Since 2018 Bath Spa University, in collaboration with nasen, have been researching the role of the Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO). The research has explored the changing demographic of the SENCO role and has considered the barriers and enablers which impact on the effective facilitation of the role. The intention of the work is to provide the evidence-base required for system change, with a clear focus on securing the best outcomes for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). In 2018 the first National SENCO Workload Survey was launched and received over 1900 responses. The findings from the research culminated in the report It’s about time: The impact of SENCO workload on the professional and the school (Curran et al., 2018). The initial survey was followed up in 2019, with the findings published in the January 2020 report The time is now: Addressing missed opportunities for special educational needs support and coordination in our schools (Curran et al., 2020).
The third survey launched in the autumn of 2020. However, a crucial difference with this survey was the exceptional time period during which it was taking place. During the global pandemic we know that schools have worked tirelessly to support children and young people, facing daily challenges, difficult decisions and changing national guidance. Every corner of education has been affected by the crisis. As a result, the SENCO survey 2020 focused not only on the experiences of the workforce, but also their experiences as SENCOs during the pandemic.
The survey opened just before the start of the autumn term and was open until early October. Over 1000 SENCOs responded to the research, with the majority working in mainstream schools (84%). The report was published on 19th January 2021 and focuses on the first period of national lockdown in March 2020 to the initial wider reopening of schools in September 2020.
The report highlights that almost three-quarters of SENCOs felt that their school experienced challenges with providing virtual support for children and young people with SEND during this period. This is perhaps unsurprising, when over 70% of SENCOs also reported that the access children and young people had to IT hardware, and data, was a challenge, with one SENCO stating, ‘The lack of IT in our community was the biggest barrier to anything we wanted to do’.
However, it wasn’t just access to IT that was difficult. Nearly three-quarters of SENCOs reported that ensuring children and young people were able to access appropriately differentiated work online was challenging for their schools. SENCOs also found it difficult to support teachers in this area. However, this is not a new issue. In 2018, the first SENCO Workload project found that nearly three-quarters of SENCOs stated that they do not have enough time to ensure that pupils on SEN Support are able to access the provision that they need, with the Education Select Committee in 2019 further stating that children’s needs at this level are often not met.
The research also highlighted how the SENCO role has been impacted by the pandemic. This has included additional teaching, taking on more a of senior leadership role and an increased focus on their safeguarding responsibilities. Yet, prior to the pandemic, SENCOs already felt as if they did not have enough time for the role, with nearly three-quarters citing lack of time as an issue in 2019.
Access to wider support has been problematic during the pandemic, with only 1 in 10 SENCOs happy with the support that they have received. Nearly two-thirds would have liked more support from central government and over half would have liked more support from the local authority. SENCOs particularly cited the completion of risk assessments as time-consuming and problematic. SENCOs reported that they needed clear and consistent guidance, delivered at a time which enabled them to plan effectively for their school community. Yet in addition to this, SENCOs reported concerns regarding the potential long term impact on children, stating that due to the pandemic children may be waiting even longer to access specialist support.
Despite the challenges highlighted by this research, there are also some notable positives. 84% of SENCOs felt that their school had demonstrated strengths with consistent communication with families during this period, noting that this is something that they wanted to continue to focus on in the future, with one SENCO commenting, ‘I hope to continue to build upon [the relationships with families] as it has been invaluable in building trust, understanding needs and building on a child and family centred approach.’
Overall, the research suggests that the global pandemic has exposed the existing crisis in SEND, and amplified challenges that SENCOs already faced. Moving forward it is imperative that SENCOs are given the time that they need to facilitate their role effectively, to enable them to focus on the development of effective SEND provision in their schools.