Considering I had no intention of becoming a teacher, it’s very interesting how almost all of my experience as an educator has been spent supporting children with Special Educational Needs. Despite having considerable experience working with young people through various roles, this baby faced 22 year old had no prior experience working with children who had special educational needs. What’s more, I had never worked in a typical school setting. I had supported young people through sports and youth work but never in a school setting so my first role as a one-to-one for a non-verbal autistic child was a life-changing induction.
In the early days of my career, I had supported autistic children and children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and SEMH (Social Emotional and Mental Health concerns). I loved every minute of it. I loved the relationships I developed with my students, my contribution towards their academic success and my influence on their wellbeing. It made me aware of the barriers to learning and the lack of understanding teachers had regarding these barriers. Ultimately, it opened my eyes to the lack of support both students, teachers and families received in mainstream schools when supporting children with complex needs.
These revelations inspired me to pursue the SENCO qualification very early on in my teaching career but my first and most crucial decision was to first secure a teaching position in a special school for children with SEMH (Social, Emotional and Mental Health issues). A strange but well-informed decision for a Newly Qualified Teacher.
Unlike mainstream schools, there isn’t a statutory requirement for specialist schools to have a Special Educational Needs Coordinator. Some may argue this makes very little sense considering a school exclusively for children with SEN requires a coordinator even more than a mainstream school. Fair point.
However, when you understand the roles and responsibilities of staff in SEN schools you realise there is a shared responsibility for the provision of children with SEN. When this is the case, there is an acceptance that everyone is a teacher of children with SEN. This is how it should be.
The responsibilities of middle and senior leaders more often than not include an area of responsibility that a SENCO would typically do. For example, the head of school may arrange and facilitate the annual reviews and the head of departments may liaise with external agencies like the speech and language therapists or the educational psychologist service.
Despite the shared responsibility of the SENCO role amongst various staff at my school, I made the decision to apply for my National Award in Special Educational Needs Coordination (NASENCO) in my first year of teaching. As If I didn’t have enough on my plate. I devised a 5-year plan for my teaching career and highlighted the NASENCO as the professional development necessary for the roles I wanted in the future. It was an unusual decision because, as I mentioned earlier, my school did not have a SENCO and had functioned for 25 years without a formal SENCO in place. Furthermore, I knew the training would provide me with research, strategies and resources that could be applied to an environment lacking in fresh ideas. With my mind very much made up, I enrolled onto the postgraduate course and qualified as a SENCO in my second year of teaching.
Whilst training to be a SENCO, I conducted a research study that focused on an area of improvement for the school. I focused my research study on the poor engagement of parents in their child’s learning and the poor communication between the school and its parents. The research process and its findings presented an opportunity to create a solution to a problem that could improve pupil outcomes. The following year, I used the findings of the research to create a parental engagement initiative that was named “Coffee mornings”. Parents came into school to share ideas and concerns whilst eating biscuits and drinking tea. It was perfect.
It’s been a number of years since I took on the challenge of being a SENCO in an all through specialist school. There are 80 children altogether across Key stage 1 – 4 and each and every student has an Educational Health Care plan. In one way, you can say my role is made easier because my students arrive at my school with educational health care plans so no assessments are needed. However, there are 80 students that still require the very best service and to do this, you need everyone on board, playing their part.
A huge part of my role is ensuring that the need of every child is being met and the necessary provisions are in place to meet those needs. One of the best decisions I made was to buy in to Provision Map created by Edukey. This allowed me to list what provisions we had available to our children and create the ones we needed according to our children’s needs. The obvious provisions are one-to-one support, mentoring, speech and language therapy etc. Then there are some provisions that are a lot more niche and bespoke such as Lego therapy, music therapy and bereavement counselling. The provision map tool allowed you to list these provisions on a database, assign relevant provisions to each child and review the success of these provisions. A dream.
My personal expectation for senior leaders is a high level of teaching ability and a clear understanding of learning. This is no different for me as a SENCO. I’ve been fortunate to spend 5 years of my teaching profession educating children with SEN and I’m currently teaching a year 6 class. My experience and qualifications make me somewhat of an expert in my field – one who can and will get better of course. I use my skills and knowledge to support my teaching assistants and colleagues in areas of teaching and learning and behaviour for learning. This is by far my favourite part of being a leader – the empowerment of others. This can be as simple and as organic as conversations in the corridor and it can be as formal as CPD training delivered by myself or by an external agency. As a class teacher myself, I’m never too far removed from my teachers and I embrace leading by example and setting the standard I expect from others. Class teachers have the opportunity to team teach with me and I make myself available to support them in their planning and resourcing.
But it’s not all about the teachers. The silent and underappreciated heroes of our great profession are the teaching assistants. Being a former teaching assistant, I can appreciate the contributions made by our TAs when it comes to supporting children with SEN. I’m also aware that unlike teachers, TAs do not get the same level of support in their professional development. Line managing TAs to teach intervention groups is one thing. It’s important and it’s very well needed but it’s the role of a manager. Recognising the strengths of your teaching assistants and putting them forward for training that will benefit the students, the school and their career is another thing entirely. That is leadership.
In September, I will begin my new role of Assistant Head in a mainstream community school as Head of Inclusion. I believe my experience as a teacher and SENCO in an all through specialist school will make me well placed to support the school’s aim in being inclusive. Unfortunately, in many mainstream schools, there is far too much pressure on the SENCO to ensure high quality education for children with SEN in the school. This is what they will be judged on and rightfully so but there should be a shared responsibility of all staff in a school to create an inclusive environment for its children with SEN.
I’m looking forward to supporting my SENCO, teachers and teaching assistants in making this possible. I’m looking forward to spotting talent within my staff and empowering those who are struggling and I’m looking forward to strategically planning for the provision of all children across the school, particularly those groups who are far too often excluded and marginalised.
I was under no illusion that the role of a SENCO would be hard but the wisdom I’ve gained and the lives I’ve affected has made it well worth the journey.