The SEND Review Green Paper: “Never giving up and never letting go, despite a system in crisis”
Louise Arnold and Debbie Kilbride, Senior Lecturers at the University of East London, explain the impact of government SEND reforms on children and Young people.
This article responds to the SEND and alternative provision Green Paper 2022 and seeks to explore how replacing the National Award for SEN Co-ordination (NASENCo) with the National Professional Qualification (NPQ) would impact Disabled children and Young people and their place within mainstream school.
Expanding this notion further, the subsequent Green Paper: SEND review: right support, right place, right time (Department for Education, 2022), specifically, Chapter 3 outlines the critical nature of the role of the SENCo and proposes the introduction of a new Leadership SENCo NPQ, replacing the current NASENCo (Department for Education, 2022 p.44).
First and foremost, the NASENCo has been successfully running with the current outcomes since 2014, with our collaborative group of partners ensuring continuity of training and quality. If the current Level 7 mandate for SENCO training is removed, there is a risk of losing the unique capacity of the Provider Partnership, including insight into research and collaborative sharing of NASENCO student practice. In addition, the White and Green Papers have identified failures within the current education system and the way it supports Disabled children and Young people, and it is necessary for this to present the fact that evaluations from current SENCo providers identify success/strength in current NASENCo training. The implication is that SENCo training is not working. However, SENCos are trained to be strategic leaders of SEND. In most cases it is the school and the way the education system is structured and funded that is stopping them from effectively supporting children, Young people and their families.
Over the seven years that I’ve been the Course Leader for the NASENCo at UEL, time and again, and more noticeably in recent years, is the ongoing issue that we discuss in every session: SENCos do not have protected time to carry out their SENCo role as effectively as they would like. They can be juggling a variety of roles including the demands of being not only a class teacher but also assistant or deputy head, designated safeguarding lead, subject lead, as well as SENCo; sometimes more!
Building on this, Curran et al’s (2018) key findings outlined very clearly the ways in which the SENCo role should be developed with a recommendation to prioritise statutory, protected time for the SENCo to effectively carry out their duties. In addition, it was recommended that the role of the SENCo should be regarded as strategic and senior with specific guidance as to how the role is executed. Their findings and recommendations are echoed across the research field in this area and yet we still find ourselves with an education system that is not functioning adequately; with variation in outcomes for Disabled children and Young people across the UK and increasing numbers of Education, Health and Care Plans being granted (OFSTED, 2021). The increase in EHCPs points to an increase in schools not able to meet the needs of the children who attend them, but instead of questioning the right of children to attend mainstream schools, focus should be shifted to how all children and Young people can be supported to realise their right to inclusive education. When professionals do not have protected time to carry out their role despite increasing demand for their input, it is the children and Young people who experience the effects; OFSTED found between 2016 and 2020 a lack of co-production and joint commissioning, and poor quality EHCPs, in addition to issues with identifying and assessing need (OFSTED, 2021).
Therefore, the Green Paper’s recommendation that SENCos are given protected time as well as dedicated support in order to reduce administrative burdens is welcomed and yet it is difficult to see how this would come into being.
Further to this discussion, Middleton and Kay (2021) identified recently that SENCos who are indeed members of the senior leadership team were more successful in enacting their roles. However, this is not currently mandated in legislation and remains inconsistent with the reasoning behind the new Leadership SENCo NPQ which states that:
“the NPQ would help improve SENCos’ leadership expertise, making them well-placed to sit on a senior leadership team and inform the strategic direction of a setting.” (Department for Education, 2022, p.44).
Perhaps as a result of the current consultation period we will finally move closer to this realisation and SENCos will find themselves on the leadership pay scale, as a member of the senior leadership team, with the ability to influence decisions and direction in the setting.
Relating this to the NASENCo, where the Green Paper (Department for Education, 2022, p.44) identifies that the new NPQ qualification will strengthen leadership training of SENCos, it’s essential to understand that leadership is already a crucial part of current training. The revised Learning Outcomes, commissioned by the DfE and received in 2020 have placed a strong emphasis on leadership and offer a clear route for improving the nature of the NASENCO.
However, where it is stated that: “there is variability in terms of SENCo’s experience of the NASENCo and whether it provides the knowledge and skills needed for the role” (Department for Education, 2022, p.44) is the point at which there is contention.
But where is this evidence? Being the course leader for the NASENCo at UEL, an increasing number of NASENCO students are aspirant SENCOs and other teaching staff, thus transferring SEND knowledge and skills throughout school. The current providers work together as a collective basing all courses on the National Learning Outcomes. The Quality Standard for NASENCO providers ensures the quality of each individual training and the collaborative way of working ensures national consistency in the award.
So where are we now? Even with the inclusive SENCo, with the inclusive attitude they alone cannot lead on inclusive practice if the system within which they work hinders their progress every step of the way. Make them a senior leader, give them strategic influence, and watch them soar! They cannot exist in isolation, it is not a role that can be enacted in this way. They need to be part of a fully functioning leadership team which holds inclusive practice as a core principle and distributes accountability for inclusion across all members of the school community.
I want to celebrate the SENCos that I’ve taught and that I’m yet to teach, as they are on the frontline of navigating these broken systems and time and again, they champion the pupils in their settings, never giving up and never letting go, despite a system in crisis.
A change in course title will not necessarily amount to a change in practice; the issue is broader in nature and needs to encompass and embrace the idea that was so central to the current SEND Code of Practice 2015; that all teachers are teachers of SEND. Until we truly take this on board and embed inclusive knowledge and skills in our teacher training and lifelong Continuing Professional Development (CPD), which SENCos can enact if they are given the time and space to do so, we will make little progress in an area so ready for change.
Conclusively, it is central to the discussion to recognise that this reform is not presenting a comprehensive definition of inclusive education, nor does it recognise the centrality of Disabled people’s experiences. Furthermore, there is no mention of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) which in turn directly ignores Disabled children and Young people’s education as a human right. The proposals continue to focus on supporting segregated education and this will impact the ways in which practitioners work together. In order to reduce silo practices, inclusive education must be promoted so that barriers of collaboration can be diminished.