04 SES 06 A, Tackling Exclusion Under Trying Circumstances: The Role Of Leadership
This paper reports a British Educational Research Association (BERA) funded research project designed to explore how SENCOs in England’s schools have been supporting ‘vulnerable’ children during the COVID-19 pandemic and build on preliminary investigations into the role of senior leaders, including SENCOs, in ‘off-rolling’ (illegal exclusions) (Done & Knowler, 2020a, 2020b). Both researchers support the mandatory National Award for Special Educational Needs Coordination (NASENCO), providing insight into the varied roles that SENCOs perform. This variation is highlighted in their descriptions of events preceding, and during, the COVID-19 induced closure of schools which resonate with the greater risk of exclusions post-COVID identified in Daniels et al. (2020). Statutory guidance requires SENCOs to provide strategic leadership within their settings (Department for Education & Department of Health [DfE/DoH] 2015). Some, however, are routinely prevented from exercising such leadership, e.g. when omitted from their school’s Senior Leadership Team (SLT), suggesting that SENCO input to schools’ future crisis planning is an area requiring clarification.
Disproportionality in school exclusion data is well documented (DfE, 2019). Similarly, time and funding pressures faced by SENCOs in English schools, and their varying capacity to influence school culture, are recognised (Pearson, Mitchell, & Rapti, 2015). Imbalances in Covid-19 provision for students with ‘special’ needs between private and state-maintained schools in affluent areas and those in less-affluent areas are also evident (Montacute, 2020). Pandemic conditions highlight such issues and underline the need for research focusing on the SENCO role in areas of high social deprivation. It is unclear how SENCOs have influenced Covid-19 planning and provision in these areas, or whether exclusionary pressures have been exacerbated and how SENCOs have responded to this. Such pressures include formal exclusion and ‘off rolling’ (illegal exclusionary practices).
Anecdotal SENCO accounts of lockdown events imply that some schools have formally excluded ‘vulnerable’ pupils who were permitted to attend schools closed to children classified as non-vulnerable. A concern here is that schools inclined to ‘off-roll’ prior to the COVID-19 lockdown may exploit circumstances of closure and emergency provision for ‘vulnerable’ pupils. Parents who, under normal conditions, would be reluctant to home educate may be more easily persuaded that home education is a more suitable option for a child with SEN. Only a small proportion of pupils entitled to attend school during lockdown have done so (National Foundation for Educational Research [NFER] 2020). Although the responsibility lays with schools to provide suitable provision for such children, some parents or carers have elected to forego this opportunity while others are now questioning why schools are unable to supply the ‘Educare’ that their children require on an ongoing basis under normal conditions.
Current statutory guidance requires SENCOs to strategically lead change to ensure an inclusive school ethos and provision for all children according to need. However, not all SENCOs are in Senior Leadership Teams and their capacity to influence decision-making may be limited. Our initial analysis suggests pandemic conditions have exacerbated exclusionary pressures and led to SENCO preoccupation with managerial and administrative duties. Our study sought to generate evidence on whether, and how, SENCOs have participated in Covid-19-induced school planning for lockdown, provision for ‘vulnerable’ pupils, and full school reopening, and explore SENCOs’ experience around exclusionary pressures during this time. It is important that the SENCO ‘voice’ is heard.
How have SENCOs been involved in planning for offsite and onsite provision for ‘vulnerable’ children during CV-19 lockdown conditions?
How are SENCOs involved in SLT decision-making about post-COVID-19 provision?
How are SENCOs working to prevent exclusion and off-rolling during COVID-19 lockdown conditions?
The project involves three activities which cumulatively address the project aims and research questions. We will first complete a rapid review of current literature on SENCO leadership, identity and work in COVID-19 times. Since March 2020 a number of rapid response studies have been published and we intend to collate and reivew these publications as they become avaiable. We will then distribute an online quantitative questionnaire to NASENCO providers across England for distribution to all current NASENCO students and alumni in England. Finally, we will carry out semi-structured interviews with SENCOs in the Southwest of England. The online questionnaire will be distributed to NASENCO providers (predominantly university-based) for re-distribution to current and former students nationally. While the SENCO population is large since, by law, every school in England must have a SENCO, we are aware of the challenges of asking SENCOS to be involved in research given the lockdown restrictions of November 2020 and January 2021. We will work to garner as many responses as we can, mindful of time pressures for SENCOs. The questionnaire will be quantitative as our priority in this first stage, is to establish whether and how SENCOs nationally were involved in pre and post lockdown planning, and whether anecdotally reported incidents of exclusion were isolated or not. Convenience sampling will be ued to attempt to ensure a sample with post-hoc cross-tabulation by, for example, region, SLT membership, proportion of children on the school’s SEND (special educational needs and disability) register and social deprivation level in the school’s catchment area. We will then carry out semi structured interviews with SENCOs in each geographic region within the south west of England, analysing data by region and sector (early years, primary, secondary, post-16) and comparing processes and practices in these regions and sectors. Recruitment for interviews took place in early autumn 2020 through a combination of purposive and convenience sampling to ensure all sectors and levels of SENCO experience are represented. Consent to participate was sought and check priored to interview from all attending SENCOs, as we wanted to ensure that all participants did not feel pressured to take part given the other pressures on their time. The interviews have been recorded for subsequent transcription and a Thematic Analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006) will be carried out on the interview data.
Findings will contribute significantly to research around social justice in education given disparities in exclusion rates between social groups affecting the disadvantaged, those with additional needs or from specific ethnicities (DfE, 2019). As professionals who are vital to the enactment of inclusion in schools,we expect to be able to report on SENCO involvement in planning for the school closures of March 2020 and beyond, and the subsequent impact on inclusive practices in schools during this time. Our initial analysis suggests that SENCOs expect exclusionary pressures to increase as schools reopen throughout 2021 and that there is a high level of concern associated with pressures to ensure that the necessary resources to support vulnerable children and their families are made available. SENCOs report that they are aware of ‘off rolling’ and other exclusionary strategies taking place in schools in their locality under lockdown conditions but are keen to emphasise that they are doing all they can to ensure that it does not happen in their own school. Our analysis of questionnaire data will enable us to present findings related to school size, location and number of children attending and to be able to explore variations in exclusionary pressures across England.
Daniels, H., Thompson, I., Porter, J., Tawell, A., & Emery, H. (2020). School exclusion risks after COVID-19. http://www.education.ox.ac.uk/research/excluded-lives/ Department for Education & Department of Health. (2015). SEND Code of Practice. London: DfE. Department for Education [DfE] (2019). Timpson review of school exclusion. London: DfE. Done, E. J., & Knowler, H. (2020a). Painful invisibilities: Roll management or ‘off-rolling’ and professional identity. British Educational Research Journal, 46(3), 516–531. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3591 Done, E. J., & Knowler, H. (2020b). A tension between rationalities: “off-rolling” as gaming and the implications for head teachers and the inclusion agenda, Educational Review, DOI: 10.1080/00131911.2020.1806785 Done, E. J., Knowler, H., Pickett-Jones, B., & Warnes, E. (2021 / forthcoming). Think piece on parents, ‘off rolling’ and wavelength methodology: Issues for SENCOs. Support for Learning. Montacute, R. (2020). Social mobility and Covid-19: Implications of the Covid-19 crisis for educational inequality. London: Sutton Trust. NFER. (2020). Home learning during Covid-19: Findings from the Understanding Society Longitudinal Study - NFER. Retrieved January 31, 2021, from https://www.nfer.ac.uk/home-learning-during-covid-19-findings-from-the-understanding-society-longitudinal-study/ Pearson, S., Mitchell, R., & Rapti, M. (2015). ‘I will be “fighting” even more for pupils with SEN’: SENCOs’ role predictions in the changing English policy context, Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 15(1), 48–56.
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