ho is the most important professional in the life of children with special needs: their educational psychologist, their classroom teacher, or their special needs co-ordinator?
Whatever the answer, few people would dispute the crucial role of the Senco. "It's such a complicated job," says Ann Shellard, Senco at Blackpool's Claremont primary school. "There are so many aspects to it. We have children with sensory impairment, with severe and profound learning difficulties, with autism. You are dealing with a variety of agencies and with concerned parents. If a child needs a statement that might require evidence to be collected, I'm very aware that if I can't get that child a statement I may be doing him or her an injustice."
Shellard has a postgraduate diploma in special educational needs. But she has met Sencos who have no knowledge of the statementing process, and is acutely aware that no compulsory training or qualification is required.
National standards for Sencos were issued by the Government in 1998, says Lorraine Peterson, chief executive of Nasen, the special needs association.
But they are not compulsory and there are no plans to update them, despite the fact that the training and development agency is updating the standards for qualified teacher status.
These issues are becoming more important because of the structural changes in schools created by the new teachers' contract, which aims to control teacher workload.
Changes began with the removal of routine administration tasks from a teacher's daily routine. In September last year, a new entitlement to planning and preparation time gave all teachers a legal right to non-contact time, allowing primary teachers to catch up with their secondary colleagues. At the same time, schools began restructuring pay, allowances and promoted posts, reflecting the new reality that all promoted positions in a school should reflect responsibilities related to teaching and learning.
It's the side effects of this process that worry Nasen. "A lot of the admin work associated with the Senco role has been taken over by classroom assistants. Some heads are saying that they do not need a teacher as a Senco," says Lorraine Peterson.
"We are hearing more and more about these cases. Some of our members have lost their salary points for being a Senco, and some schools are getting around the issue of management responsibility by appointing a senior manager as an inclusion manager."
The TES has spoken to a Senco in a south coast school whose job will be filled by a higher-level teaching assistant when she leaves later this year. "I was horrified," she says. "The assistant is good at her job, but has had no training to prepare her for the Senco role."
This is not an isolated case. Advertisements have appeared in The TES inviting applications for Senco jobs from teaching assistants. The newspaper has also heard of a case in east London where a school offered the Senco's post to a newly qualified teacher in her induction year at the school.
Nasen has raised the issue with the General Teaching Council and with ministers. "We met Lord Adonis a few weeks ago and he seemed totally unaware of the situation," says Peterson.
She has concerns about non-teachers taking up the Senco role. "Nobody would put down the work of higher level assistants, but it's not a graduate-level qualification," she says. "If a Senco who is not a teacher is monitoring the practice in their school it would be difficult for them to go to a teacher and say, 'You are not really doing this right.'"
The concern about the lack of a compulsory qualification for the Senco role goes beyond the current debate around the re-allocation of allowances.
The TES spoke to an educational psychologist working across the west Midlands who described the quality of Sencos she met as "very, very variable".
"Some are excellent, with all the experience and qualifications that one would wish and expect," she said. "Others are - frankly - embarrassing.
They appear to know virtually nothing about special needs, and are not fighting the special needs corner in discussions with the senior management of their schools."
This is a critical point. Schools receive specific funding for special needs and there are many who believe that Sencos should have a position on a school's senior management team to ensure that the money is actually spent on supporting special needs children.
That's not an issue in Blackpool, where Claremont's head, Pat Wills, is extremely supportive of special needs. But Ann Shellard does believe that the Senco should be a member of a school's senior management team.
"I manage our inclusion team and the learning support team. We have 200 children on the special needs register in this school and it's a big job.
"I think it's a senior management role, and I think there should be a requirement for a qualification and teaching experience. That might stop the job being foisted upon people who are not ready."
Many local authorities have a training framework for Sencos. Others run induction training for Sencos new to the role.
A number of universities run a diploma level course in special needs. The Open University advanced diploma is typical; it's a postgraduate qualification designed to help teachers prevent or reduce difficulties in learning encountered by pupils in all curriculum areas. It is not a specific qualification for the Senco role.
* Open University Advanced Diploma in Special Needs: www3.open.ac.ukcourses
* Nasen: www.nasen.org.uk