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

Models for the SENCO role: context, value and intent

Should SENCOs be on the SLT? Does status matter? What’s the best way to ensure influence and impact on pupil outcomes?

It’s several years now since I completed the NASENCo qualification, but I still remember the first day of the course. We started off by introducing ourselves. While we were all in the role of SENCO, we came from primary, secondary, special, state and independent schools, and it was striking how our status and day to day roles differed.  A few were on a senior leadership team (SLT), many were not, some were classroom teachers, but others didn’t teach at all!

Value vs workload

We interrogated each other with interest. There were many questions around why some institutions had chosen to place their SENCO on the SLT and others not. We debated value versus workload of being a teaching SENCO (enough material for another blog!). There was much discussion about endless administrative tasks and, while those fortunate enough to have administrative support praised this model, others bemoaned bureaucracy.

I was fascinated by the discussion and, several years hence, now an experienced SENCO and assistant headteacher, still am. Why? Well, the role of the SENCO is deemed important enough to have very specific guidance attached to it and yet operates as a completely different role from school to school.

What does the guidance tell us?

The ‘National standards for special educational needs coordinators’ (TTA, 1998) asserts: ‘the SENCO, with the support of the headteacher and governing body, takes responsibility for…pupils with SEN and provides professional guidance…to secure high quality teaching…for all pupils.’

This suggests that the role should operate at a strategic level, in collaboration with leaders, to enable inclusive schools. The SEND code of practice takes this a step further and states that the SENCO ‘will be most effective in that role if they are part of the school leadership team.’

What’s the status of the SENCO in 2018?

In September 2018, Bath Spa University launched the SENCO Workload Survey in collaboration with the NEU and nasen.

Their report presents a contrasting picture. 'Overall 50% of SENCOs stated that they were part of the SLT, due to the SENCO role. However, this increased for primary SENCOs to 62% and decreased for secondary SENCOs to 21%’. Of these SLT colleagues 1.6% were also the headteacher.

The full report is essential reading for school leaders and SENCOs and provides current research-based evidence on the issues of time, support, and context. (See It's time to take action on SENCO workload for further commentary.)

Context (with a capital C)

Guidance cannot be taken at face value without applying it to specific school context. Headteachers and SENCOs need to reflect on their school context carefully.  We might question as follows.

  • Should a school with a small number of SEND pupils have an SLT SENCO?
  • Do all SENCOs have the necessary skills to take on an SLT role?
  • Should an existing SENCO, who prefers to stay as a middle leader, be asked to step up if it will provide a better model for their school?
  • Will the SLT SENCO lead on teaching and learning or does this fall to a different member of SLT? If so, will they collaborate?
  • Does the SLT SENCO have enough time/support to fulfil the role effectively?

A thought-provoking chapter in Transforming the Role of the SENCO (Hallett and Hallett, 2010) urges school leaders to think carefully about the role and warns against thinking too much about status, and not enough about intention and impact.

‘If a SENCO becomes a member of the senior leadership team merely to plan a school response to policy initiatives and legislation, the response from teachers and teaching assistants may mirror… bureaucracy…rather than developing cohesive and collaborative approaches to teaching and learning for all pupils.’

Different models: advantages, challenges and solutions

If we consider an idealised role, ‘the SLT teaching SENCO’, there are many potential advantages.

  • Opportunity to influence the strategic direction of SEND in the school, keeping SEND high on the SLT agenda.
  • A wide sphere of influence.
  • Opportunity to lead credible, high impact CPD, developing inclusive teaching and learning.

However, as I know from my own experience, there are also huge challenges with this model. The number of meetings that a SENCO has, often at short notice, as well the paperwork (even with an administrator to help) can make it difficult to juggle teaching commitments and to also be an active and visible member of the SLT. 

Let’s consider some other possible models.

SLT SENCO with a deputy SENCO

A deputy SENCO is recruited and given a reduced teaching timetable. They learn the job, taking some of the daily workload as well as leading strategic projects. Given that the SENCO Workload survey reported that ‘only a quarter of SENCOs (26%) felt that the role was manageable for one person’ and highlighted that many SENCOs feel isolated in the role (Curran et al, Bath Spa University & nasen, 2018), this could provide a practical and supportive solution.


  • A collaborative strategic vision.
  • Time for both to teach and for the SLT SENCO to take on SLT duties.
  • On the job CPD for the deputy SENCO, developing and retaining a valued member of staff.
  • Succession planning, providing continuity if the SLT SENCO were to move on.


  • Budget: to pay a deputy SENCO and provide enough non-contact time to provide impact is challenging in the current climate.
  • Time to train the deputy.

Associate SLT SENCO

This model works as a bridge between middle and senior leadership. The SENCO attends SLT meetings and is line managed by the headteacher, but does not take on additional SLT duties. The focus of this role is impact and its success will be determined by how it is presented and supported by the headteacher.


  • Space and encouragement to think strategically, especially if coached by the headteacher.
  • Opportunity to keep SEND high on the SLT agenda and to distribute SEND leadership to other SLT members.


  • Ensuring that the role has genuine influence and impact will depend on how it is orchestrated, presented and viewed by others.

Impact not status

Perhaps, ultimately, context and impact is more important than status. I would urge SENCOs and senior leaders to use questions like the ones below to do a health check on how the SENCO role currently operates in their school (whether it is at senior or middle leadership level).

  • Is the SENCO supported by the headteacher and SLT? Is the strategic vision for SEND clear for the school? If not, who will collaborate to develop this?
  • Is the SENCO able to influence colleagues and impact pupil outcomes?
  • Is the SENCO able to manage workload, or do they need support, administratively or otherwise?

Finally, we should listen to our SENCOs as they have their own solutions. As one middle leader SENCO explained: ‘I have asked to attend SLT meetings as an advisor. I don’t want the title, or the pay, I want to have an impact.’ @MrsMarkendale

SEND Inclusion Award

Want to review, improve and celebrate SEND provision in your school? The SEND Inclusion Award gives you the opportunity to demonstrate outstanding provision in six areas.

  • Identifying SEND
  • Compliance
  • Leadership
  • Professional development
  • Pupil and parental engagement
  • Pupil outcomes 

Find out more at 



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