About the Role of a SENCo
The role of a Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCo) is always interesting and impossible to explain succinctly. Everyone has an idea about the role of a teacher but that’s only a small part of a SENCo’s job. The breadth of the role is specific to the school you are in and the needs of your children. Relationships are key to the role (as with teaching) but for a SENCo the reach is wider: you need to develop positive relationships with the children, staff, parents, outside agencies, governors, and leadership teams so that you can achieve and maintain support for children.
In the early days I also learned that part of my role was to manage expectations for children, parents and professionals. At this point I have a big confession – I am a rescuer. If I can see a way of making things easier for someone, I will do it. This is how I became so interested in Special Needs. I was fascinated by how I could help this group of children to achieve, to discover their barriers and help to overcome them and to celebrate with them when they did well. However, as SENCo I soon realised people come from many directions. Some staff expected me to teach all the SEND children or to have interventions that removed them from class; some children expected me to be with them all the time and struggled to share that time with others; some parents expected their child to have every intervention possible and to get an EHCP. And I really don't like disappointing people. The biggest part of my job was to develop relationships with our whole school community, to be visible, and to chip away at misconceptions; to deliver workshops and CPD for all staff to explain our provision and my role within it; and all the while continuing to nurture those core relationships.
As a rescuer, I find it challenging to maintain a strategic view, but this is a crucial part of the SENCo role. We need to have a clear vision for SEND children in our schools. This means having an overview of the interventions in place and their impact; monitoring progress of individuals; maintaining the SEND register so that we can target the interventions effectively; having oversight of the budget; planning professional development around SEND; providing progress data and analysis to the Local Authority and Governors (and OfSTED when they visit); keeping up to date with statutory paperwork and making all the necessary referrals; supporting teachers to implement programmes or recommendations from outside agencies; and developing consistent transition routines for our vulnerable children. It is a broad and varied role, which is why it is important to maintain that strategic view for your school.
There are also the hands-on and practical elements: supporting colleagues with specific needs; ensuring the ‘assess, plan, do, review’ process is happening; working with parents and staff to make EHCP applications; responding within timescales to consultations; liaising with parents and providing support for parents; liaising with outside agencies; being in the playground to meet and greet children and provide soft starts to manage transitions; leading small interventions and assessments: maintaining the staff appraisals process for support staff; ensuring there are consistent visuals being used across the school; and providing SEMH support (THRIVE) for children and staff. Since 2014, SENCos are required to hold a professional MA level qualification, involving research and two academic papers, which I completed in March.
That’s how my role looked before March 2020.
What happened in Lockdown?
In 48 hours, this was all turned on its head. Face to face relationships with outside agencies, each of them reeling from the changes, were now conducted at arm's-length through phone calls/ virtual meetings. These agencies took the opportunity to catch up on report writing and send them to me, and I learned how to ‘Zoom’ and ’Skype’ so that meetings with the Local Authority could still go ahead and new EHCPs could be issued. I phoned and emailed children and families, inviting them in as part of our vulnerable group and planning the additional support they would need. I completed risk assessments for children in school or at home and provided information to the Local Authority and DfE on which children were attending and what actions we were taking to encourage those who weren’t. I continued to write referrals and collated information on any Mental Health and Wellbeing support available to parents, posting it on our website and emailing it to families. I responded to emails from parents, many of whom were experiencing high anxiety and finding the situation very challenging, offering them daily support. I worked with SLT to coordinate the staff team effort to stay connected to our children using video and postcards. With some vulnerable and Key Worker children in school, we covered staff breaks, did the admin in the absence of office staff, staying open over the holidays so there was provision in place for the children who needed it.
Parents, children, and staff were scared. My role was to reassure, to let them know ‘we are still here’ and offer consistent, calm support.
As we welcomed more children back to school, I was involved in the planning of the additional safeguards, routines and signs for everyone to follow. We set up the school during the May half term to ensure everything was ready for the increasing number of children and staff on site. Our staff have been amazing, and my Head and Deputy have been strong and supportive in their relentless determination to do the best we can for our children. Our Deputy learned how to set up a blog for our school community and we all learned to ‘Loom’ to put the content on so children could see us and stay connected.
The announcement of the wider opening brought its own challenges. It raised expectations of parents, who are living in challenging circumstances, with their SEND children at home. Despite everything we had done, some parents were frustrated when we couldn’t meet their expectations. Not all schools were able to open to Yr6, Yr1 and Reception and Nursery children and meet the social distancing guidelines. Some parents were anxious and didn’t want their children to attend, and some parents were simply exhausted and needed to vent. For many families, the pandemic has highlighted the lack of resources in SEND nationally and they needed someone to talk to.
But there were some truly golden moments: children who flourished in the small group situation in school, parents who really appreciated how hard our staff were working; ‘Kindness photos’ sent in by families to cheer people up; sometimes just the cheery waves and smiles from everyone in school as they navigated the madness.
September 2020 and beyond...
Although it has been a steep learning curve, we were in a good position for September. We had to think creatively about our transition processes. We sent photos, inviting children (who weren’t attending) in after school to have a tour of the school and see all the changes and posting welcome videos from new teachers. More was done in the week before the children returned to nurture those relationships.
Whole school opening brings its own risks because of the number of people on site. However, we have developed plans in line with guidance, including staggered starts, ends and breaks. Cleaning regimes were all in place for term 6 so this is becoming the norm for staff, and more children will become involved. It will be a team effort, and our whole school community will need to work together to keep each other safe. Communication will continue to be vital in managing the emotions of families, which range from thinking all the safeguards are ridiculous to wanting really strict safeguards in place.
The most important part of welcoming our children back is making sure they feel safe. We know they won’t be able to learn without this. This is particularly important for our children with SEND who may communicate their fears in very different ways, and our team are alert to this and focused on wellbeing. Children need space to air their worries and experiences in their own way when they are ready. My team and I are in the playground in the mornings and provide soft starts for those who need it. I am also maintaining contact with children who are not able to return. We now have an established online system and we post weekly videos for those children based around THRIVE activities.
Creativity and gratitude are so important to the recovery process for the whole school community. We have a real opportunity to continue to build on the relationships we had to nurture in different ways during lockdown. We know we can adapt and rise to the occasion. The Autumn term will be busy, but never dull!