Not all students will be able to return to school in the coming weeks. SENCOs will be crucial to supporting those who can’t, writes Hannah Moloney

As most pupils returned to school this week, it is important to remember that not all children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are back full-time. Just last week, Ofsted released analysis and findings on how remote education is working for children and young people with SEND. The regulator recognised that some pupils with SEND are clinically vulnerable and some may continue to experience disruption to learning as schools close bubbles over the coming weeks.

Moreover, due to lack of availability of specialist placements, a significant number of pupils with SEND may not even have a setting to return to. The reality is that children and young people with SEND may continue to experience ongoing disruption to learning and require remote education or blended learning for some time to come.

In our 2020 SENCO survey of a thousand SENCOs about their experiences of SEND provision during the first lockdown, almost three quarters (73 per cent) of SENCOs stated their school experienced challenges with providing virtual support for children with SEND. In particular, they noted that differentiation was a significant challenge, especially at secondary.

The narrative of a ‘full return’ and the shift of focus on to face-to-face teaching has the potential to make that even more challenging for those at school and at home alike. To avoid that, it’s important to remember the basics still apply. SENCOs and teachers should be working together to think deeply about ‘accessibility’.

The narrative of a ‘full return’ could make things more challenging

Perhaps the greatest challenge for teachers and pupils with virtual learning is the clarity of communication required. Communication challenges will affect all pupils at times, but it is arguably more likely for those with SEND. While some pupils may really struggle with turning their camera on, anecdotally at least, it does seem to help with levels of engagement in learning, due to the increased connection with peers and teaching staff.

Regular, personalised communication is vital to overcoming many of the obstacles of online education. Schools are doing excellent work by making regular phone calls to families; others are buddying up SEND and inclusion staff with nominated students. Encouragingly, given that co-production with parents and carers is such an important aspect of SEND provision, 84 per cent of SENCOs said their focus on communicating with families became more important during the first lockdown.

Greater time spent building relationships with families to support children and young people’s school experiences could be a positive lasting legacy of our response to this crisis if schools choose to continue with this approach. But we should not be naïve to the very real and continued challenges to SENCO time and workload.

Over the past three years, our surveys have highlighted significant limitations to the efficacy of the SENCO role because of the demands of ever-increasing paperwork, as well as often decreasing time and teams. This has not been made any easier by risk assessments and changing local authority and government guidance throughout the pandemic. Our 2020 data also showed the pandemic further increased workload challenges, with many drawn away from their SENCO role to prioritise increased responsibilities in terms of safeguarding.

Safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility, however, and all staff should be active in their safeguarding responsibilities of pupils with SEND. In addition to the opportunities to monitor pupil wellbeing through online live lessons, tutors and class teachers could be calling home regularly to check on pupils and their families.

Our research consistently shows that providing enough protected time is crucial to ensuring meaningful SEND provision. That’s why nasen and Whole School SEND have produced their ‘Effective SENCO Deployment’ guide.

The key is to create the conditions for SENCOs to use their expertise to support others. Schools that enable their SENCOs to better prioritise the strategic development of SEND provision will undoubtedly find their pupils with SEND come through this pandemic the stronger for it, whether they’re learning at home or in school.