"Have you ever thought about headship?”
If someone had asked me this question back when I was working as a Sendco I would have laughed at them. I had an overflowing register of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), countless meetings with parents and an ever-shrinking funding pot to worry about. Headship? No way.
But a headteacher is exactly what I became and, looking back, the Sendco role was instrumental in laying the foundations that I would need to lead a school.
I wasn’t a Sendco for long, but I have since worked alongside brilliant ones and come into contact with others as the mother of a child with special needs. Without a shadow of a doubt, they are a workforce to be reckoned with and a sadly untapped resource when it comes to school leadership.
Here’s why I think that Sendcos make great headteachers.
1. They are child-focused
If being prepared to fight tooth and nail for children is a desirable quality for a headteacher, then you can be sure that Sendcos have this quality in buckets. They aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in. Often mistaken as the sole teacher of children with special educational needs, Sendcos face a constant battle to convince colleagues that every teacher is a teacher of SEND. They are used to standing up to other members of staff and always putting children first.
And I doubt that there is a decent Sendco in the land who would refuse to admit a child with SEND to their school for fear of what it might do to the school’s Progress 8 score. They are the values-driven leaders we need in these challenging times.
2. They make ends meet
Sendcos have been having to make do for a long time now: whether it’s because decisions have been made not to replace teaching assistants as they move on to other roles or schools; funding allocated by local authorities has shrunk beyond recognition; or that thresholds for education, health and care plans (EHCP) have sky rocketed. They have sadly been managing dwindling budgets for years.
The current funding crisis hit children with SEND first and Sendcos, much like headteachers, are the ones who have had to make the impossible decisions – all while keeping the needs of the most vulnerable children front and centre.
3. They know teaching and learning
The Sendco role is the perfect blend of curriculum and pastoral leadership. The need to educate holistically is never more apparent than when you are working with a vulnerable child. Making learning accessible for those pupils who experience significant barriers is a complex skill, and it is a true art to juggle the needs of many different children at the same time. No two children are the same, even if they have the same diagnosis or label, so Sendcos have to become adept at educational roulette – spinning the wheel and trying something new that just might work.
In terms of being adventurous, innovative and solution-focused, Sendos have it covered. These are skills they can carry into headship.
4. They manage large teams
Teaching assistants are incredible. Paid a pittance, they work tirelessly for children they care about and will always go above and beyond to do the right thing. However, managing teaching assistants can make herding cats look easy.
It takes subtle HR skills to balance as many different contracts, hours, timetables and commitments as there are TAs, while also keeping them cheerful – some teachers can really take their teaching assistants for granted. The TA team is usually one of the largest departments in the school, and often one of the most overlooked.
On top of overseeing their immediate team, Sendcos are responsible for the outcomes of a substantial number of children, so they also have to manage pretty much everyone else in and around the school. They have to hold teachers and senior leaders to account, while working closely with governors and a wide range of external professionals. Very few other positions in a school provide this same experience.
5. They are used to working with parents
I am the “pushy” parent of a child with special needs; there are lots of us out there and some schools think we’re more nuisance than partner. But the very best Sendcos are patient listeners. They create school-home partnerships that enable children to thrive. If your current role limits your contact with parents to the odd phone call, becoming a Sendco will quickly change that.
The encounters that you have with pupils’ parents as a Sendco are overwhelmingly rewarding: whether it is listening to a mum whose child is refusing to take their medication, advising a dad who isn’t sure what to ask when talking to a doctor, or providing strategies to help a gran support her dyslexic grandchild.
Knowing how to calm down an irate parent who has been let down, again, will be a challenge initially, but this becomes easier and is definitely preparation for headship.
I am sure that there are still Sendcos out there reading this and laughing. But if we want our leaders to be committed, values-driven and hardworking, then I honestly think that the Sendco role is a great place to start.
Keziah Featherstone is co-founder and national leader for #WomenEd. She is a member of the Headteachers’ Roundtable and headteacher at Q3 Academy Tipton