Sencos' roles have expanded greatly - preparing them for senior leadership positions. Diana Hinds reports
The role of special needs co-ordinators has changed greatly in the past ten years. Many special needs teachers joined the profession because they wanted to help children who had difficulty learning.
Today, although Sencos still spend some time working with these children, they have a broad range of responsibilities: managing support staff, leading a department, and liaising across the school to raise awareness of special needs.
Inclusion has pushed Sencos into the limelight. Many schools now take on more children with special needs and cope with a far greater range and depth of difficulty. The Government's Code of Practice has moved the emphasis in special needs from children with statements to the far larger number of children on the special needs register who require a range of support.
KEYS TO CO-ORDINATION
The Senco's role is pivotal. Every teacher in the school should be looking to the Senco for tips on learning support strategies, advice on schemes of work, help with writing individual education plans or managing difficult behaviour.
Parents come to Sencos with concerns about their children's progress.
Outside agencies, such as health and social services, co-ordinate their support via the Senco. Senior managers raise issues with the Senco relating to budgets or whole-school policy.
"Sencos find themselves managing upwards, downwards and sideways across the entire range of personnel in a school, negotiating with and influencing colleagues from the headteacher to the least experienced member of staff," says Lynn Moran of the Centre for Education Leadership, University of Manchester.
The modern Senco is also an advocate. He or she speaks up for special needs children and is accountable to them, says Dr Robin Attfield, assistant director of leadership programmes at the National College for School Leadership (NCSL).
He adds that Sencos are also becoming more "analytical" as they assume responsibility for budgets and resources.
Alison Matthews, assistant head (special needs), at Stantonbury Campus, Milton Keynes, started out as a learning support teacher in the early 1980s; her role was to give extra help to children in a mainstream setting.
"Teaching assistants now do what I was recruited to do at the start of my career - and that's a big change," she says.
Like many Sencos, Matthews has found her job growing steadily more managerial. She is now a member of Stantonbury's leadership team, overseeing the work of the school's large special educational needs faculty, in addition to her teaching and support work in the classroom.
"The management side is very interesting," she says. "If you have a Senco who is part of discussions at a higher level he or she can make people aware of inclusion issues - for instance, in relation to admission policy, or exam entry - so your group of special needs children do not get marginalised."
Matthews sees herself as a leader in the school. "A big role in leadership is to bring on other leaders. The danger is that everyone relies on someone like me for the bigger picture; as a leader, I need to get other people involved in that."
Such are the demands now placed on Sencos that many see them as ideal candidates to move into senior management positions. "If the job is done well, it is a fantastic preparation for senior leadership roles," says Robin Attfield.
Some Sencos work their way up with little specific management training, learning on the job from their line managers. But a good training course can help raise a Senco's awareness of the complexity of the role, as well as kindling an interest in leadership. Local authorities have a statutory duty to support Sencos, though training provision can be patchy.
Last autumn, NCSL, with specialist input from Lynn Moran and Robin Attfield, extended Leading from the Middle, its one-year development programme for school subject leaders, to include Sencos.
Leading from the Middle is a school-based course, where the Senco works with a group of two-to-four middle leaders from his or her school, supported by a senior teacher.
Outside school, there are two twilight induction sessions, and three development days, one a term, focused on skills. In between, the Senco works through an online programme of interactive questions and theoretical items (some of which are specifically geared to Sencos) and undertakes a school-based written project.
Andy Martin, programme manager at leadership consultancy Heads, Teachers and Industry (HTI), which runs the NCSL training centre in the West Midlands, says that Sencos frequently have "a superb, broad view of their school" . But, he adds, they, like other middle leaders, tend to underrate themselves.
"Leading from the Middle gives Sencos a chance to step back and reflect on their practice, and look at the theory that is out there," he says. "For others on the course - subject heads, heads of year - it also helps to place the role of the Senco: some people may not be fully aware of what Sencos do, and the Senco can be a bit isolated."