Recruiting the perfect SENCO for your school

Schools are finding it hard to recruit successful SENCOs. Daniel Sobel believes this is down to the changing requirements of this broad and vital position. He looks at the modern SENCO role and advises on recruiting effectively
interview
A recent survey by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) found that only 14 per cent of SENCOs were recruited with ease, while 56 per cent recruited with difficulty and in 30 per cent of the cases, the school failed to recruit.

We have waltzed slap-bang into a national crisis and no-one seems to have woken up to this problem or is doing anything about it.

Since there is such a broad reach for the SENCO role, what sort of person are we looking for, what do we need to prioritise, and what can we get someone else to do?

The traditional SENCO

In the past, the stereotypical SENCO has been seen as the sensitive one, often slightly eccentric (yours truly) and happy to be based in that room under the stairs or down the quiet corridor away from the bustle of normal school happenings.

Students were removed to this special room, those who needed extra attention. That role required patience to work with socially awkward and frustrating students (and their parents), the ability to adapt resources for a broad spectrum of needs, and healthy bouts of resignation to the lengthy paperwork, the outside agencies that were forever lacking and unavailable and, of course, the teachers who would expect them to take all the responsibility for any student with an SEN label.

You could hire that SENCO – it was clear what you needed and there were plenty out there.

The new SENCO

Thanks to Ofsted, the SEND Code of Practice and the Teachers’ Standards, we have seen a significant attitude shift – from keeping those SEN students in that back room to making them a central measure of a successful lesson.

“Rapid and sustained progress of all groups” is interpreted to mean that the students beyond the edges of the average need to be making significant progress in a teacher’s class for it to be considered any good.

When SEN students do not make adequate progress then it can call into question the ability of that teacher, but also your broader school system and its capacity to accurately identify needs.

SEN is no longer something that happens in the room down that quiet corridor, rather it is taking centre stage as a top Ofsted priority. Our SENCO needs to get this to happen – but not from the quiet of their office where they are busy slaving over yet more local authority paperwork and babysitting those same students who have been excluded from class again.

That sensitivity, which was the hallmark of the SENCO, is no longer a top priority. The new SENCO is someone who can think in whole-school leadership terms, has great communication skills with staff and a deft ability to get your school into gear for the Ofsted challenge. That’s a different SENCO altogether – a different job description requiring a different type of person.

What you need from your SENCO

The modern SENCO needs to be outstanding at the following aspects – but even more than that, outstanding at doing all of these concurrently...

  1. Can not only get all the ridiculous paperwork done quickly but can actually manipulate the system to get what both the school and student need with tenacity, calm and a willingness to go the extra mile at every junction.
  2. Can handle challenging parents, usefully share the burden, and support the senior leaders. They spend 90 per cent of their time managing the top 10 per cent of students and know how to stop a bad situation spiralling out of control.
  3. Can provide bite-sized information to teachers about their students on a regular basis, are available as a go-to person for continuous teacher support, and can even help nurture the relationship between teaching assistants and teachers.
  4. Can read, use and feel at home with whole-school data such as RaiseOnline.
  5. Can support whole-school planning in senior leadership meetings and contribute to both pastoral and curriculum development.
  6. Someone you can rely on to ensure you are compliant with the SEND Code of Practice, Ofsted and the latest policies.
  7. Can deploy resources intelligently and can accurately and dynamically meet needs with high impact and easily measurable provision.
  8. Can lead on related issues such as looked-after children, narrowing the attainment gap, English as an additional language and so on.
  9. Can deliver on being in and out of classrooms supporting teachers with their differentiation and personalised learning on a daily basis.

So, can you imagine advertising for such a candidate and managing to invite eight candidates to an interview day – all of whom could potentially do this job for you? I hear you laughing from here. Is it possible that if they are actually good enough to be taking on the duties described in the above list then they may as well be going for a headship? So what can we do?

Recruiting the right SENCO

It is a competitive market out there and your first gambit is simply to up the salary. Why should this job be saved from the normal market forces that end up in such practices? If you don’t do it, the other schools will.
Think more in terms of a senior leader, possibly at the deputy head level. One headteacher told me they had advertised three times for an assistant head SENCO role with no success. I got her to reinvent the position to a at deputy head level – it was filled quickly. This does have implications for getting governors on board and budget but needs must.
In line with the previous point, think more about someone for their generic leadership skills, their proven capacity to coach teachers in teaching and learning, and whether they can demonstrate any prior sensitivity to SEN or vulnerable students. This takes us off piste from the usual SENCO to someone who is more of a generic whole-school leader. I think SEN specifics can be learnt in the role, whereas it is much harder for someone with a Master’s in SEN to learn the requisite leadership skills.
The point above will make more sense if you expand the role to more of an INCO (Inclusion Co-ordinator) with responsibility for all areas of inclusion without forgetting the stretch and challenge end as well. Lay out your expectations that this role will involve getting all staff up to scratch with SEN.

Expertise versus leadership

The above steps challenge the common misconception that you need to hire someone who knows the most about, for example, dyslexia. Let me compound that problem even further by saying that the SENCO training course is worse than useless for getting your SENCO up to scratch.

They can read a book about dyslexia and after six months of dealing with a range of needs and reading the specialist advice and education psychologist reports they will know enough. The hardest bits about being a SENCO is managing it all: the paperwork, the meetings, the staff development. It is precisely these things which are not SEN-based per se and cannot be read in a book. They fall under leadership.

I am suggesting that you could invest in a good leader who has a broad responsibility for inclusion with a strong focus on staff development.

The annual reviews

I have written and argued vociferously time and again that many of the traditional SENCO functions can be carried out by higher level teaching assistants (HLTAs) under the guidance of the SENCO.

For example, one of my HLTAs prepared all of the annual review paperwork both pre and post-review and my role was merely to check it and sign it off. We did a paperwork meeting once a week for two hours.

It is a waste of time for your SENCO to spend time on the phone trying to get through to CAMHS when one of the teaching assistants can do that. Timetabling of teaching assistants is another thing that the traditional SENCO did but which is better taken on by an HLTA. The traditional SENCO tasks have changed and many of these can be given to HLTAs.

Concluding thoughts

I hope this gives you some pause for thought about this role. The relevance of this new type of deputy-head-whole-school-leader-SENCO that I describe will vary from setting to setting. There can’t be a one-size-fits-all shape. Your SENCO should be someone who is able to facilitate and promote everyone else delivering SEN, rather than shouldering it all themselves.

The SENCO job description

Summing all this up, the SENCO job description for me is now going to be an even longer one:

  1. Can read and manipulate data (the reason I think this is your number one quality is because you need to rely on them to feel at home reading and interpreting RaiseOnline, whole-school attainment data, identifying cohorts, etc).
  2. Can think whole-school and strategically about needs and matching them with interventions.
  3. Will contribute to your senior leadership team.
  4. Can manage themselves in meetings.
  5. Can be efficient with the paperwork.
  6. Can lead and support classroom teachers.
  7. Is able to identify need and deal with complicated student situations.

Think less in terms of the traditional specialist teacher. The SENCO should be in and out of classes all-day, every day. You should be thinking about an INCO rather than a SENCO and stretching the role to other areas such as Pupil Premium, ethnic minorities and gifted and talented. It should be a leadership role, preferably a deputy head, and they should have both teaching and learning and pastoral strengths.

Recruit for a deputy or assistant head/principal with experience of whole-school leadership. Go for the leadership and organisational skills. It is easier to develop SEN knowledge skills with a fast learner than leadership skills with someone more inclined to working in an SEN department alone.

The INCO/SENCO has to be able to make their team of unqualified staff into an “SEN army” that is valuable to the school and they simply cannot do this without line management and leadership experience and expertise.