I don’t recall ever having visited Bognor Regis before, and a couple of evenings ago I enjoyed an evening stroll along the seaside promenade at Felpham beach, taking in the salty air and listening to the gentle rush of the sea against the shingle strand. This was an opportunity for relaxation before what I knew would be a busy day of teaching, and listening to presentations by a range of colleagues at the annual University of Chichester conference for special educational needs co-ordinators.
I must confess to having mixed feelings about the role so ably fulfilled by special educational needs co-ordinators, usually referred to as Sencos. They undoubtedly provide a most professionals service, developing expertise, offering advice and assisting teachers to understand the needs of children who are experiencing difficulties with learning. Their enthusiasm and dedication is seldom in question as was evidenced in the university conference centre at this well organised and attended event. The attentive audience upon which I gazed whilst giving my morning presentation provided ample evidence of their interest and eager anticipation of picking up information that might assist them in their challenging role. This level of attention was in evidence throughout all the day’s sessions, with participants taking copious notes and asking the kinds of questions that demonstrate a commitment to harvest information for use in their schools. These are indeed consummate professionals with a hunger for knowledge and a determination to improve the lot of the children with special educational needs.
My questioning of the role of the Senco, comes not from their obvious levels of commitment and devotion to their pupils, but rather in the worries I have that this may detract from the enthusiasm of their teacher colleagues. Is there a danger that teachers working in schools with highly skilled Sencos may abdicate some of their responsibility for children with special educational needs, and assume that these will be addressed by a named professional? Is it possible that the role in some way diminishes the need for others to develop the skills that these designated colleages so ably demonstrate?
Talking to Sencos throughout the day in Bognor I gained the impression that the situation in schools is variable. One lady told me about how she is given opportunities to regularly update her colleagues through professional development events. She explained how she already has two training sessions timetabled at school to disseminate some of the ideas and developments picked up during this conference. She declared that the majority of the staff in her school saw her as a supportive source of information who enabled them to develop new professional skills, knowledge and understanding and help them to apply these in the classroom. However, another young and effervescent Senco told me a different tale. In her school it would appear that as soon as there is a problem with a child who is struggling with learning, it is seen as an issue to be dealt with by her alone. She is expected to come up with a solution and apply this so that teaching may resume as usual. Would she, I wondered, have a chance to share today’s sessions in school? Sadly, she declared that if this were to happen it would be the first time ever.
I am sure that these contrasting approaches can be found in schools throughout the country. I am certainly not advocating that we dispense with the role of the Senco in order that all teachers take responsibility for every child in their class. I suspect that in many instances this simply wouldn’t happen. I am convinced that having someone I school who has both the professional knowledge and positive attitudes that I witnessed amongst the SENCOs in Bognor is a force for good. However, I do wish that more thought was given to how these excellent teachers are supported and enabled to develop the skills of their colleagues. In some situations they appear to plough a lonely furrow, bearing a weight of responsibility with limited recognition of the important skills that they have acquired or the most effective ways in which these can be deployed.
My visit to Bognor and the chance I was given to speak to, and listen and learn from these excellent teachers, was a most rewarding experience. As is always the case when teachers are gathered together, there were high levels of creativity and originality in evidence throughout the day. On the long journey home, involving four trains, I had plenty of time to reflect on the commitment I had recorded amongst these colleagues. Surely the next step towards the development of inclusive schools must be to fire all teachers with this level of professional enthusiasm for teaching learners who are currently struggling in our schools.