both the nature of the role and the lack of recognition:

‘I hate it! Form-filling and lack of outside agency involvement. There is no real support for us as a school, or the children and their families – so it is all a waste of time.’ (SENCO and deputy head with seven months’ experience, working in a school with 245 pupils.)

‘Largely frustration at no one else being aware of the scope of the job and more jobs being added, with less time available.’ (Secondary SENCO with four years’ experience, working in a school with 1,800 pupils.)

Workload
Comments about workload referred to both the perceived relevance of the activities and the excessive load at particular times:

‘I am no slacker, and I am prepared to work hard, but the workload at certain times of the year is ridiculous and I question the need for it. On the other hand, when I can do the job as it needs to be done, there is nothing else I would rather be doing.’ (Primary SENCO with nine years’ experience, 380 pupils.)

All these comments need to be seen in the context of others, which portray the role of the SENCO as professionally satisfying, engaging and exactly what they want to be doing:

‘I love what I do – the job changes every day.’ (Secondary SENCO with three years’ experience working in a school with 1, 234 pupils.)

The quality of relationships was also a positive influence on retention:

‘My retention of the role is largely down to the close team I work with, and the students we support, both of which I would miss hugely.’ (Secondary SENCO with four years’ experience, working in a school with 900 pupils.)

‘I feel lucky to be working in my school and [name of LA]. I feel well supported by both.’ (Secondary SENCO with three years’ experience, working in a school with 650 pupils.)

Taking a longer-term view, it is worth noting that the desired career trajectory for some SENCOs will increase the overall capacity within the education system: 8.5% want to move into more specialist provision; 8.9% aspire to a senior management role; and 18.3% hope to join an advisory service.

Perceptions of the relationship between recruitment, induction and retention

There was an open-ended question about the relationship between these three aspects. Some 69.5%of the returned questionnaires took the opportunity to provide an answer, often of some length and complexity. The analysis of this data is beyond the scope of this article, and will appear elsewhere. However, the response rate, the length of the comments, and the thoughtfulness, does demonstrate that these issues are of considerable interest to SENCOs. A fuller account of the findings will be available in Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs 8 (2), June 2008.

Conclusion

Clearly the reliance on self-reported data in this research is somewhat problematic, and there is a need for further, more detailed research in the future. The willingness of SENCOs to engage in research on these aspects was apparent. This study should be regarded as a starting point, a catalyst for both further research and policy-driven innovations in relation to recruitment and retention.

At school level, there are clear messages about the need to ensure that demands and challenges of the role do not outweigh the attractiveness of the job. It is clear that, for some individuals in some schools, this has been achieved. There is also a need for schools and teachers to be alert to the proportion of SENCOs planning a change of direction in their career. Some of these changes are inevitable, some will enhance the education service, while others may be a loss to schools. What will be needed are effective recruitment practices, with associated induction programmes and on-going support.

Sue Pearson, senior lecturer at the School of Education, University of Leeds

* A nasen publication. For further details go to: www.nasen.org.uk