Government’s efforts to improve inclusion have instead created a race to the bottom in provision because SENCOs don’t have the time to deliver on its promise, writes Adam Boddison
In 2014, there were significant policy changes in England that sought to make our schools more inclusive for pupils with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND). These reforms came in the guise of the Children and Families Act 2014 and the SEND Code of Practice 2015, which did improve provision for some pupils.
The problem is that for too many pupils at the level of SEN Support – where the legal protections of an EHC (Education, Health and Care) plan do not exist – provision is insufficient to meet their needs. To put this in context, there are almost 1.1 million learners on SEN Support, representing around one in eight pupils.
This inclusion issue has arisen because the legislation and statutory guidance are not robust enough to protect the time and strategic influence that special educational needs coordinators (SENCOs) need. SENCOs are critical in ensuring that the necessary provision is in place for learners with SEND, but research conducted by Bath Spa University and special educational needs charity nasen, has consistently highlighted barriers preventing SENCOs from undertaking their role effectively.
In addition to the fact that they have insufficient protected time, the National SENCO Workforce Survey 2020: Time to Review 2018-2020 showed that SENCOs are routinely called upon to undertake non-SENCO duties and that they are not always able to influence strategic decision making.
The SEND Code of Practice is clear that SENCOs should be on a school’s senior leadership team (SLT), but it does not say that they must be, which means that only around half of SENCOs are. The National SENCO Workforce Survey provides evidence that primary school SENCOs are twice as likely than secondary SENCOs to be part of the leadership team, but they are less likely to receive any additional pay.
It is unsustainable to meet needs in this way
SENCOs are highly-qualified professionals. As well as being qualified teachers, they must complete the Masters-level National Award in SEN Coordination, and lots have other specialist SEND credentials too. Given this expertise, it is a national tragedy that the limited time SENCOs do have too often has to be spent on paperwork, rather than directly leading on improving inclusive teaching and learning in their schools. As far as possible, school leaders should look to lift the paperwork burden from SENCOs to avoid them becoming very expensive administrators.
Having remained steady for the previous decade, the proportion of pupils with EHC plans has increased from 2.8 to 3.7 per cent in the past five years. This increasing demand for EHC plans is indicative of the fact that legal protections are sought to ensure needs are met because SENCOs have insufficient time to coordinate provision for pupils at SEN Support.
The problem is that it is unsustainable to meet needs in this way. The sustainable alternative is to raise the level of provision that is ordinarily available in schools, which requires SENCOs to be given more time and for this time to be legally protected.
The government’s 2019 Education Committee report on SEND recommended that the cost implication of having a full-time SENCO in every school was explored. The rate of increases in time allocated for the SENCO role between 2018 and 2020 suggests it would take almost 150 years for primary school SENCOs to become full-time, and more than 40 years for their secondary peers. Likewise, it could take more than 30 years for SENCOs to have sufficient time to meet the needs of pupils on SEN Support unless the pace of change is rapidly accelerated.
The government does not currently stipulate the minimum time required to undertake the SENCO role. The risk of setting out such expectations is that there is a ‘race to the bottom’ with the minimum occurring in practice. And in reality, the lack of any legal protections on SENCO time means that there is no bottom, with significant variation between schools.
If we are serious about meeting the needs of learners with SEND, particularly those at SEN Support, then the time is right for the government to protect SENCO time by law.