The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Liz Murray

Managing change as a SENCO

When planning and managing complex changes, the SENCO’s priority should be to cultivate a shared vision. Liz Murray offers some advice for getting staff on board.

If you’ve worked in education for a while, you will know that responding to change is an important part of the job. Change can be great, keeping approaches fresh, staff engaged and ultimately benefiting our students.

But as I have learned in leading several significant projects in schools with very different contexts, change management isn’t easy.

With that in mind, here are some lessons I have learned in my experience of leading change, and my advice for making it work in practice as a SENCO.

You can't do it alone

There is no doubt that it is daunting to plan a change management project. You may have done a lot of thinking about your vision for the change, but you’re only too aware of the challenges ahead. The specific challenges will depend on the culture and structure of the organisation, the cohort of students and your own sphere of influence (this might be different depending on whether you are a member of SLT or a middle leader).

But no matter what your status is, or how inspiring your vision for change, if you don’t secure the support of your colleagues, it probably won’t work.

The most important lesson that I have learned is that, as a SENCO you can’t do it alone; to have an impact on pupils, your teaching colleagues need to be on board. Principles that I have returned to repeatedly in order to enable change in SEND are collaboration, shared vision, collective responsibility and shared ownership (see Ekins, 2010).

Consider the emotional responses

Even if you feel that your colleagues are ready for change, you might initially be concerned about their emotional responses to a departure from the status quo. In both of my schools, these included:

  • colleagues being extremely busy, with neither the capacity nor desire to take on more work
  • colleagues not understanding why a change is necessary, or disagreeing with it
  • colleagues perceiving the change as a threat, provoking feelings of inadequacy or fear.

Don't make excuses

A new outside initiative, a change to legislation or an imminent inspection can provide a useful lever for instigating change. It’s tempting to say to staff, ‘we have to do this’, ‘we have no choice’ and of course, ‘we are all in it together’. But to make authentic change happen, you need to create a positive vision and get staff on board.

It's a vision thing

Knoster’s model of change management identifies that the essential elements are a vision, skills, incentives, resources and an action plan. If any of these elements are overlooked, the change will be unsuccessful.

This rings true for me and might for you: how often have you been ‘consulted’ in a staff meeting at the end of a busy day? Maybe you jot down some ideas, only for a fully-fledged plan to be presented back to you as your own idea?

No matter how well intentioned, this sort of approach pays mere lip service to planning and consultation, and does not encourage buy-in from colleagues.

An action research model can be helpful in encouraging deeper thinking to support organisational change. It can be effective to use if you are a SENCO, middle leader or other senior leader, provided you remember that ‘action research should be […] carried out with people and not done to them’ (Cowne et al, 2015). The following model has helped me lay the groundwork for change.

  • Identify the problem.
  • Illuminate the problem.
  • Decide on an action and success criteria.
  • Monitor the action.
  • Evaluate.
  • Review and decide on the next action.

For an example of how I’ve used this model to manage change, you can read about the learning in partnerships CPD programme on the Optimus Knowledge Centre.

But what do you actually need to do in order to establish a shared vision? Here are five things I’ve learned.

Be open, inclusive and professional

Advertise for a working party of colleagues. Present this as a professional opportunity by publishing a brief for staff, asking for interested volunteers. This has the benefit of letting everyone know that change is in the pipeline and giving them the opportunity to have their say. Try to encourage colleagues from across the school, especially those that have a different perspective to yours, so that you include a range of informal influence and leadership.

Provide enough time

Plan out an appropriate number of working party meetings, allowing enough time for proper discussion and reflection in between. While I’ve found that it’s better to have these meetings in person, setting up an email group can provide a useful forum for adding further thoughts or reflections. Remember: your working party members should be the champions of change.

Listen

Set up the working party meetings with a clear agenda, be transparent and hand over the problem with all accompanying data and information. Resist jumping in with your own ideas or solutions by default. Your goal is to facilitate discussion and listen to what colleagues have to say.

Promote ownership

After one of my working party meetings produced a draft action plan, I submitted it for discussion at a SLT meeting, inviting colleagues along to present the proposal and discuss it with senior leaders. This is a good way to promote broader ownership of the project, not to mention create a CPD opportunity.

Let them lead

Ask your working party to help identify the next step, be it further consultation with other members of staff, or presenting a plan for action. By doing this you demonstrate that you have considered a range of different perspectives and don’t have to field questions alone.

References

  • Cowne, E., ‘Developing Inclusive Practice: The SENCO’s Role in Managing Change’, David Fulton Publishers (2003)
  • Knoster, T., ‘Factors in managing complex change’, Material presentation at TASH conference, Washington D.C (1991)
  • Cowne, E., Frankl, C., & Gerschel, L., ‘The SENCo Handbook’, Taylor and Francis (2015)
  • Ekins, A., ‘The changing face of special educational needs’, Routledge (2011)

Further reading

Learning in partnership for SEND CPD: a case study

Coping with and responding to change in your school

From vision to action: establishing a vision for your school

SEND is everyone's business

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