The Special Needs Code of Practice has given teachers more paperwork to do, and though they understand well enough that proper record keeping is necessary, the problem is finding time for it. A recent Warwick University survey for the National Union of Teachers showed that special needs co-ordinators (sencos) have on average between three-and-a-half and four minutes a week of non-contact time per special needs pupil. Some, particularly in the primary sector, have virtually no timetabled administration time at all. The question, then, is whether information technology can make the job any easier.
On the face it of, much of the senco's work looks ripe for an information technology solution. At the core of the job, for example, is keeping an up-to -date register of pupils, with copious information and notes - something that a database will do very well. Then there are all the review dates - many sencos are constantly anxious about forgetting important dates, and yet it is easy to devise computer software which will flag up imminent dates and deadlines. The computer, too, can help with the production of standard letters; with the transfer of notes from a computerised diary to a more formal document; with the building up of individual education plans (IEPs). In short, well run software will help the senco by making data accessible: by helping to keep the timetable of events under control and by reducing the number of times that the same piece of information has to be written down.
Whether or not IT can really be the senco's salvation, however, depends on a number of factors, not least of which is the opportunity for training. The senco needs first of all to be convinced that IT will help - and this may not be at all obvious to the well-organised teacher who already has a proven and efficient paper based tracking and recording system. And once converted to the need for IT, the senco must be given time and support to learn the system. If the system is good, payback time will eventually arrive, but management will need to be patient in the meantime.
There is also the matter of access to the school's computerised administration. Very many schools, for example, have a management information system based in the school offices and understood only by the administrative staff and the senior management team. If such a centralised system grows, or is adapted to accommodate the needs of the senco, then it will presumably be necessary for the senco to have access to the office computer.
A number of software packages are designed to help with the senco's administration. Senco from SIMS is a new module in what is a well-established and familiar modular school management system. It runs under Windows, and is integrated with the rest of the SIMS system so that pupil data is read directly from the SIMS student record (STAR) module and therefore any change to the central student record is automatically passed on to the Senco module.
SIMS Senco enables the co-ordinator to maintain the SEN register, recording reviews and outcomes, and dates as well as building IEPs. A range of printouts is available - standard letters of invitation to meetings for example. Access to the module is also available through the Sims "Midas" facility which enables senior management to "dip" into each management module to gather information.
Because SIMS is in most schools, many sencos and heads will shortly have to decide how to put this new module into action. They will find that it will provide help for just about anything that the co-ordinator has to do. However, like any other SIMS module, it will need to be learned, and when installation time arrives, heads will have to decide just how the co-ordinator is going to work with it. Will the senco have direct access, either in the office or on a network terminal? Or will an administrative assistant work with the senco, providing the IT skills and allowing the senco to concentrate on management? If these questions are not tackled, then this valuable curriculum management tool may languish, under-used, on the office computer.
It is this access problem that Ernest Clarke's SENCO Solution is intended to tackle. This firm has already gathered a band of enthusiasts for its recording and reporting software, which is designed to be used in the classroom, by the teacher, using the classroom computer. SENCO Solution aims for the same kind of accessibility. It needs to be set up on a PC, but reports and reviews can then be written on "Senco Teacher Disks" using standard classroom computers such as Archimedes and Nimbus 186.
This system is easy to use - the menus are clear and the functions are easily accessible - and it too offers help with just about all of the jobs that the senco has to do, from writing standard letters to keeping dates in view. Particularly attractive is a menu item called "Outstanding Work" which automatically updates itself with things you still have to do, and then displays them at a press of a key. This one feature will cut out some senco sleepless nights.
Several other systems are listed here (see panel), and some sencos find that they can work well enough with whatever administration software the school already has - a standard database and a word processor are already enough to make the job a little easier.