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

Gareth D Morewood

Time to rethink the 'effective SENCO'

Never has time been such a precious asset to the SENCO, whose professional status needs to be carefully reconsidered if they are expected to progress in the role.

It has always been important for me to reflect on my own practice as SENCO and identify new opportunities to develop my skills. All professionals should be continuously learning, as one of the defining principles of professional practice (Schön, 1983).

Sadly, it's unlikely that all SENCOs have time for that growth. Oftentimes they can be too preoccupied with local authority documentation and prescribed interventions, lacking personal and strategic time for development. 

As a SENCO in 2018, I want to be making the greatest possible impact on young people and their families; hiding away in an office completing forms and documents isn’t the best use of my skills. I’m reminded of a chapter by Brahm Norwich published eight years ago, which highlighted the need for the SENCO to not only be responsible for the day-to-day provision, but also for the guidance and leadership of other staff and in doing so highlighting four key areas:

  • Strategic direction and development of SEND provision.
  • Teaching and learning.
  • Leading and managing staff.
  • Efficient and effective deployment of staff and resources.

My new ‘SENCO-self’ is very much focused on how I can most effectively use the school's staff and resources to improve provision for SEND and, most importantly, the outcomes for young people. To these ends, high-quality, inclusive teaching and learning is essential. After all, no amount of intervention can make up for poor quality teaching.

In his 2008 study of media, gender and identity, Gauntlett examined the ways in which women and men ‘police’ themselves in society, their self-identities shaped in no small part by popular media. This bears relevance to how some understand and fulfil the role of SENCO, often shaped by misinformation and local processes.

In order to qualify for the National SENCO Award (NASENCO), modern SENCOs are arguably expected to develop in line with a prescribed set of standards, which of course is understandable in order to guarantee parity between the different providers of the award.

However, this overlooks a characteristic that is crucial to how some SENCOs (myself included) understand their role: autonomy. Each SENCO is as unique as the school they work in and the community they serve, so why push for a unilateral definition of a role that should be tailored intricately to the needs of young people and their families?

It’s time we balance the needs of the role against the prescription of a ‘national award’; would a course that offers participants a strong grounding in SEND law be more effective? How many SENCO colleagues who have undertaken the award feel it adequately prepares them for the role? 

It's SENCO time

I’m often asked how much time the SENCO should have to carry out their duties. This is the proverbial ‘length-of-string’ question. Some of the many factors that determine a SENCO’s workload are unrelated to SEND, but nevertheless have direct and indirect consequences for the SENCO.

For example, financial pressure on headteachers will sometimes result in larger class sizes or the narrowing of the curriculum offer. How often are SENCOs involved in financial and curriculum planning on a whole-school level?

There was a recent debate on Twitter around the role of the SENCO and use of TAs in meeting the needs of SEND pupils. Weighing the value of SENCO time directly against the number of teaching assistants is something of a false equation: it shouldn’t be a case of one or the other. A coherent approach to CPD and whole-school development should allow for the effective use of TAs and the maximisation of a SENCO’s time.

However, I would agree with the many comments that followed: the SENCO rarely has time to undertake a large teaching load in addition to upholding their core non-teaching responsibilities.

In order to have time, it’s important to make time. This could mean:

  • fewer teaching hours for the SENCO
  • a distributed leadership structure for TAs
  • the appointment of a deputy SENCO
  • true corporate responsibility for SEND, where the SENCO empowers all staff to take responsibility.

There is therefore, little point in comparing one SENCO directly to another, much less the SENCO to other middle/senior leaders. The SENCO role is shaped according to the specific context of the school and community it serves. You would expect a SENCO in a small rural primary school to work differently to a SENCO in a large secondary school or MAT, for example.

Understanding the uniqueness of the role is integral to high-quality provision; limitations and restrictions on the role (large teaching loads for example) directly affect the outcomes of young people; of that I am certain.

Each SENCO is as unique as the school they work in and the community they serve

The SENCO is the only role in a school that must be a qualified teacher and have a post-graduate qualification (unless they were in post before 1 September 2009); it may be time to rethink these prescriptions and start afresh looking at what skills and knowledge makes a good SENCO.

‘The SENCO must be a qualified teacher working at the school. A newly appointed SENCO must be a qualified teacher and, where they have not previously been the SENCO at that or any other relevant school for a total period of twelve months, they must achieve a National Award in Special Educational Coordination within three years of appointment.’ 

SEND Code of Practice: 0 to 25 years, DfE 2014

A radical thought perhaps, but as outlined in this post it is a multifaceted role that requires a wide range of personal attributes and specific skills. A skillset I often return to time and time again is the need for the SENCO to be:

  • a lead professional
  • an advocate and knowledge/information manager
  • a commissioner and broker
  • a resource manager
  • a partnership manager
  • a quality assurer
  • a facilitator
  • a solution assembler. 

Do you assume these roles in your own capacity as SENCO? 

Our most precious asset

Since the implementation of the Children and Families Act (2014) and revised Code of Practice, SENCOs have had many new challenges to face. One of the most important was considering outcomes and pathways towards aspirations instead of fixed needs and provision of historic systems.

This remains a real challenge for many; navigating pathways to aspirations and considering ‘feelings’ doesn’t sit well within a fixed mindset solely focused on academic performance and prescriptive measures of ‘success’.

This complex picture can be broken into clear yet vital messages, framed around the importance of maximising SENCO time. Time is therefore our most precious asset, whether for:

While the SENCO role cannot simply be reduced to a certain number of hours per EHCP, or equated to other roles (heads of department), for example, it must be recognised as essential to the success of a school and a prime driver of change.

From over 20 years’ experience, I know that a blend of personal and professional skills, along with the right amount of time and support, are the foundations of a successful SENCO.

Aspiring, new and even the most experienced SENCOs must have a vision for their progression in the role, and understand how that relates to the specific context of the school. Whatever the differences between us, there’s no doubt that the modern SENCO needs to be an advocate and a solution-finder.

Never has there been a role so personally and professionally challenging, but at the same time so incredibly rewarding. 

My next post will outline my thoughts for addressing some of these concerns and how we start to develop new pathways for some of the most dedicated professionals in schools. Watch this space!

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  • Cheminais, R., (2005), Every Child Matters, a new role for SENCOs, David Fulton Publishers, London.
  • Gauntlett, D., (2008) Media, Gender and Identity, second edition, Routledge: London.
  • Kaplan, D., (2000) The Definition of Disability, accessed online - 25.01.18.
  • Morewood, G., (2008), 'The 21st Century SENCO', SENCo UPDATE, pp. 8-9, issue 100, November 2008, Optimus Publishing, London.
  • Morewood, G., (2009), Making to Optimum Use of SENCo Time, published in Curriculum Management Update, pp. 7-10, issue 95, May 2009, Optimus Publishing, London.
  • Norwich, B. (2010), in Transforming the Role of the SENCO, edited by Hallett and Hallett, Open University Press, Berkshire.
  • Schön, D. A., (1983), The Reflective Practitioner: how professionals think in action, London: Temple Smith.

More from Optimus

Webinar: High quality teaching in practice – what can the SENCO do? (Optimus members)

SENCO skills audit (Optimus members)


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