SENCO workload: Identifying barriers and finding solutions

Written by: Hannah Moloney | Published:
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There are far more pupils who desperately need the expertise of the SENCO than the SENCO can realistically support according to on-going workforce research. Co-author Hannah Moloney responds to the findings


If the last 18 months have taught us anything, it is that the most firmly held processes and practices can crumble in a moment. With another bubble burst, or another Department for Education missive, senior leaders have had to respond within minutes, updating hundreds of staff, parents and pupils with little more than a lamp to guide our feet.

The weight of crisis management is wearing, stressful and ultimately impossible to carry long-term. And yet, when the dust settles, I believe the future offers opportunities for radical change which otherwise would have taken decades to implement.


Closing the SEND attainment gap

For some groups of children, Covid-19 may have exacerbated the issues around poor progress and attainment as well as social confidence and anxiety, but it certainly did not cause them. For too long we have had significant and growing issues with poor literacy, speech and language delays, mental health and exclusions.

At local authority level, the demands for Higher Needs Funding and specialist or alternative provision are acute, and at a national level, funding from the public purse barely scratches the surface of this increased demand, not to mention the short-changed funds for catch-up tutoring.

Well before Covid-19, the Education Select Committee stated that SEND funding was “completely inadequate” (2019).

So you might be wondering: where, in all the chaos, is this post-pandemic promise of social justice and a better education for all? The answer, I believe, is in how we seek to better understand and support our SENCOs.


SEND funding in action

In my experience there will be a range of responses to this topic. Some headteachers will have already put considerable funding behind their SENCOs in spite of the cuts and restrictions. Some will have chosen to utilise their funding in other places, reducing SENCO time and team size in order to make ends meet. Undoubtedly every headteacher is trying to do what is right for their setting with limited funds and limited experience of each role within their school. It is also not uncommon to hear exasperated sighs of “It’s so difficult to find a good SENCO!” – so why adequately fund an often-questioned position?

As a SENCO, I have met a number of colleagues in different schools over the past decade, but as part of the National SENCO Workforce Survey team, I have been able to listen to the voices of thousands of SENCOs across the country.

My experiences tell me there is a different truth that underlies this aphorism. It is, in fact, very difficult to be a good SENCO.

There are so many barriers which undermine SENCO effectiveness that, despite being one of only two legally required positions within a school, and the only role within a school which requires a Master’s level qualification, it can sometimes be incredibly difficult to see the impact of this role in action.

I appreciate that every school has its challenges, that many chose to deploy school funds differently, and for those that do this happens because their problems appear to be greater in other areas.

While such decisions may have been made in good faith, I believe this is ultimately down to the mismatch between many school leaders’ limited experience of the demands of the SENCO position (it is, after all, a unique role) and a lack of opportunity for people in this role to shine and prove their worth.


What is the main barrier to effective SEND provision?

The SEND Code of Practice (2015) states that SENCOs should have “sufficient time” to enact the role. But when we looked at the data from three years of surveys, the trends were very clear: very few do.

Back in 2018, we reported that the most common time allocation for primary SENCOs was between 0.5 and one day-a-week, but that overall, a staggering 86 per cent of respondents said that they did not have enough time to ensure children on SEN Support could access the support they need.

In 2018, 77 per cent of SENCOs across all schools stated that they did not have enough time to ensure that children with an Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP) were accessing the support to which they are legally entitled.

Although this had improved by 2020, the proportion of SENCOs without sufficient time to meet the needs of children and young people with SEND still remains too high: 81 and 71 per cent (for SEN Support and EHCPs respectively).

I once had three hours a week to be a SENCO, among the many other hats I was wearing. These 180 minutes meant that once I had accounted for all my EHCP Annual Reviews, the other children on SEN Support each had 17 seconds a week – or 11 minutes a year – of my time. Given that an increasing number of pupils without an EHCP have elevated needs and require an alternative placement or significant support, it starts to become very clear why schools are struggling with the challenges emerging from this deficit.

Simply put, there are far more pupils who desperately need the expertise of the SENCO than the SENCO can realistically support. Those behavioural issues or academic and/or pastoral needs, as well as the necessary communication with teaching staff, parent/carers and the local authority, take far more time than most SENCOs have been allocated. And because SENCOs can rarely target their support when needs are low-level, the problems often grow and ultimately become unmanageable.


How much time is enough?

The report of our survey not only seeks to share the national picture of the challenges faced by the SENCO role, enabling more senior leaders to better understand it, it also puts forward a guide for SENCO time allocation.

The importance of standardising time and providing a supportive national framework for headteachers to follow cannot be underestimated. SENCOs consistently tell us how much they enjoy their role, but that the workload is unsustainable.

Turnover, therefore, is high. With a standardised approach to protected time across the country, it not only means that SEND provision becomes less of a postcode lottery – vital for changing the shocking statistics above – but that headteachers have something to go on when deciding how much time their SENCO needs.


Not just a question of time

Time, however, is not the only issue. In 2018, the vast majority of SENCOs felt isolated and misunderstood. Only 30 per cent of SENCOs in primary schools felt their colleagues understood the role, only 26 per cent felt the role was manageable for one person, and only three in five SENCOs were on the senior leadership team, despite the SEND Code of Practice stating that this would make SENCOs more effective.

In essence, because SENCOs rarely have administrative support (just 15 per cent) and the world of SEND is so heavily centred on paperwork, most SENCOs turn out to be very expensive, over-qualified administrators, often hidden behind closed doors in meetings or filling in endless forms. Moreover, as SENCOs are not always invited to the important meetings which could enable them to drive strategic inclusion, and they do not have enough time to do the parts of the role which really make a difference, it becomes very easy to see why the role is so undervalued.


What can you do?

The collapse of "education as we know it" in the last 18 months is perhaps exactly what we needed to enable us to take stock of what is working and what is not – and change it!

If three-quarters of SENCOs are saying that the role is not manageable for one person, and the data from our surveys is consistent and truly representative of our nation’s SENCOs, as we believe it to be, senior leaders now have a genuine opportunity to prevent the entrenchment of social immobility within their schools by responding to this call to action.

Here are some questions for headteachers, SENCO line managers and governors to consider in the wake of the pandemic:

  • Have you read the Code of Practice (2015), especially Chapter Six, to really get to grips with what your SENCO is legally required to do?
  • Does your SENCO have enough time to do the job, based on the SENCO survey recommendations?
  • If your SENCO is struggling to meet their performance management objectives, or SENCO retention is poor, have you considered and explored the barriers they may be facing?
  • Have you got a SENCO succession plan?
  • How can you develop leadership of SEND so that it is truly distributed rather than hinging on one person?

As school leaders with enormous influence over our pupils’ school experience, we must listen to and trust the voice of SENCOs to lead us out of the growing SEND crisis.

Interestingly, the Japanese have a word “SENKUO.” It means preceding; going first; leading; going ahead; taking priority. It’s time we enable our nation’s SENCOs to do just that.

  • Hannah Moloney is a SENCO, SEND researcher and co-author of the report National SENCO Workforce Survey: Time to review 2018-2020, published in July 2021.


Further information & resources

  • Education Select Committee: A ten-year plan for school and college funding, July 2019: https://bit.ly/3sq4e73
  • Nasen Live: Dr Helen Curran from Bath Spa University will be exploring the National SENCO Workforce report further at Nasen Live 2021, which takes place on September 24. Visit www.nasen.org.uk/nasenlive
  • National SENCO Workload Survey: For more details of this on-going research project, including the latest reports and survey findings, visit www.bathspa.ac.uk/projects/senco-workload


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