SENCOs reveal their fears over lockdown impact for SEN students

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Schools have found the differentiation of remote education for SEN pupils a key challenge during Covid-19, while SENCO workload has gone through the roof, according to new research.

A report from Bath Spa University and special needs association Nasen is warning that many SEN pupils are at risk of falling behind due to problems accessing remote education.

The National SENCO Workforce Survey 2020 captured the views and experiences of more than 1,000 SENCOs working in primary, secondary and special schools between March and October last year.

A key finding is that three-quarters of the SENCOs in the research said that their school experienced challenges with providing virtual support for children with SEN during the first lockdown.

A similar number said that provision of “appropriately differentiated work online” for children with SEN had been a challenge, while half said that supporting teaching colleagues to provide differentiated learning online had been difficult.

While the report found that learning from home had suited some SEN pupils because of the increased flexibility and the reduction in sensory demands, it adds: “The pandemic highlighted staff training needs and the fact that some teachers did not consider the needs of their pupils with SEND and did not provide them with differentiated, scaffolded work for them to access.”

The digital divide was also an issue for SEN pupils, with 70 per cent of the SENCOs citing access to IT hardware as a barrier.

During the first lockdown from March to May last year, pupils with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) were classified as vulnerable and entitled to attend school.

However, the report confirms that many EHCP pupils stayed away during the first national lockdown. Many other pupils with SEN but without an EHCP would have also been educated remotely during the lockdown.

The report states: “Most children and young people with EHCPs did not attend school during the first national lockdown and while most special schools were fully open at the end of the summer, attendance remained low.”

For those EHCP pupils who did attend, the SENCOs reported challenges with risk assessments, with nearly three-quarters saying that providing in-school support had been challenging.

The current lockdown has seen much higher attendance in school, however even so, the latest DfE figures show that around 34 per cent of all pupils with an EHCP on roll in state-funded schools were in attendance on January 13, down from 75 per cent on December 16.

A key theme in the report is the difficulty in accessing external agency support and local authority services during the first lockdown. Furthermore, the absence of interventions for pupils will have a longer term impact, respondents fear.

The report states: “SENCOs speculated that children and young people would be ‘further behind’ then they were before the start of the pandemic. SENCOs shared worries that interventions may not be able to run as they would have previously, due to restrictions in school. Longer term, there are more children who are going to require additional support from school and wider services.”

Elsewhere, SENCOs reported huge increases in workload, especially in terms of senior leadership and safeguarding. Many had been required to teach class bubbles, meaning the SENCO role had not been their primary focus.

The report’s authors said that an increase in “responsibilities, administrative demands and responding to national guidance” during the pandemic stretched the role of the SENCO to “breaking point”.

However, one clear positive to come from the first lockdown, the report adds, is an increased focus on communication with parents and families (reported by 84 per cent of the SENCOs).

Among the report’s recommendations, it calls for SENCO-specific guidance as well as national exemplars for things like risk assessments.

It also says that moving forward, school leaders should consider how to build on the improving family relationships that have been built-up in the past year.

The report adds: “For some children and young people, their experience of education improved through online learning. We would encourage school leaders to reflect on this learning and consider the positives which could be gained through integrating this approach further.”

Dr Helen Curran, senior lecturer in education: SEN, at Bath Spa University, said: “The global pandemic has exposed the existing crisis in SEND, and amplified challenges that SENCOs already faced, such as a lack of time to execute the role.

“As we get to grips with a third lockdown and return to remote learning, there is a real risk that children with SEND will continue to be disproportionally impacted by the pandemic, unless teachers, SENCOs and pupils are given additional support in areas like providing appropriate and differentiated virtual learning.”

Professor Adam Boddison, chief executive at nasen, added: “The pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on children and young people’s social, emotional and mental health needs, exacerbating social interaction challenges. It is vital that we support them and the mental wellbeing of our education workforce. We would like to see routine wellbeing arrangements put in place following this extended period of national challenge, including priority support for SENCOs.

“Moving forward, it is important that we work collaboratively and share good practice across mainstream, special schools and specialist settings to help all children and young people, particularly those with SEND, to learn and thrive regardless of their background or need.”

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