SEND and SENCO support: Tenets of best practice


The high numbers of pupils with SEN are putting a huge strain on school finances – and on SENCOs themselves. Margaret Mulholland looks at some tenets of best practice, what Ofsted wants to see, and how schools can best support their SENCOs

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that we have inadvertently ended up with a system for supporting children with educational needs which is not fit-for-purpose. There are many factors involved in this stark assessment – not least of which is the huge pressure on funding.

But I want to discuss here one particular aspect. This is the fact that the current system has effectively created a situation in which about
80 per cent of children with SEN are at risk of being left out in the cold.

The most recent Department for Education (DfE) statistics show that the number of pupils with SEN stood at just over 1.3 million in 2019. Of these, about 270,000 have an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP), leaving just over one million – 80 per cent – who have additional needs but who do not have an EHCP.

This is significant because dedicated high needs funding follows EHCPs and the preparation and administration of these plans takes up a great deal of time and resource. Of course, the provision that this buys in for children with high levels of need is a good thing, notwithstanding the bureaucracy involved in the system. But it means that schools have to support the other 80 per cent within the constraints of severe pressures on their funding, lack of time, and teaching shortages.

The issue is encapsulated in this comment from a survey of SENCOs by Bath Spa University (Curran et al, 2018): “The level of need in my school is such that the high needs children take up all my time so those who are just SEN support get very little of my attention.”

Whole-school strategy
So, how can we better support all children with SEND within the context of tight resources? The key is to develop a whole-school strategy.
This direction of travel is already there in the 2015 Children and Families Act, which brought about a fundamental shift in how schools plan for children and young people with SEND.

It set out principles of person-centred planning, working closely with parents, and equipping teachers to support better outcomes for all pupils who struggle to learn. This was universally welcomed. Ambition to see every teacher as a teacher of SEND is clearly a positive step forward.

At the Association of School and College Leaders, we recently hosted a series of roundtable discussions for heads and their SENCOs. Those who could not attend in person made great effort to provide input, demonstrating a depth of feeling and frustration around the current problems with the SEND system.

They shared inspirational examples of quality practice, from curriculum innovations to resource-sharing, to technology solutions and the development of pupil passports.

A pupil passport is a one-page summary that supports a pupil’s journey through the curriculum. The more effectively this summary reflects the individual profile then the more likely it is that the pupil passport will be a meaningful and useful tool.

In some settings, a pupil passport is focused on just a few SEND learners, whereas in other settings it is used to help develop all learners and support transitions, either between classes, year group or school.

The passport can link to PSHE, and help support discussions about what interests and engages learners and what might be a good target to work towards. Used well, pupil passports can help to break negative cycles and patterns of behaviour.

What also emerged during the roundtable discussions were experiences of the pressures on the SEND system – EHCPs that had not been formally updated for years, insufficient numbers of teaching assistants leading to slipping support, and overwhelming administrative overheads.

Most worryingly were reports of universal difficulty in the recruitment and retention of SENCOs. These experiences reflect a system in crisis. More money is needed to meet the needs of our pupils with identified SEND adequately.

Role of SENCOs
But the problems go beyond financial issues. There is a wider issue with the way in which SENCOs are deployed. These roles can look very different from school to school but many SENCOs report that they shoulder a heavy operational responsibility.

Another comment from the Bath Spa survey (Curran et al, 2018) paints the picture: “I don’t think any of the senior leadership team realise how big a job the SENCO is. Our head is very supportive but is very busy himself. Splitting yourself into a million pieces (the biggest being a full-time class teacher) and managing SEN is extremely hard. I would say that once a half-term, I feel completely overwhelmed.”

So, how do we build capacity and create shared responsibility for administration, teaching, and reporting for SEND across the school?

Positive steps include:

  • A whole-school review of SEND, prioritising the SENCO’s role in strengthening teaching quality and curriculum accessibility for all pupils (see further information).
  • Sharing provision for pupils with SEND across the school, allowing the SENCO to co-ordinate rather than operate.
  • All professional development considers struggling learners.
  • Along with rethinking structure comes reshaping culture. In a growing number of schools, the SENCO is on the senior leadership team. This means that when planning financial, curriculum and teaching and learning matters, the opportunity to consider the needs of SEND children can be planned in rather than added on to core business.
It is one of several adjustments for leadership to consider towards a whole-school approach to SEND.

Despite the difficulties outlined in this article, it is not entirely a landscape without hope. Opportunity for improvements can be found in the strangest of places – Ofsted for a start. The new Education Inspection Framework moves away from a siloed focus on SEND provision and introduces a very different inspection lens that has the potential to strengthen inclusivity.

It asks what the school is doing to support SEND learning, rather than what the SEND team is doing. Key questions shared by Nick Whittaker, Ofsted’s SEND lead, include:
  • Are pupils given the support they need?
  • Are teachers trained to help them?
  • Do senior leaders have the same level of ambition for all pupils?
  • Is the school’s curriculum responsive to their different needs, starting points and aspirations for the future?
The framework is looking to see if SEND is “baked in” to the curriculum. The DfE is also in listening mode for examples of complexity and challenge as part of its SEND review (see further information). The consultation should open shortly. When it does, ASCL is ready to share the stories of innovative leadership for SEND and make clear the problems in the current system.

Ultimately, we must reach a situation where resource and support matches the needs of 100 per cent of children with SEND.

Margaret Mulholland is the SEND and inclusion specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders.

Further information & resources
Curran, Moloney, Heavey & Boddison: It’s about time: The impact of SENCO workload on the professional and the school, September 2018:
The SEND Review process has been manualised in a SEND Review guide, which was developed by Nasen and the DfE:
The Education Endowment Foundation is currently carrying out a research trial focused on using the SEND Review Guide. Visit &
See also Commissioning a SEND review, DfE guidance, March 2018:
For details of the DfE’s planned review into SEND provision, see

Author: Margaret Mulholland, SEND and inclusion specialist, Association of School and College Leaders on behalf of SecEd