After a pandemic-augmented two-year wait, the 106-page SEND green paper has finally arrived. It comes at the end of another exhausting term that I hesitate to call unprecedented because we are all tired of that word. “Living with Covid” has certainly not made things easier and, while reading the whole document on our well-deserved break may not be appealing, it’s vital we do. The 13-week consultation period is already under way.
The paper contains some thought-provoking facts that raise as many questions as they answer. Is the increase in children identified as requiring SEN support related to the pandemic, or was the pre-2016 decrease due to changes in thresholds and/or SENCOs’ workloads? Is the increase in EHCPs from 2.8 per cent in 2016 to 3.7 per cent last year a result of school closures, or would it have happened anyway?
The data can be used to show the need for change, and answering these questions could lead to strong, evidence-informed policy. Reassuringly, the executive summary acknowledges that, “particularly over the course of the pandemic, the system is driven by a hardworking and dedicated workforce”.
Sadly, not all its content is as motivational. Professionally drawn to the chapter on changes to qualifications for SENCOs, I was taken aback to read a quote to the effect that good SENCOs, while vital, are “almost impossible to find”. The ratio of headteachers to SENCOs must be nearly 1:1; yet imagine the uproar if a SENCO made a comparable comment about finding a good HT! If so many are struggling to do the job well, perhaps the problem is the job.
The section goes on to mention variability in relation to SENCOs’ experiences of the current NASENCO qualification, questions its provision of the knowledge and skills relevant for the role and acknowledges its separation from “wider teacher development reforms”. However, there is no recognition of individual differences in prior levels of qualification, time since last engaging in study, intrinsic motivation for the course, or amounts of release time SENCOs are given to engage in study.
Meanwhile, the “wider teacher development reforms” seem to refer mainly to the re-vamped NPQs launched this year, to the exclusion of other excellent CPD opportunities. Aligning with these new NPQs appears to be an article of faith that there will be no variability of experience with them, because policy solutions to limit that are absent.
Many SENCOs who are not currently sitting on (or paid as) SLT will welcome the promise of a new leadership component that will leave them “well-placed” to do so; and so they should. I wonder though whether, by the time this green paper turns white, then becomes a bill, and then an act of parliament (and who knows how long that will take), this ambition will have been lost in the process.
The code of practice and Ofsted already recommend that SENCOs should be part of SLT; more unenforceable guidance won’t make a difference. However, if it is outlined in a legal framework, then we must avoid a loophole that would allow a nominal SEND representative to sit on SLT while the qualified SENCO does the day-to-day work.
There is also a tweak to the timing for undertaking the qualification. Currently, anyone can be appointed as SENCO and must qualify within three years. Under the new regime, headteachers would have to ensure that their appointee is “in the process of obtaining the qualification” at the time of appointment. A lot will hinge on defining “in the process of”, and adjusting the funding structure accordingly.
Of all the proposals, the biggest cry of glee from SENCOs will come in response to the paper’s call for the provision of sufficient protected time and dedicated admin support. However, while the consultation asks for comment on the proposals for a new NPQ and requiring SENCOs to be on the way to obtaining it when they are appointed, there are none about how “sufficient protected time” will be calculated.
In the end, however, it’s getting this right that could have the biggest impact on children, families and the school workforce.