Effective SEND provision: Four key leadership roles

Written by: Professor Adam Boddison | Published:
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SEND provision in a school is everyone’s responsibility, including senior leaders and governors. Professor Adam Boddison outlines four key areas where effective leadership is crucial for effective SEND provision

The SEND Code of Practice (DfE, 2014) is clear that SEND is everybody’s responsibility. In addition to all teachers, this includes all leaders. There is no absolute consensus on the best way to share the strategic responsibility for SEND between SENCOs, headteachers, governors and other stakeholders, but four helpful themes to consider are: co-production, “Think SEND!”, SENCO deployment, and ethical decision-making.


One of the central aims of the Children and Families Act 2014 was to ensure that services consistently placed learners with SEND and their families at the centre of the decision-making process. This includes ensuring there is a clear approach that involves the participation of children and young people and their parents/carers in making decisions about how best to support their SEND at both an individual and strategic level.

Involving children and young people and parents/carers as equal and meaningful partners goes beyond compliance and moves closer towards genuine co-production.

Effective co-production can bring many benefits, both to the school and to the families involved. When co-production is working well, families are proactively engaged, with their knowledge, skills and experience used to shape and make the services delivered in schools more effective.

Think SEND!

Think SEND! is a concept designed to avoid the unintended consequences of leadership decisions (at both headteacher and board level) and to ensure that SEND remains the responsibility of all leaders and governors.

Having an individual role focused on SEND emphasises its importance, but this should be an enhancement to the SEND responsibilities of leaders and governors, not a replacement for it.

The challenge of SEND genuinely being everybody’s responsibility is an issue that can occur at all levels of our education system. Within schools for example, teachers will sometimes feel it is the role of the SENCO or a teaching assistant to be responsible for pupils with SEND.

However, the SEND Code of Practice is clear that every teacher is a teacher of SEND; teachers are responsible for the progress and attainment of every pupil in the class.

The role of the SENCO is, as the title suggests, to coordinate provision and to be a source of more specialist advice and guidance. Similarly, the role of the SEND governor, who may or may not have professional expertise in SEND and inclusion, is to support the wider board in discharging its duties and ensuring that SEND remains a strategic priority, rather than taking on the entire responsibility for SEND individually.

At a political level, the appointment of a specific ministerial post with responsibility for SEND (namely the children’s minister) brings with it the risk that the secretary of state for education delegates all SEND matters to that minister. This potentially leads to a situation where the education system is designed to work for most children, but then has to be retrospectively adapted to work for children with SEND.

In practice, what works well for pupils with SEND is often effective for all pupils. Therefore, it makes sense to design an inclusive system from the outset, with SEND built-in to the decision-making process, including the decisions made at board level by trustees and school governors.

Whether it be governance professionals, headteachers, teachers or ministers, the principle of Think SEND! should apply in all cases. In practical terms, it involves proactively thinking about pupils with SEND in relation to every decision that is made.

When strategic decisions are being made about anything at all, time should be taken to reflect on how that decision might affect pupils with SEND. At the simplest level, this means considering whether it will improve or diminish their experience.

Most likely, it will affect different groups in different ways, but having this nuanced level of understanding will be crucial in making decisions that are as inclusive as possible.

It is perhaps obvious to think about pupils with SEND for decisions where there is a direct contextual link, such as decisions about the financial resource allocated for teaching assistants or the introduction of a sensory room. However, the principle of Think SEND! applies to all decisions, not just those that will overtly affect pupils with SEND. For example:

  • Changing the timings of the school day.
  • Approving curriculum structure and content.
  • Amending policies, such as homework, behaviour or complaints.
  • Selecting providers, such as for a new website or grounds maintenance.
  • Agreeing staff-pupil ratios.

SENCO deployment

Too many SENCOs have no option but to spend the vast majority of their time on paperwork, which risks them becoming a very expensive administrator.

Headteachers can support their SENCOs by giving careful thought to the team around the SENCO. This is not just about reducing the burden of administration, it is also about securing a pipeline for effective succession planning as there is a significant level of “SENCO churn” in the sector.

Where practical, headteachers should seriously consider appointing an assistant or deputy SENCO, since this would help both with workload and succession planning. This is also important in helping to ensure that SENCOs do not become isolated.

There are several other roles that operate around and interact with the SENCO role, which could be adapted to allow the SENCO to be deployed more strategically. They include teaching assistants (particularly higher-level teaching assistants and those with specialist qualifications/interests), senior mental health leaders, curriculum leaders and pastoral leaders.

Ethical decision-making

It is the role of all leaders and governors to do what is right, rather than what is easy. In situations where decision-makers are faced with a moral dilemma, they may choose to apply the “3P Filter”, a concept discussed by Mark Schwartz, an associate professor of business ethics from Canada (2017).

Essentially, the 3P Filter consists of three core tests designed to analyse the moral and ethical reasoning of a particular decision:

  • Public test (sometimes known as the newspaper test).
  • Parent test (sometimes known as the child test).
  • Pillow test (sometimes known as the sleep test).

The public test involves thinking about how you would feel if your decision was reported on the front page of a national newspaper, laid bare to the general public, your friends, colleagues and family.

Prof Schwartz argues that thought should be given as to whether you would feel comfortable knowing that you would be judged on your decision in this way or whether such a public disclosure would bring shame or embarrassment.

The parent test involves thinking about what advice you would give to your own child (or another close member of the family) if they were faced with the same choice. This type of thinking can help to depersonalise the process by allowing you to remove any personal or historical “baggage” from the scenario.

Prof Schwartz suggests that a commonly observed feature of this type of reflection is that people generally have higher expectations of their child’s behaviour than they do of their own, which consequently raises the bar.

The pillow test is perhaps the simplest, yet most effective, of the three tests. Put simply, this is about whether your decision is keeping you awake at night or whether you can sleep easily, safe in the knowledge that you have done the right thing.

Prof Schwartz makes the point that this test can be retrospectively applied once the decision has been made. If you find that your decision is keeping you awake at night, you should consider revisiting it. There is no shame in changing your mind to put things right and it could be argued that this is actually a sign of strength.


For provision to be effective, it is important that responsibility for SEND is shared equitably among strategic leaders. Underpinning the entire approach should be genuine and meaningful co-production with families as this will strengthen provision. Ultimately, making the right decisions, at the right time, and in the right way, will help to ensure that every leader is truly a leader of SEND.

  • Professor Adam Boddison is the chief executive of Nasen, a charity that supports and champions those working with – and for – children and young people with SEND and learning differences. He is the author of Nasen’s Governance Handbook for SEND and Inclusion (2020) which includes a focus on the themes discussed above. Follow on Twitter @AdamBoddison @nasen_org

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