How to thrive, not just survive, during your first year as a special needs co-ordinator. Susanna Pinkus leads the way through the maze of paperwork and requirements
When they appointed me, honestly, I had absolutely no idea what I was taking on. At the interview my headteacher simply told me, 'You will be taking Year 1 and, by the way, you will be taking on the role of Senco, too'."
Shockingly, this is not an uncommon story. The teacher quoted had no special needs training and just a weekly half-day release time to fulfil her Senco duties overseeing the 85 children on the register, eight of whom had statements.
A recent National Association of Head Teachers survey revealed that some Sencos are appointed without even having qualified teacher status. Of course, those new to the role can draw on the support of more experienced colleagues and gradually establish ways of working to fit the needs of their pupils and school.
But for those new to the job who are feeling a bit at sea, here are some tried and tested tips to help you stay afloat: School cycle Try to meet the previous Senco and find out about your school's existing special needs cycle. Important questions to ask include: How many children have special needs? What are their needs and attached provision? When do individual education plans (IEP) come out? When are annual reviews due? With an overview of existing school procedures, you will be more effective in deciding what needs to be done and in what order - and what can be deferred.
Top tip: Get an A4 diary where you bullet point everything you prepare and do daily. This will be helpful to you as a plan of action and good evidence should others need to see it. And on those days where nothing seems to be going right, it can be uplifting to look back and think, "Wow, I have actually got so much done this term".
Individual education plans as working documents These are often viewed as another burden for busy teachers which has little impact on learning. Discuss ways of reducing unnecessary paperwork with colleagues. Is it helpful to have all children's needs recorded and planned for in existing ways? Could some children, for example, be on collective IEPs?
Top tip: Always give a staff deadline several days before your IEP deadline to ensure there is time to chase late deliverers.
Policy into practice Familiarise yourself with your school's special needs policy. Is it an accurate reflection of practice?
Top tip: If you decide to rewrite your policy, don't reinvent the wheel.
Scour the internet for models, speak to your special needs adviser and ask other Sencos for a copy of theirs.
Know your children Obvious, perhaps, but it is surprisingly easy to become so caught up in the constant demands of the job that you forget to meet them. Block in time to really get to know them, not just in the formal learning context of the classroom.
Top tip: Set up a club. A gardening group has proven to be a fun way of getting to know many children in my school, of boosting their self-esteem and promoting true inclusion.
Keep special needs on the agenda Negotiate prominent board space inside and outside school to promote and share special needs information to staff and parents.
Top tip: Have a box, changed weekly, of exciting and inspiring resources in the staffroom which colleagues can book out and use with their classes.
Themed boxes such as "behaviour management" and "boosting literacy skills"
can work well.
Family matters Parents are often the missing links in working with children. Get to know all the parents of the children in your care.
Top tip: Swap email addresses with parents. You will reduce the messages clogging up your pigeon-hole and at the same time encourage open dialogue.
You can also print out your conversations for your tracking files and give copies to busy colleagues.
Nothing succeeds like success.
Adopt a drip-drip approach, modelling good practice. Try inspiring colleagues and children rather than imposing.
Top tip: Pilot initiatives for a fixed period with small groups of children. If it doesn't work, nothing is lost. Review the outcome before committing to it long term.
Have a presence Maintain a high presence around the school and try to be in the staffroom at lunch times. Although you may not manage to eat much, chatting over a sandwich can clue you up to evolving issues and will enable your early input to minimise future difficulties.
Top tip: Keep large quantities of non-perishable snacks hidden in your office for later on
Dr Susanna Pinkus is a SencoAdvanced Skills Teacher in special needs in Harrow. She is also an academic affiliated to the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. In the New Year: Part Two - how to win hearts and minds