When SENCOs are hard to reach


Being a SENCO (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator) is hard. A casual glance through the Code of Practice (CoP, 2015) – all 292 pages of it – brings home the sheer breadth of responsibilities the job entails, some of which are firmly secured in law. So they’re not even optional.

Not all duties are fixed, of course, but generally you have to be able to identify and assess a range of special educational needs, instruct class teachers on how to include a diversity of learners in the curriculum, engage specialists, ensure the effective deployment of support staff, advise about budgets, keep records up-to-date, work with the school governors and the senior management team, understand and apply the law, plan and implement effective transitions. And, of course, liaise with parents.

All of this might be doable if SENCOs were assigned to the role full-time, perhaps with an assistant to help deal with the copious paperwork. But as research has shown, and my own PhD study substantiated, SENCOs may well be expected to fulfil a multiplicity of roles, including class teaching and additional management responsibilities.

This was brought home to me when I was trying to recruit schools for my PhD study, which focused on the education of autistic children in primary schools within a single local authority in England. For example, dedicated emails, with a personalised letter attached, remained unanswered. After then phoning the 45 primary schools, usually more than once, I eventually managed to speak to 13 SENCOs only – so that’s less than a third in total. The main reasons were that the SENCOs were in class, or only worked part-time. Five of the SENCOs were off sick (for more than a few days), and for six of the schools, I wasn’t even able to leave a message for the SENCO, let alone get through to speak to the person.

You have to wonder about the impact of this problem with contact on parents of children with SEND (special educational needs and disabilities), who might not be very confident about getting in touch with SENCOs in the first place, or are too busy to phone repeatedly during office hours. And yet one of the more encouraging aspects of the oft-cited ‘SEND reforms’ is an emphasis on parental engagement, and the importance of securing the agreement of parents on arrangements for their children. It’s clearly stated in the Children and Families Act (2014), for example, and asserted repeatedly in the CoP (2015). It might be painfully slow, but gradually attitudes might be shifting away from presenting parents as ‘the problem’ to be managed by school staff, towards recognising that they may well have a level of understanding the SENCO – who can only fulfil such a complex role with great difficulty – cannot possibly match.

So it was disappointing to see a piece in the TES, in which three categories of ‘challenging parent’ are set out: ‘angry’, ‘pandering’ and ‘non-engaging’. No matter how well-intentioned, it seems like a retrograde step to refer to parents in this frankly patronising manner. It also directly contradicts a piece I wrote for the TES myself, in 2016, where I warned against such an attitude. And when I worked as an autism education practitioner, I liaised with many families, and not once did I encounter one which was ‘hard to reach’. Fed up with professionals interfering with their lives – yes. Too overloaded to answer non work-related calls – yes. Sceptical about the benefits professionals might bring – yes. But hard to reach – no.

The SENCOs who eventually took part in my own study were an invaluable resource. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that without the SENCOs, I wouldn’t have a PhD. But they seemed very stretched, with one part-time SENCO, for example, expected to carry the workload of her full-time, but long-term absent colleague. Meanwhile, parents tended to be problematised, especially if they challenged the status quo.

Therefore, given the circumstances I have described, it doesn’t seem like too much of a leap to conjecture that only the most biddable of parents will be considered sufficiently ‘unchallenging’ by SENCOs feeling the not inconsiderable strain of their role. Moreover, the range of a SENCO’s responsibilities might mean that they become, in a very real sense, ‘hard to reach’ themselves.