Schools struggle with online SEND support, say teachers

SENCOs 'overwhelmingly' also report significant increase in workload during pandemic

Amy Gibbons

Remote teaching during Covid-19 crisis

Nearly three quarters of special needs coordinators say their school has struggled to provide "differentiated" virtual support for children with additional needs during the pandemic, new findings show.

And eight in 10 secondary special educational needs coordinators (SENCOs) found it difficult to deliver online learning tailored for these pupils, according to the National SENCO Workforce Survey 2020.

The survey, which drew on 1,022 responses from SENCOs or people in equivalent roles, the majority of whom worked in mainstream schools, found that 73 per cent of coordinators said their school experienced challenges with providing "appropriately differentiated work" for children with special educational needs (SEN) during the Covid crisis, while eight out of 10 secondary SENCOs considered this to be a "challenge".


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Meanwhile, many SENCOs saw an increase in their duties relating to senior leadership and safeguarding. This, in addition to being required to teach class bubbles, meant that often their role as special needs coordinator was not their "primary focus", according to the survey report. 

The survey also found that SENCOs "overwhelmingly" reported a significantly increase in workload.

"In particular those who also had families at home, specifically those with children who were home-learning, as well as those who were shielding, experienced challenges related to managing their workload," the report said.

Other findings from the survey included:

  • Seven in 10 SENCOs (70 per cent) said the access children had to IT hardware at home was a key challenge for schools.
  • Nearly three quarters of SENCOs (72 per cent) said that, from their perspective, their school had experienced challenges in providing support in the setting for children and young people with education, health and care (EHC) plans.
  • Just over half of SENCOs (57 per cent) said the management of risk assessments for children and young people with EHC plans was an issue.
  • Nearly two thirds (64 per cent) of SENCOs said that they would like more support from central government, and over half (57 per cent) would have liked more support from the local authority.

The report made four main recommendations:

  • Access to and accessibility of virtual learning: Access to IT for all children needs to be considered as a critical issue and schools should prioritise digital learning to support young people in their future learning. Teachers need to be provided with additional support to help them differentiate for pupils with SEND.
  • Provision of central guidance and support: Guidance should be given to school leaders in advance to allow them time to plan effectively. This includes the provision of national exemplars, e.g., for risk assessments, and the development of SENCO specific guidance for responding to unprecedented events.
  • Responding to unprecedented challenges: Guidance around virtual learning and learning from the positive experiences that SENCOs reported when supported by MATs, including the development of networks and sharing of resources.
  • Working with families: Senior leaders to consider how the benefits reported from a closer relationship with families can continue to be realised in the longer term.

Helen Curran, senior lecturer in education: SEN at Bath Spa University, said: "The global pandemic has exposed the existing crisis in SEND, and amplified challenges that SENCOs already faced, such as a lack of time to execute the role.

"We know that schools have worked tirelessly to support young people during the pandemic, facing daily challenges, difficult decisions and changing national guidance.

"As we get to grips with a third lockdown and return to remote learning, there is a real risk that children with SEND will continue to be disproportionally impacted by the pandemic, unless teachers, SENCOs and pupils are given additional support in areas like providing appropriate and differentiated virtual learning."

Professor Adam Boddison, chief executive at nasen, said: "The SENCO Workforce Survey not only shines a spotlight on the strengths and challenges that impact SENCOs in their work, it also exposes some of the hidden challenges that continue to perpetuate inequalities impacting children and young people with SEND and their families.

"The pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on children and young people's social, emotional and mental health needs, exacerbating social interaction challenges. It is vital that we support them and the mental wellbeing of our education workforce. We would like to see routine wellbeing arrangements put in place following this extended period of national challenge, including priority support for SENCOs.

"Moving forward, it is important that we work collaboratively and share good practice across mainstream, special schools and specialist settings to help all children and young people, particularly those with SEND, to learn and thrive regardless of their background or need."

The Department for Education has been approached for comment.

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Amy Gibbons

Amy Gibbons

Amy Gibbons is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @tweetsbyames

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