One of the key responsibilities of schools is to make reasonable adjustments to their educational provision so as to provide increased access of learning for students with special educational needs and / or disabilities (SEND). This is part of a broader obligation that schools have towards children and young adults: to eliminate discrimination, to improve equality of opportunity and to involve disabled people in decisions that might affect them.
It is against this backdrop that a school employs a Learning Support Coordinator (also known as the SEN Coordinator, or SENCo for short) to support and coach teachers to develop high-quality teaching for children with SEND.
In the UK, the Children and Families Act 2014 defines children as having special educational needs if they have a learning difficulty or disability that calls for special educational provision to be made for them. Only those children for whom it is necessary to make provision that is additional to or different from that normally available to children of the same age therefore, should be considered to have special educational needs. You can read about the most common special educational needs (SEN), along with their symptoms and strategies, in this article here.
From the outset, it must be pointed out that some students are wrongly identified as having SEN, when they are simply underachieving. In these cases, it is higher expectations and better teaching quality, which would prevent such misidentification.
The Role of the SENCo / Learning Support Coordinator
The SENCo is a leader, coordinator, strategic planner and an adviser to educational staff on meeting their responsibilities. Within this remit, the challenge of working with SEN is that of constant change and the necessity to adapt to both the needs of students and also the ways of evaluating student progress.
Having identified a student as having a special educational need, the first response should be high-quality differentiated teaching targeted at the student’s area of weakness. In this way, the SENCo has an important role in advising and supporting class teachers with planning suitable strategies.
A Model for Inclusive Practice
According to Barton (1997, pp. 233), ‘Inclusive education is about responding to diversity, it is about listening to unfamiliar voices, being open to empowering all members and celebrating differences in dignified ways.’ Successful inclusion is as much to do with attitudes and values as it is resources.
In order to facilitate inclusive education, schools need to have a good grasp of the ‘3 Waves’ model of teaching:
Wave 1 is High-quality teaching delivered through a well-differentiated curriculum that meets the needs of all students.
Wave 2 is for children who are underachieving, who are close to age-related expectations and will catch up with extra support such as booster classes.
Wave 3 requires increasingly personalised intervention to maximise progress and minimise gaps in achievement, using additional interventions or support.
The SENCo must support and coach teachers to make appropriate provision through high quality teaching according to each of these waves of intervention. This can mean:
- Helping class and subject teachers to understand the principles of effective differentiation
- Encouraging teachers and teaching assistants to use formative assessment practices to focus on meeting the needs of all students
- Ensuring all class and subject teachers raise any concerns with their SENCo that they may have where high-quality teaching is not meeting a child’s needs.
- Helping teachers to plan for good behaviour and guiding them to deploy support staff effectively
Supporting class teachers in assessing the impact of interventions, undertaking further assessment where necessary and providing advice on additional strategies
Ultimately, the SENCo is aiming to enable teaching staff to find the solutions from within their own resources, rather than the SENCo being seen as a rescuer. They do this by equipping teachers with a range of appropriate strategies to the meet the majority of students’ needs. This enhances long-term high-quality teaching and avoids the ‘sticking plaster’ approach.
The purpose of this support and coaching that SENCos provide is to close, as far as possible, the attainment gap between students with SEN and their peers; to empower them to learn how to learn and to fulfil high expectations of their individual potential.
Important Considerations for the SENCo:
- Children with English as an Additional Language (EAL)
Children for whom English is not their first language may still be developing their bilingual ability. At the early stages of this process, access to the curriculum can be a challenge. These children do not necessarily have a learning difficulty – and, if they are at the early stages of learning English, they should not be considered as having a special educational need (SEN). Indeed, schools should look carefully at all aspects of a child’s performance and learning, to establish whether lack of learning is due to limitations in their command of English, SEN or both. In the process of identifying a student with a special educational need, it can be necessary to encourage the child to use their own language as well as English.
- Involving Parents
Speaking to the child’s parents is essential. It will be important to find out how long the child has been learning English and how the child functions using their home language.
- Able or Gifted Students
Schools should have a separate policy for able and gifted students, and curriculum planning should take account of such students. They should not be seen as having SEN.
Able or gifted students do, however, require a differentiated curriculum. Their needs should be identified and met by providing opportunities for extension and problem-solving, and a challenging delivery of the curriculum.
- In-class or Pull-out?
There is some debate about how best to deliver additional provision, inside a busy classroom or as a pull-out support. There is no right or wrong answer. The needs of the child must be considered as well as where most effective learning will take place. When making such decisions, it is important to consider other factors such as the child’s emotional and social well-being. Sometimes, for example, withdrawal may affect the student’s self-image. Younger children rarely mind being taken out in a group because their need for extra attention may be greater. With older students, it is best to negotiate individually.
Although children may well have some focused and time-limited teaching outside of the classroom for a specific purpose, they should not be separated from their teacher or peers at length. Teachers must also make clear links between the learning that takes place inside and outside of the classroom, to reinforce inclusion of the child through the learning.
- Deployment of Support Staff
As a consequence of working with teaching assistants, one-to-one and in groups, often outside of the classroom, students with SEND can be increasingly separated from the teacher and their peers and can risk losing their curriculum entitlement.
- Training of Teaching Assistants
Research into interactions of teachers and assistant teachers have revealed significant differences (Russel, Webster & Blatchford, 2013). Teaching Assistants frequently gave too much help, provided answers to their own questions and most frequently used closed (rather than open) questions. They tended to be more concerned with completion of tasks than whether or not students were learning anything new. In fact, many students developed ‘learned helplessness’ and over-reliance on teaching assistants.
Such evidence-based research must be kept in mind when training teaching assistants to ensure they are properly facilitating the learning of students with SEND. This training involves teaching assistants using precise questioning, response and feedback skills (based on scaffolding), to help learners achieve learning goals and carry out tasks independently.
- Giving students a voice
Ofsted (2010) found that children and young people learn better when they have a say in deciding the support they need at any particular time, including when they like to be left alone. SENCos often become skilled interpreters of students’ wishes and advocates for them.
Taking account of the child’s feelings and preferences should start as young as possible. This is in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)(Articles 12 and 13), stating that children and young people must be part of the decision-making process with regard to all aspects of their learning, in so far as this is possible. After all, they have a unique knowledge of their needs and their perspectives should be taken into account.
In the beginning, their views will be represented by those who work closely with them, mainly through observations in different settings (across a variety of activities with different adults). The observer can note levels of engagement in an activity, and signs of enjoyment or distress, and interaction with other children and adults.
- Transition Periods
Transitions, for example, changing classes and year groups, can be difficult for some children. The SENCo needs to take a strong lead in anticipating potential areas of difficulty in a particular transition and plan, with the child, parents and staff, as appropriate, how these barriers can be overcome.
- The Management of SEN Records
The SENCo must compile the register of all students with SEND in collaboration with class and subject teachers who will alert the SENCo regarding any concerns about students. This list can be a valuable tool to keep track of students from a SEND viewpoint and in terms of their wider outcomes. Holding this information together in a single place, the ‘list’ becomes an organic tool that tracks information about students with SEND. It is also a powerful strategic tool to help schools to monitor how inclusive their provision is, the progress students are making and the effectiveness of SEN resources that are additional to or different from the highly differentiated curriculum.
- Keeping track of negative indicators
The SENCo must check that students with SEND are not over-represented in negative indicators such as exclusions, poor attendance and bullying. If they are, these concerns should be raised with school leadership and management.
SENCos are change agents with significant roles to play in education. In the process of facilitating teaching and learning of students with special educational needs and / or disabilities, SENCos must be reflective practitioners, able to hold meaningful discussions with colleagues, students and parents that influence school action. By doing so, SENCOs can develop the attitudes and expertise of staff, strengthening their teaching practice and ethos, which will enable schools to be inclusive, engaging and effectives places for all students.
Barton, L. (1997) Inclusive education: Romantic, subversive or realistic? International Journal of Inclusive Education, 1(3), pp. 233-248.
Cowne, E., Frankl, C., Gerschel, L. (2019) The SENCo Handbook: Leading & Managing a Whole School Approach. 7th Edition.
Blatchford, P., Webster, R., and Russel, A. (2012b) Challenging the Role and Deployment of Teaching Assistants in Mainstream Schools – Final Report on the Effective Deployment of Teaching Assistants (EDTA) Project. London: Institute of Education.
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