The Strategic SENCo at the Heart of School Improvement

Posted by Bonnie Maslin

Weedon (2018) describes the SENCo as ‘being at the confluence of an ever-increasing barrage of expectations and demands’. Shrinking SEN budgets, increasingly complex pupil needs, and a profession at near crisis point in terms of recruitment and retention, sets a bleak scene in which to support some of our most vulnerable learners. As a busy SENCo (often juggling other roles in school too) it can feel impossible to be ‘something to everyone’. So what is it that makes highly effective leadership of provision for pupils with SEN? 

Natalie Packer (2017), author of The Perfect SENCo as well as an Associate Consultant for NASEN, draws parallels between effective whole school leadership (as described by Dame Alison Peacock in Assessment for Learning without Limits) and leadership of SEN. 

Packer states that as effective leaders of SEN, we:

  1. Prioritise the development of positive, trusting relationships with learners, parents and other professionals in order to form genuine partnerships and work together towards meeting outcomes.
  2. Empower our colleagues to take responsibility for learners with SEN by up-skilling them to remove barriers to learning.
  3. Promote inclusive high-quality teaching as the first step towards meeting the needs of learners with or without SEN.
  4. Support the implementation of a more personalised and relevant approach to the curriculum for identified learners, based on their individual needs.
  5. Model high expectations and aspirations for all learners and challenge limiting assumptions about children’s capacity to learn.

Good outcomes for pupils with SEN are reliant on quality practice within different aspects of school life.The following sections describe how good quality practice could be characterised.

Culture and Ethos

Senior leaders’ and staff attention is firmly on all pupils’ progress. Any pupil has the potential to become a vulnerable learner if they are not fulfilling their potential. Excuses are not made for pupils or limits put on what can be achieved. There is a sense of purpose amongst all staff to support the learning of all children irrespective of their personal characteristics or circumstances. This also applies to support offered to families. One size does not fit all and leaders and staff work hard to remove barriers by personalising provision to achieve inclusion in its fullest sense.


Teaching Practice

Classroom environments are designed to engage and support all members of the class and reasonable adjustments are made to fully include certain individuals e.g. use of personal workstations, calm down areas or coloured overlays for example. Teachers are good at thinking on their feet and use assessment for learning effectively to adapt lesson plans to meet the needs of individuals and groups and as a result, the whole class. Pupil self-assessment practices are strong, pupils know their personal targets and good use of child-to-child support is made.

Intervention programmes outside class are viewed as a key part of meeting specific individual needs but withdrawal is used sparingly and never considered a replacement for quality first teaching. Good links are made in class through quality first teaching to material covered during intervention time. Teachers rather than teaching assistants are seen to work with lower attaining pupils more frequently.

Structure and Systems

Teachers are held to account for the progress of all children through performance management systems as well as regular pupil progress meetings with senior leaders. Tracking systems using children’s prior attainment information (PAG) and regular use of standardised assessments enable all school staff to check regularly that pupils are ‘on-track’ and to plan next steps accordingly. There is clarity of expectation around the ‘Waves of Provision’ so that any pupils at risk of falling behind are quickly targeted by their class teacher (Wave 2) which is monitored by senior leaders. This is separate and distinct from Wave 3 SEN Provision, overseen by the SENCo. Additional Wave 3 interventions, usually tracked on a whole school provision map, need to be regularly monitored and evaluated and only kept to those additional provisions with the greatest impact.

Teamwork and a strong commitment to professional learning activities such as moderation exercises, team teaching and observation opportunities ensure that good and better practice is shared both within school and externally with other schools. Being proactive in drawing on external resources, particularly from other schools through networks, specialist advisory teachers and from organisations offering pupils wider opportunities beyond the school are all factors that serve to improve outcomes for pupils.

Leadership and Management

A Headteacher who has a real personal commitment to equality of opportunity and who believes strongly in distributed leadership sets the dynamic of the school. Empowering other staff to make decisions and building capacity in school staff at all levels is what helps to move a school forward. For example, using teaching assistants in very specific roles such as speech and language, emotional literacy and precision teaching and providing additional CPD as well as meeting with them regularly for an updates and coaching session has improved their subject knowledge, increased their confidence as professionals and in turn improved the quality of outcomes for pupils.

To summarise, the top-level leadership of SEN need not be overly complicated. Senior leaders need only to apply to SEN what they already know about raising standards in general (targeting, tracking, holding class teachers to account for pupil progress, investing in professional development, involving parents and providing enriching, out-of-school opportunities for pupils) rather than side-lining pupils with SEN to separate systems and processes. The key to a school’s success is that they can evidence high quality educational provision which is offered every day to every pupil. The SENCO has always played a very important part within a school inspection but it should go beyond individual personalities. Effective leadership for SEN means ensuring that all staff have the skills, knowledge and understanding they need to provide high quality teaching and learning opportunities for all pupils.

For more on children’s development in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), visit our resources page


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