04 SES 06 C, Reconsidering the Role of the SEN Coordinator: A critical overview
International perspectives on how ‘everyday educational practice’ for individuals with special educational needs is coordinated raise fundamental questions relating to the professional development of teaching staff (Hughes, et. al., 2016) and the strength of the mandate for change possessed by those appointed to that coordinating role (Malmqvist, 2015; Takala & Ahl, 2014). When the first SENCos (or specialpedagogs in some national contexts) were appointed, the idea of having a person who could coordinate school based provision, to ensure that school and national policies reflected the needs of pupils and the expressed wishes of the parents of those pupils, can be seen to have been progressive in terms of inclusion. However, there have been a number of reviews of practice relating to the role, which suggest, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the reality of the role is varied (Layton, 2005; McKenzie, 2007; Pearson, Mitchell and Rapti, 2015).
The important point here is to recognise a changing response to a changing situation, one that foregrounds the need to extend what is normally available in the school to meet the teaching and learning needs of all pupils. This situation, in itself evolutionary, has meant that the responsibility for managing change has not only required new knowledge and skills in post-holders, but has also demanded answers to questions about how management structures can accommodate a role such as this within existing school systems (Norwich, 2010).
The main purpose of this paper is to examine the changing nature of the role of the SENCo in England, using a model put forward by Kearns (2005) as a comparative device, to both understand the ways in which participants perceive the role, but also to consider the degree to which these perceptions can be linked to the alternative systems that have arisen in different national contexts as a response to the inclusion agenda
In England, the developing expectations of the role can be tracked through SEN/D Codes of Practice. There is a clear progression from a role conceptualised in terms of areas of responsibility such as ‘maintaining’ records, ‘liaising’ with stakeholders and ‘contributing’ to staff development (DfE, 1994), to a broader vision that included a key role in the strategic development of policy and provision (DfES, 2001, section 5.30, page 50). The most recent Code (DfE/DoH, 2015) goes further, making it clear that SENCos need to exercise strategic vision and leadership, to provide the best outcomes for pupils designated as having Special Educational Needs and Disabilities and, increasingly, all pupils within the setting.
In offering a more theoretical perspective, Kearns suggested five metaphors for ways in which the SENCo role is practised: auditor, rescue, expert, collaborator and arbiter, any of which can dominate, overlap and co-exist. In part, the way in which an individual SENCo was seen to fit a metaphor was determined by the predispositions of that stakeholder. Experience suggests that this made it likely that the roles identified in the metaphors were operationalised as largely separate and distinct.
The position taken in this research is that the model can, and should, be extended. In a situation where practice is ‘designed to benefit the whole community of learners’ (Hallett & Hallett, 2017), it is suggested that rather than being a fragmented role described by complementary metaphors, the role now encompasses all of those metaphors within a nested hierarchy. In this circumstance, it is not individual predispositions that determine role discharge, but rather the permitting circumstances that exist in a setting resulting from a shared vision, to meet the teaching and learning needs of all pupils, however characterised or labelled.
Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) was used as the methodological framework for this research in order to explore participant experience in a way that disavows the presumption of an emergent 'reality'. The study involved semi-structured interviews with SENCOs new to post (n=20) and those established in post for more than 5 years (n=20). Each interview provided a rich, detailed, and first-person account of the phenomena under scrutiny, with the emphasis placed upon the micro-level analysis of participants (Smith, Flowers and Larkin, 2009). As the interviews were based upon the lived realities of each participant, ’comprehensive units’ and ‘parts of life’ were explored, with the aim of the interview being to recall the ‘parts’, and their ‘connections’, in order to elucidate a common meaning (Smith, Flowers and Larkin, 2009). In this way, IPA was used to analyse, in detail, how participants were making sense of their personal and social world’ (Smith and Osborn, 2007: 53), a process which allows researchers to understand a specific phenomenon, from the viewpoint of a specific group of people, within a specific context (Smith and Osborn, 2007; Pietkiewicz and Smith, 2014). From this, an IPA analytical framework was created in order to organise and scrutinise the data through a process of identifying, coding, connecting and presenting themes (Smith and Osborn, 2007; Savin-Baden and Major, 2013). In line with Smith et al (2009), considerable emphasis was attached to the writing process undertaken whilst constructing the resulting framework, in order for the researcher’s role to be both explanatory and interpretative and to incorporate discursive as well as analytic interpretations of participant responses.
Data generated within the first round of interviews suggests that a more nuanced way of thinking about the role of the SENCo is needed, in ways that go beyond the five metaphors suggested in the Kearns model. Rather than atomising concepts in order to create recognisable metaphors, a connective analysis of these early accounts indicates a nested hierarchy of constructs that more clearly elucidates the complexity and subtlety of the interplay between the demands of teaching and learning and the individual needs of students. Whilst some alignment to individual metaphors is still possible, it is very clear that the role now demands (and perhaps always has) an overview of the work implied by all of the metaphors. It would seem that to simply be a ‘rescuer’, for example, is no longer possible; this is an element of the role likely to be delegated to other staff, although oversight will be retained by the SENCo. Rather, in the settings where the permitting circumstances allow, the role of the SENCo has become, or is becoming, integral to the development of an ethos that sees the teaching and learning for students with SEND as indivisible from the development of teaching and learning for all, in a way that echoes the view that ‘all teachers are teachers of all children’. The established SENCos that have been interviewed talked more clearly about the need to recognise and, where necessary circumvent, environments that did not emphasise learning as the primary goal of education. For SENCos new to the role, the interplay between compliance and conviction resonated throughout the interviews, suggesting clearer alignment with individual metaphors in terms of compliance. It will be interesting to see if the remaining rounds of interviews confirm this initial analysis.
Department for Education (1994) Code of Practice on the Identification and Assessment of Special Educational Needs London: DfE Department for Education and Skills (2001) Special Educational Needs Code of Practice Nottingham: DfES Department for Education/Department of Health (2015) Special Educational Needs and Disability Code of Practice 0 to 25 Years London: TSO Hallett, F. and Hallett, G. (2017) Transforming the role of the SENCo, [2nd ed], London: OUP Hughes, E., Chitiyo, M., Itimu-Phiri, A. & Montgomery, K. (2016) Assessing the special education professional development needs of northern Malawian schoolteachers. British Journal of Special Education, 43(2), pp. 159-177 Kearns, H. (2005) Exploring the experiential learning of special educational needs coordinators. Journal of In-Service Education, 31(1), pp 131-150 Layton, L. (2005) Special educational needs coordinators and leadership: a role too far? Support for Learning, 20(2), pp 53-60 McKenzie, S. (2007) A review of recent developments in the role of the SENCo in the UK Support for Learning, 34(4), pp 212-218 Norwich, B. (2010) What implications do changing practices and concepts have for the role of SEN Coordinator? In: Hallett, F. and Hallett, G, ed. Transforming the Role of the SENCo, London: OUP Pearson, S., Mitchell, R. and Rapti, M. (2015) ‘I will be “fighting” even more pupils with SEN’: SENCos’ role predictions in the changing English policy context Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs (JORSEN), 15(1), pp 48-56 Pietkiewicz, I. and Smith, J. A. (2014) A practical guide to using interpretative phenomenological analysis in qualitative research psychology. Psychological Journal, 20 (1), pp. 7-14. Savin-Baden, M. and Major, C. H. (2012) Qualitative Research: The Essential Guide to Theory and Practice London: Routledge. Smith, J.A., Flowers, P., and Larkin, M. (2009) Interpretative phenomenological analysis: theory, method and research London: Sage Publications Ltd. Smith, J. A. and Osborn, M. (2007) Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. In: J. A. Smith, ed. Qualitative psychology: A practical guide to research methods London: Sage. pp. 53-80. Takala, M. & Ahl, A. (2014) Special education in Swedish and Finnish schools: seeing the forest or the trees? British Journal of Special Education 41(1), pp. 59-81. Malmqvist, J. (2015) The SENCo as hybrid: Perspectives on transitions relating to inclusion as seen in the Swedish Context. In. D. L. Cameron & R. Thygesen (2015) Transition in the field of special education: Theoretical perspectives and implications for practice Munster, New York: Waxmann
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