A Greenwich SENCO writes about the challenges and rewards of working with children with special needs.
Introducing the Secret SENCO
When I first heard Jo and Viv from Greenwich Parent Voice (GPV) speak at an SEND reforms conference, I knew I’d stumbled across two people who were passionate and enthusiastic and instantly knew I had to get involved with whatever it was they were doing. I work as a SENCO in a London school and I’ve agreed to write for GPV with the aim of giving parents an insight into the ‘other side’. I’ve got lots of scenarios, ideas and situations to share with you but before we get started with that, I first want to set the scene and introduce myself, so here goes…
Before I started teaching I worked in what many refer to as the ‘real world’. I spent my days working up the big smoke, surround by adults and trekking around London pitching for new business for the corporate machine I once worked for. Did I enjoy my job? Kind of. Was it fulfilling? Absolutely not. So when redundancy came up I decided to take the money and run, break the cycle if you like and move into something more rewarding. That something was teaching.
Having graduated with a 2.1 in Law four years previous, I decided to qualify as a Primary school teacher via the PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate in Education). Now you’ll come to learn that everything in education is an acronym and so to become a qualified teacher you actually have to learn a second language which no one else in the world will ever understand. Despite the university prospectus selling the course as a ‘well balanced blend of teaching practice, tutorials and lectures’, the PGCE actually looked something like this: get into school for 7am, teach from 8.30am -3.30pm with no time to take a break or eat your lunch.
Mark up to 120 books a night ready for the next day’s lesson. Drag everyone and anyone you know in to making resources for your elaborate and creative Maths lesson which is guaranteed to engage everyone in the class from SEN (Special Educational Needs) to G&T (Gifted and Talented) children. And if you’re having a really good day you’re probably on track to get to bed by 1am only to be woken up again at 5.30am ready to do it all again. Throw in a couple of essays, portfolios, university lectures and lesson observations along the way and you’re coming close to understanding what the world of a student teacher really looks like. Yes it was hard, yes it was exhausting and yes my social life no longer existed but I thrived on the lack of sleep, the never ending to-do list and the new challenge that every lesson threw at me. Did I enjoy my new job? Yes. Was it fulfilling? It was getting there.
I qualified in 2011 and began working as an NQT (Newly Qualified Teacher) in Year 4 at an Ofsted rated ‘outstanding’ school in London. My first class of 32 had eight children on the SEN register and their needs varied from ASD and ADHD to Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and Global Developmental Delay. It was my job to meet all of their needs, ensure they were making progress and justify myself in pupil progress meetings when these children didn’t meet their targets. My lessons were differentiated in six ways to ensure all my eight SEN children could access what the rest of class were doing. I felt like a conveyor belt, creating endless resources to keep my SEN children engaged, motivated and on-track.
It was during a pupil progress meeting in the spring term that my head of year highlighted the fact that my SEN children were making progress, which was great as this is something most teachers find difficult to do. However, my G&T were not making the accelerated progress the school expected and the rest of my class were making good progress but apparently ‘I could have been doing more for them’. At that moment I realised that if the bags under my eyes, the suitcase full of newly marked books I dragged to school every day and the constant smell of coffee on my breath wasn’t enough to suggest that it would be physically impossible for me to do any more, then I didn’t know what would. I needed to refocus focus my interests and skill set.
Teaching 32 mixed ability children wasn’t for me; I needed to move into a role that would allow me to focus on working with and supporting children with SEN. I needed to find a job as a SENCO (Special Educational Needs Co-Ordinator) which is exactly what I did.
It wasn’t easy finding a SENCO role, they were sought after positions. I had to move boroughs and change schools but I found what I was looking for. Eighteen months later I’ve got 26 children on my SEN register and could tell you everything and anything you needed to know about each and every one of them. I’ve built good relationships with their parents and I do my utmost to ensure that the right services are involved and their needs are met. Being a SENCO is a never ending balancing act, the to-do list never seems to lessen and there’s always a new spreadsheet to compile, a new initiative to buy into or someone new to please.
The amount of support available to children and their families is phenomenal but then so is the red tape, the paper work and the endless referrals you have to make before you can finally access the service you actually wanted in the first place. Co-ordinating and managing specialist services for 26 children and their families, at times, seems like an impossible task but you get it done because that’s your job. Despite the fact I never switch off from work, work most of the school holidays and whatever I do for some people will never be enough I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Do I enjoy my job? Yes. Is it fulfilling? Absolutely.”
When your best just isn't good enough!
When asked the question “What do you do for a living?”, I tell people I’m a teacher. See, I have learnt from experience that trying to explain the whole SENCO thing usually leaves you faced with one of two situations 1) an individual trying to initiate an in-depth discussion about everything that is wrong with today’s education system – despite the fact they last set foot in a school 20 years ago or 2) complete confusion: “You’re a what?!”
“I’m a teacher” is by far the most manageable response unless you are then greeted with “Oh my God I love children! It must be great to just play around all day!” – honestly someone actually once said that to me – at which point you longer associate with said individual. Or if you are talking to someone with an ounce of intelligence you get something along the lines of “That must be so rewarding!” Finally someone gets it.
Yes, teaching is rewarding but as I’ve said before it is also extremely tough, the hours are long, the marking is never ending and the extra-curricular demands are tip of the sinking iceberg. You work hard because you enjoy your job and you are passionate about making a difference plus there is nothing more satisfying than after hours of intervention and 1:1 support, a child flagged up as ‘stuck’ in your last pupil progress meeting finally gets it! It is the best feeling and the sense of achievement is superb. But here’s the thing; when you are doing everything you can to support a child but their attainment doesn’t reflect the level of teaching input suddenly your best just isn’t good enough. Allow me to put that into a context…
I am currently working with a child who, in my opinion, has made fantastic progress, they are no longer on P Levels (performance targets for children with special needs), their self-esteem actually exists and they are spending 50% more time in the classroom because their reduced anxiety and improved behaviour means they can function in a mainstream environment – huge progress, right? Well, apparently not. Their academic progress is labelled “satisfactory” and their academic attainment is 2 whole levels below where it should be despite hours of additional 1:1 support. Their limited academic progress says they are below national average and so that just is not good enough according to an ever-growing pile of letters from the child’s parents.
I believe and know from experience that when you are working with a child who has additional needs you should focus on they can do and not on what they can’t. So what can this child now do that they could not do last year? Well, they can now read with more fluency, they understand what they are reading, they are accessing 50% more whole class learning, they can participate in a mainstream lessons without the emotional outbursts, they can use resources to support their numeracy but most importantly, now that they feel they are good at something, they no longer start every lesson with “I can’t do it!” Ultimately they now believe in themselves – but how do you show that on an assessment grid?
In its simplest form the theory behind the role of the SENCO is to take the lead in managing the provisions for a child with additional needs to ensure they make progress. However, in practice the role of the SENCO has a far more human element to it and a great deal of time is spent managing parent expectations, teacher expectations, parent emotions, teacher emotions as well as managing and controlling your own emotions and why? Because you care. Knowing that you are doing everything you can to support a child’s learning and knowing that they are making progress is extremely rewarding. Knowing you are doing everything you can and yet the most important people in that child’s life still do not think it is good enough is far from rewarding.
So I guess what I am trying to say is that just because a child does not make academic progress at the same rate as their peers is not necessarily a negative thing. The fact that a child is making progress and has the confidence to believe in themselves is surely a far more rewarding outcome than a step up the National Curriculum ladder? Well, according to the child in question they could not be any prouder of their achievements and, you know what? That is rewarding enough for me.