When, after many years of teaching, I first took on the role of special educational needs and disabilities coordinator (Sendco) just over two years ago, I thought I knew quite a lot about the subject. However, I quickly realised that I had focused only on addressing the needs of particular children on a yearto-year basis. What I needed was a fuller picture of each child with SEND; their individual challenges, history and goals for the future.
Finding this kind of information is an ongoing challenge for Sendcos. Parents are an invaluable source of information, but they are also looking to you for guidance and support. It's a delicate balance, meaning that it can be difficult to ask questions, particularly if they find it painful to discuss issues relating to their child's future.
You can consult the experts, of course. The National Association for Special Educational Needs is an invaluable source of information, along with specialist texts and journals. If you are prepared to spend hours dredging through opinion and useless information to find credible sources, Google can be useful too. Yet sometimes you will need far more detailed information on specific conditions.
It is strange that Sendcos so often overlook charities as a source. Although I have information booklets filed away and have found websites helpful, I had never actually contacted a charity for help before I approached Muscular Dystrophy UK this year. I was working with a child with a complex muscle-wasting condition and needed extra support. I emailed to explain that I had read literature about muscle-wasting conditions, but that I had more questions and would like to talk to someone. Along with supplying information and phone numbers of professionals in the area who might be able to help me, the charity offered to put me in touch with a Muscular Dystrophy UK ambassador. All ambassadors have a muscle-wasting condition or a family member with one, and can help with practical support and advice.
The ambassador I was put in touch with was in his twenties and had the same condition as my pupil. He was happy to speak about his experiences of school life - face to face, over the phone or by email. The first phone call was quite nerve-racking and I was very conscious of asking silly questions about the condition he knew so well. During our 30 minutes on the phone, the ambassador put me at ease, answered my questions and told me all about his own school life. He explained what his teachers had done well for him and what could have been much better. He gave insights that only someone who had experienced similar challenges could share. For example, this young man had found himself in trouble with his teachers for shouting out in class - because his weakening muscles were preventing him from raising his arm.
In the following weeks I emailed questions as they came to me. All the "what ifs" I might have been embarrassed to ask a professional my ambassador answered in an open and honest way. And I was able to ask the most important question of all: "If I had been your teacher, how could I have made your school experience better?"
Muscular Dystrophy UK is not alone in setting up these relationships; most charities are willing to do the same. It just requires Sendcos to reach out for help. And there are many other ways that charities can assist teachers:
l Booklets and websites are a good starting point for general information - get in touch to find out if the charity has publications tailored to your needs.
l Online forums run by charities can be a good place to ask people with particular health conditions about their experiences of education.
l Contact organisations to find out if they have staff in your area. Their knowledge of local support services can be very helpful.
I have learned so much over the past six months. All children are different and I still don't have all the answers, but I do feel more confident in the support I can offer. And I am immensely grateful to my ambassador for being willing to put himself out there for the benefit of others.
The writer is a special educational needs and disabilities coordinator at a large secondary school in England