The Knowledge

How are SENDCOs managing amid rising pressures?

New research reveals the pressures of escalating need and insufficient resource – but diverging views of the SENDCO role also cause problems

New research reveals the pressures of escalating need and insufficient resource – but diverging views of the SENDCO role also cause problems

4 Mar 2024, 5:00

“Budget! Escalating needs!”

This staccato three-word response from one SEND professional well sums up the stress and pressure school leaders feel about this area at this time.

The reply came to a question in Judicium’s new survey of SENDCOs and school leaders working in England’s schools about how personally exposed they felt by SEND regulations.

At a time when government statistics show that more than 1.5 million pupils are now classified as having special educational needs, our findings reveal that two-thirds of SENDCOs feel current regulations leave them vulnerable.

It’s clear that SENDCOs and senior leaders need access to more support and advice if they are to be totally confident in their SEND provision in the future. But while feeling exposed is a consistent finding, there are revealing discrepancies too.

While 65 per cent of SENDCOs felt exposed in this way, just under half of senior leaders (47 per cent) reported feeling the same. This suggests a disconnect between SENDCOs and other leaders. Senior leaders in primaries (54 per cent) were more likely to feel exposed compared to their peers in secondaries (40 per cent).

Senior leaders felt exposed because of challenge from parents/carers, constrained resources and the difficulty of balancing SEND priorities with other whole-school strategic work. SENDCOs cited a lack of resourcing within the school for SEND and external agencies being unwilling or unable to provide support.

The survey also revealed that high workload, lack of funds and emotional trauma were the top three factors contributing to the lack of SENDCO retention, with headteachers and senior leaders more optimistic that their SENDCOs will stay in their roles than SENDCOs themselves.

There was consensus across all school types and phases when ranking the top three most challenging SENDCO responsibilities: EHCPs, managing SEND budgets and the physical health of children with SEND.

Almost two-fifths of SENDCOs are not on SLT

And our findings showed that some staff lack knowledge around SEND, even SENDCOs, with 12 per cent of all senior leaders reporting they were either ‘not very knowledgeable’ or ‘not knowledgeable at all’ when supporting children with SEND. Just over a third of SENDCOs (34 per cent) said they were ‘quite knowledgeable’ about supporting children with SEND, while 13 per cent reported they were only ‘quite familiar’ with how their school supported children with SEND.

Our survey, carried out towards the end of 2023, questioned more than 600 professionals with responsibility for, or overview of, children with SEND and services linked to SEND. One-third of the respondents were SENDCOs, with headteachers and other senior leaders accounting for two-thirds of responses.

Other key findings included that 81 per cent of SENDCOs report they have responsibilities outside of SEND. The main additional responsibility for 77 per cent of SENDCOs is teaching, followed by safeguarding, a huge role in itself carried out by half of SENDCOs.

Almost two-fifths of SENDCOs are not on SLT, which could reduce how effectively they can strategically lead SEND. And the resulting high workload – a combination of SEND responsibilities, additional roles in school and, in some cases, senior leadership tasks – could negatively impact SENDCO retention and drastically reduce the quality of support provided to SEND children.

We also found that senior leaders and SENDCOs contrast in their understanding of SENDCO responsibilities. Senior leaders put referrals as the number one SENDCO responsibility while SENDCOs choose identifying children with SEND.

Referrals typically take more time and resources to complete compared to identifying children with SEND, and this could make SLTs overestimate the amount of time SENDCOs have. This could show a lack of clarity of who is responsible for certain types of SEND provision and where to focus efforts, leading to confusion between senior leaders, SENDCOs and TAs. In turn, that could negatively affect SEND children’s outcomes due to inefficient tracking and monitoring of SEND children’s needs.

It’s clear that there are a range of issues facing SENDCOs and senior school leaders – challenges brought into sharp relief by the significant increases in children being classified with SEND and constrained budgets. The emphatic message from our data is that schools need additional support and training alongside much-needed funding to address those challenges, and address them swiftly.

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