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SEN Support within mainstream schools

by Bernadette John

SENIt comes as no surprise to us to learn from a survey that three-quarters of special educational needs co-ordinators (SENCos) say they do not have enough time to cater for the needs of children on SEN Support within mainstream schools.  More shocking is that nearly 60 per cent said they didn’t have time to ensure provision was in place for pupils with more severe needs who have Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs).  This is a failure of statutory duty, since EHCP holders – unlike those on SEN Support - have a legal entitlement to the level of support specified in their Plan.

The survey was carried out among more than 1,900 SENCos by the NEU teaching union, Bath Spa University and special needs charity Nasen. 

It backs what we hear anecdotally through our consultancy service, where we deal with daily  calls from parents trying to negotiate the system of SEN support in their school, and who are frustrated at seeing their child floundering while apparently little is being done to help them.

For their part the SENCos say the job is unmanageable – half of the respondents said they worked the equivalent of at least an extra day a week to try to keep up with the demands of the job, and 78 per cent said they were routinely pulled away from their SENCo responsibilities to deal with other tasks.

At the heart of the problem lies the fact that while every state school must have an appointed SENCo, there is no legal requirement for the hours per week he or she should dedicate to the role.  As budgets are savaged, schools can reduce SENCo time at will.

Among the survey respondents, the most common amount of SENCo time given in primary school was a mere 0.5 to 1 day a week; averages in secondary were 3 to 3.5 days.  Alarmingly five per cent of secondary SENCos had no time at all allocated to carry out their tasks.

While parents might spare a thought for beleaguered SENCos, it’s unreasonable to expect them to watch their children suffer and fail to progress as they should owing to inadequate support.

The report’s authors believe the answer is to enshrine in law the allocation of at least 1.5 days of SENCo time per week, with funding for this ring-fenced so that heads can provide it.  This might be a step in the right direction, but for us is too simplistic an approach.  The schools that do well by children with SEN attract like a magnet meaning that SENCo becomes overwhelmed.  Instead SENCo time should be allocated, and funding provided, according to the numbers of children on roll requiring this support.

Until this happens – if it ever does – there are ways to gauge the quality of support on offer in any potential new school.  Ask the SENCo specifically how much of her timetable is allocated to the role – as it can vary from none to full-time, and you can guess which one your child is better off with.

You should also ask the SENCo whether she is on the senior leadership team – this means she has the head’s ear, and is in a stronger position to fight for a share of straitened budgets.

And always ask the SENCo how long she has been in post.  By law, all SENCOs must obtain a masters level qualification in special needs within three years in post.  What we find is that the less committed schools get around this by rotating the job among staff every two years.

You should also look closely at the head.  You want to find one who believes that his or her school has a responsibility to children of all abilities, and wants to give those with SEN every means to achieve as the rest of their peers. 

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