A poisoned chalice?

SENCOs reveal what they think of their role in a survey by Suanne Gibson and Sonia Blandford

Inclusion means many things to many people. Its definition is still to be confirmed and clarified by the departments of education, health and social services, all of which are involved in its processes. Until this has been done, SENCOs may continue to view their role as a "poisoned chalice". This is what our research into inclusion within the mainstream secondary school sector suggests. We used this definition of inclusion: "Inclusion refers to the opportunity for all persons with a disability to participate fully in all of the educational, employment, consumer, recreational, community and domestic activities that typify everyday society," from Inclusion International, a UN-linked organisation that advocates for the human rights of people with disabilities, quoted in Promoting Inclusive Practice (C Tilstone, L Florian, R Rose, Routledge 1998).

At present, policy development seems to have stagnated, despite the high priority which the Department for Education and Employment has given to promoting inclusion. This has left many SENCOs feeling unsure about the truth behind the inclusion agenda of this Government. One asked: "Do they really want to promote an egalitarian society or is it about cost cutting?" Sceptical comments abound: "Until the Government gets the new Code of Practice published, which it has been working on since 1998, and until it acknowledges that funding for SEN should go directly to the schools, and not the local education authority, this grandiose ideal of inclusion will remain a grandiose ideal."

In theory, the inclusion agenda is in keeping with humanist ideals for British society in the new century. Since the 1960s, mainstream education has come a long way in promoting access for people deemed to have needs of a special nature. Educationists have moved on, from classifying and categorising their students pre-1978, to acknowledging that all pupils, as all people, have individual needs. We are becoming an increasingly individualistic society and this is reflected in education, which has recently embraced inclusion.

Yet, as one SENCO said: "It is a poisoned chalice. How can I possibly try to assure my headteacher that this is the right way forward when his priority is that of the league tables ... he doesn't want educational and behavioural difficulties cases pulling our school status down, and I can see his point, but this goes against my beliefs and the Government push for full access."

Has the Government got it wrong? The agendas of OFSTED and the DFEE appear to be diametrically opposed, not so much in theory as in practical effects. One side promotes full access for all regardless of need, while the other side-tracks, recording and publicising the GCSE grades of the very establishments that are struggling to provide for all? Yet the SENCO must battle on.

For some, the job is one of joy and satisfaction: "I have recently been promoted to the senior management team and this has given me more clout. Without this post I couldn't do my job"; "We restructured our school management system two years ago after a devastating OFSTED report, where the SENCO was held accountable for the poor organisation of the SEN department. As deputy head I wa drafted in to take over her post"; "I believe that to do this job you need to have the managerial expertise and ear of the senior management. It demands more than just teaching skills, you must have good administrative skills and be able to manage many people effectively"; "I need a PA for at least five hours a week. If I could have that, I could get on with my specialism - working with those pupils who, for one reason or another, are having a tougher time than the other 80 per cent."

We surveyed two-thirds of SENCOs throughout England's mainstream secondary school system and found a committed and philosophical group of professionals who are struggling under "masses of paperwork" and "low self-esteem". Most believe that they need higher status within the school managerial system. Middle management status, although the position for more than two-thirds of the nation's SENCOs, holds them back from key decision-making processes, accessed only within the circles of senior management. This leaves SENCOs with less time to work with their pupils as they battle for funds and action.

One SENCO said: "SEN is a whole-school issue. I need to have more status to ensure that all the staff are made aware of their responsibility to address the SEN of their pupils and to ensure I get the funding I need for my pupils." Until mainstream school managerial systems take the plunge and re-evaluate SEN as a whole-school priority that all staff are affected by - and affect - then SENCOs will be left still holding a poisoned chalice. Move over bureaucracy, embrace these highly skilled individuals: you need them if you are to realise the much-publicised philosophy of inclusion.

Suanne Gibson is a full-time researcher and Dr Sonia Blandford is a senior lecturer at Oxford Brookes University. The survey was part of Suanne Gibson's current PhD research. SENCOs who would like a copy of the research can e-mail: sgibson@brookes.ac.uk


Postal questionnaires were sent to two thirds of all mainstream secondary SENCOs in England (2,000 SENC0s). There was a 49 per cent response. Telephone interviews were conducted with 100 of the SENCOs.

The questionnaires had 30 questions divided into three sections: school management, values and beliefs and community involvement.

The following four statements were among those we asked SENCOs to agree, strongly agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with, or to say if they were unsure: There should be a faculty link representative who meets regularly with the SEN department 94 per cent of the SENCOs who responded agreed, and more than half of these agreed strongly.

The SEN governor needs to play an active role in the SEN department 81 per cent agreed, half of them strongly and although 10 per cent were unsure only 9 per cent disagreed The middle management status of SENCOs inhibits them from fulfilling all their statutory duties 68 per cent agreed, much more than half strongly, although 20 per cent disagreed, a small number strongly, and about 12 per cent were not sure.

Sencos should hold a senior position within the schools if the practice of inclusion is to become a reality More than 85 per cent agreed, a large majority of them strongly, and only about 5 per cent disagreed, while just a few remained unsure.

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