Is standard training for Sencos stumbling on the starting block?
It has been more than 30 years since pupils with special needs began to be widely accepted in mainstream classrooms, yet the role of Sencos has long been hard to pin down.
In recent years, there have been signs that this is set to change, with proposals for new qualifications to formalise precisely what Sencos should know and do.
But the courses, which are due to get under way this September and will be compulsory for all new Sencos, are far from settled and are even troubled.
The courses have been set up to address serious concerns about the perceived "low status" of Sencos and to raise the profile of special needs and disabilities in schools.
Many issues are still to be resolved, including who will run them - for example, course and contact details will not be distributed until June, a very late stage in the school year. This tight timescale means Sencos in some areas will not be able to begin the course until January, or even September 2010.
And it will be available free only to newly appointed Sencos. Those experienced in the job who want to study will have to pay the fees themselves, and there is only enough funding to provide 10 days' cover for participants. The economic downturn and its effect on public finances mean it is unlikely that the money will be found to make the course free for more teachers.
The role of Sencos was only formally established in 1994. While the idea of standardised training was first mooted by a Commons education and skills select committee in 2006, draft proposals for the new course were completed only last summer. Even the Training and Development Agency for Schools, which is developing the course, says there are concerns about the speed of its introduction.
Phil Snell, responsible for the agency's SEN and disabilities programmes, said: "We know there are significant issues in respect of timing. Ministers were keen for it to start this September, but there are concerns about this providing enough time for schools. We also know there are concerns about the training being restricted to those new in the role."
Speaking at a Senco conference, Mr Snell said he hoped the extra training would help Sencos to lead others rather than taking on extra tasks themselves.
The course will be held online and is meant to take a year part-time. Modules will earn students credits that can be used in masters courses.
"What's important is there is maximum flexibility of access and that accreditation doesn't take teachers away from the classroom, and some schools have applied to be training providers," Mr Snell said.
"But rigorous quality assurance must be met because we want consistency."
Training providers will face regular inspections by both the TDA and Ofsted.
Mr Snell wants the new generation of Sencos to challenge other staff who do not recognise their responsibilities towards children with special needs, and to monitor pupils' progress more closely.
The Government will agree funding arrangements this autumn and the deadline for bids from prospective training providers was last week.
The select committee's July 2006 report also recommended that all Sencos should be qualified teachers, in a senior management position and appropriately trained. If the Senco is not a headteacher, assistant or deputy head, another member of the senior management team should be made a "champion" of SEN and disability issues.
Until the Education and Inspections Act 2006, there was no legal requirement for schools to have a Senco, nor for the co-ordinators to be trained teachers.
The first Senco training run by universities began in 1997-98 when six were given permission by the then Teacher Training Agency to run the courses.
It has proven popular, but many Sencos have been unable to train because of the cost and time involved. Sir Alan Steer, the Government's behaviour "tsar" has recommended better SEN training for teachers.
Pearl Barnes, vice-president of NASEN, the national special needs organisation, said she hoped the training would help to improve the variable provision for SEN pupils across the country.
"You have a lot of good schools and local authorities and some who aren't so good, and we hope this will universally improve the quality of teaching for children with special educational needs," she said.
"According to a study by Leeds University, 50 per cent of Sencos are due to retire soon, so although this training is only mandatory for those new to the post, in the long term it will make a big difference.
"We can't understand why the introduction of this training has taken so long. It was recommended when the code of practice for SEN was revised in 2001, and nothing had been done in 2004."
Lecturers at Northampton University, which runs Senco modules as part of its MA in education, will bid to run the new nationally accredited training.
Barry Groom, who teaches the courses, said he hoped they would serve to "underpin" the importance of Sencos' role in schools.
"We hope it will bring their work into sharper focus, especially now when 20 per cent of pupils have SEN and the skills and knowledge required by teachers becomes ever more specialist," he said.
Mr Groom, a former special school head and SEN adviser, runs the classes at the university and in the surrounding areas of Milton Keynes and Bedfordshire to make it easier for teachers to attend.
"The feedback from teachers is that it helps their confidence and I think the fact that legislation will give a boost to these kind of courses is fantastic," he said.
"Many people come on the courses because they hope to become Sencos in the future. It's a really tough job, but at the moment Sencos are usually only allowed on courses when it fits in with the school's development. They often can't spare the time out of the classroom either."
Mr Groom says he is likely to adjust his existing course so it meets the TDA criteria.
Most people recognise, however, that the problems of Sencos are broader than of training. For example, a recent survey by NASEN showed that most Sencos devote up to 12 hours a week to their role, while 60 per cent said they had a much lower budget for their work than they needed.
It is far from clear whether the new qualification will be able to resolve these problems. In fact, it may just make them worse.
Key areas covered by the new Senco training:
- Statutory and regulatory frameworks
- High-incidence SEN and disabilities and how they affect participation and learning
- Using evidence to inform practice
- Financial planning, budget management and use of resources in line with best-value principles
- Strategies for improving outcomes
- Use of tools for collecting, analysing and using data
- Deploying staff and managing resources
- Drawing on external sources of support and expertise
- Consulting, engaging and communicating with colleagues, parents and carers and pupils.