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Reflections on a National Professional Qualification for SENCOs

I was delighted to deliver the keynote speech at the recent NAHT SEND Conference in Manchester, kicking off a busy day of interesting and insightful sessions with school leaders and SEND professionals from across our sector, alongside plenty of opportunities to both catch up with familiar faces and broaden existing networks.

The conversations were purposeful, unsurprising focused on the real time budget challenges, concerns about the increasing demand for places in specialist schools and inevitably, what might we expect post SEND Review.

I had numerous conversations about the proposed introduction of a new mandatory NPQ to replace the current National Award for SEN Co-ordination (NASENCo) – the statutory award for SENCOs in maintained schools. 

Curiously, I was invited to comment on the proposal to take away the 'nasen award'. That was a surprise as the NASENCo award is owned by the sector, or rather it is owned by the respected academic institutes, the providers of higher education. The NASENCo Award does not belong to nasen nor do we derive any kind of income from it yet we are deeply committed to supporting the ongoing quality of NASENCo training and the integrity of the award. Surely that is the right position to take, to stand up for the qualification that places quality outcomes at the heart of the design.

We do support the proposal to introduce a SENCO NPQ. The absence of a SEND focused NPQ has been an omission from the NPQ portfolio. We believe an NPQ should be in addition to the comprehensive level 7 learning outcomes that the NASENCo works to, and feel strongly that the option for SENCOs to select this pathway should be retained.

One thing is clear – whatever qualification we spend our time and money on in the current context must be completely fit for purpose, and it must work as hard for us as we do for the system. In thirty years, I have never seen leaders so concerned about school budgets, or teachers and support staff to be so exhausted. Enabling professionals to do all their role entails in the most effective way possible is a must if we’re to overcome the feelings of despair among our deeply committed workforce, and the subsequent churn of talent leaving the sector.

One particular criticism that is often levelled at the NASENCo is the ‘light touch’ legal insight it offers. Many feel it does not go far enough to prepare SENCOs for the complexities they face in relation to the lawfulness of provision for the children and young people with SEND in their settings. I would counter this by saying that the role of the SENCO is not, and should never be, to take on the legal responsibility for their school.

Of course, an understanding of the legal framework of statutory duties on schools and of local authorities, of the processes surrounding Education, Health and Care plans are all deeply relevant. Whole School SEND’s SENCO Induction Pack offers a great introduction to understanding this aspect. Working to a greater depth, IPSEA offer a one-day course for SENCOs that aims to equip them with the knowledge they need to overcome the challenges of their role – I heartily recommend both.

Beyond this – when a firmer stand needs to be made – it is vital that we recognise this accountability does not rest with the SENCO. We should look to leadership for SEND strategy and accountability, starting but not ending with the SLT.  A Whole School SEND approach to school leadership is vital, extending to Governors and Trustees, ensuring one takes  responsibility for SEND, for strategic support from the highest levels, rather than adding pressure to the already overburdened SENCO. Let’s make sure that we give them the tools and back up to do their job well.

You can download Whole School SEND’s SENCO Induction Pack here: SENCO Induction Pack: revised edition | Whole School SEND and get more information about IPSEA’s course SEND Law for SENCOs here: SEND law for SENCos: 26 January 2023 | (IPSEA) Independent Provider of Special Education Advice.

Reflections by nasen Chief Executive & Chair of Whole School SEND Annamarie Hassall.