The Contextual Variety existing between English primary school Special Educational Needs Coordinators (SENCOs) within the East-Midlands Region

  • Andrew Smith

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Special Educational Needs Coordinators (SENCOs) should have the key role in managing and leading the day-to-day provision for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in their schools. This study was designed to explore how this role was practised by SENCOs from a selection of primary schools in eleven local authorities in the East Midlands, comparing their professional practice and experiences with the requirements of national legislation and statutory guidance relating to SEND. This study was based on the premise that the Contextual Variety across individual schools created a tension between what a SENCO was expected to do as a school leader according to legislation (their Legal Contract) and how it was done in practice; this tension being facilitated by the culture within each school being influenced by the standards based, high-stakes assessment driven performativity-culture dominating the English Education system.

This issue was explored through a process of practitioner-research, underpinned by "Living Theory", using an interpretative paradigm which gathered data from three distinct sample groups of SENCOs at three points in their careers: SENCOs at the start of their National Award for SEN Coordination, those who had been trained and had been in post for a minimum of one year and a small group of trained SENCOs with at least four years' experience in post. Factors relating to SENCO conditions of service, resources, work-load, well-being and professional development were investigated through the analysis of SENCOs' concept maps/supporting narratives, a questionnaire and a diary which detailed a typical working day for a SENCO. Although not designed as a purely narrative study, this study drew heavily on the SENCOs' own stories. Particular emphasis was placed on investigating the extent to which SENCOs were empowered with the status to become transformational leaders and change-makers in their schools.

The findings indicated that all SENCOs understood and accepted their legal responsibilities as stated in the DfE/DH (2015) and previous Codes of Practice together with the usefulness of their compulsory National Award for SEN Coordination training in preparing/supporting them in meeting these responsibilities. Although the role of the SENCO nationally has had an enhanced profile since 2009, a mis-match between this status and the Legal Contract for SENCOs was identified as a significant number of them felt pressurised due to their individual school priorities for SEND provision providing them with a limited allocation of time, funding and resources. Fewer than 50% of SENCOs were members of their schools' senior leadership teams or received any additional payment/allowance. All of the SENCOs recognised their positive contribution in supporting the needs of vulnerable pupils and in supporting the professional development of their colleagues (teachers and teaching assistants) in matters relating to SEND but they also commentated negatively on their work-life balance due to having an excessive workload created through the demands of increasing administration and the multi-role of balancing being a SENCO with class teaching or other whole-school responsibilities.

The implications of the findings from this study and its contribution to knowledge was significant in three key areas: The first was the seemingly lack of progress in SENCO conditions of service since the first DfE (1994) Code of Practice defined the role of SENCO; the second was the continuing process where local circumstances and individual school head-teachers and leadership teams always influenced how provision for SEND was managed (the Contextual Variety creating a wide range of SENCO experiences across all of the schools in this study) and the third being the SENCOs' own practices in trying to "make a difference" for pupils with SEND in their schools through giving additional time in order to "do the right thing" as a teacher (the Psychological Contract expressed as "Emotional Labour"). Overall, it was discovered that the roles and experiences of the SENCOs in this study were on "shifting sands" ranging from those who found difficulty in managing their role due to holding the full responsibility for SEN-focused administrative tasks in addition to full-time class-teaching and/or other whole-school duties to those SENCOs who had the least difficulty in meeting the requirements of the Code. These SENCOs being recognised by their head-teachers and colleagues as members of their schools' senior leadership teams with support through adequate resourcing, protected time for SENCO work, additional/enhanced pay and having opportunities to work with colleagues in their classrooms and to liaise with external agencies.
Date of Award2018
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorPhilip Garner (Supervisor) & Cristina Devecchi (Supervisor)

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