By law, every school has to have one - someone who sees to it that all children with special needs have those needs met; someone who ensures that pupils with learning difficulties get the right teaching, resources and moral support.
At small primary schools, the special educational needs co-ordinator (Senco) may be a class teacher who is given a few hours off the timetable to carry out their duties. In larger secondaries, it's a full-time role. The proportion of children with special educational needs (SEN) is about one in five nationally, and in many schools it's more than one in three.
At Horbury School in Wakefield, where 29 per cent of pupils have statements of special needs, Jenny Stephenson, a Senco, manages a team of 20 teaching assistants. "My task is to co-ordinate that team, work to their strengths and get the best out of them. The position of teaching assistant is quite poorly paid, so you need to make assistants feel confident and valued."
The Senco role is demanding because special educational needs is such a wide-reaching term. Those needs might be emotional, intellectual or physical. Dyslexia is perhaps the most common problem, but other difficulties could include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyspraxia, autism, Asperger's syndrome, hearing or visual impairment and general behavioural problems. In some schools, Sencos may be responsible for gifted and talented children.
Essentially, the job breaks down into two parts - assessing needs and addressing needs. In other words, making sure problems are identified and coming up with appropriate support strategies. You need to keep abreast of new research, timetable one-to-one support, work closely with class teachers, organise whole-school inset days and monitor pupils' progress. Most Sencos say the toughest part of the job is finding time to get everything done.
"It's also demanding emotionally," says Mrs Stephenson. "When you see a child with complex needs suddenly learn how to use a computer, and you see the thrill on their face - it's a wonderful feeling. But there are other times when it can seem like one challenge after another."
Kay Campbell is a Senco and inclusion manager at High View Primary School in Sutton, Surrey. After being a class teacher for 10 years, she applied for a Senco job that is non-class based. "That's important in my view, because you need time if you're going to do this job well. How some people manage to be a Senco as well as a class teacher, I don't know. Having said that, I still teach different classes in the school, which keeps me up to date and means that when a teacher comes to see me about a child, I know who they're talking about.
"What I enjoy most about my job is that I get to interact with every member of staff, and get to shape the future of SEN with the help of dedicated teaching assistants. I'm a member of the senior leadership team and that's important to me because it means I can influence whole school practice."
Ms Campbell's day is spent teaching groups or meeting with individuals, seeing parents or outside agencies. "It's interesting and busy. Sometimes people expect you to have all the answers and think problems can be solved instantly. You have to be a good communicator, be organised with your paperwork and understand the pressures and reality for class teachers. Above all, you're there to champion different groups of children and ensure their needs are being met," she says
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WHERE YOU STAND
- Salary Depends how many people you'll be managing. In some schools, the post of Senco carries leadership status, in others it's more low profile. Generally speaking, salaries are rising. Most advertised jobs promise a TLR1 or TLR2 allowance - between Pounds 2,400 and Pounds 11,800 on top of your basic salary.
- Key qualities Organisational skills, tact and a positive approach.
- Qualifications Regulations coming into force this September mean new Sencos will need to be qualified teachers and undergo nationally accredited training. Currently, many Sencos are teaching assistants who stepped up to the role so don't have qualified teacher status.
- Next steps Universities often run courses and modules for SEN teachers. One of the most extensive programmes is at the Institute of Education www.ioe.ac.uksenjit.