What attributes do you need to be a great SENDCO? Though I have often failed in my attempts at greatness, my experience working with 19 SENDCOs across 10 schools has helped me to recognise some of the aspects that get you closer to greatness.
Here’s my top 10 of what I think makes a great SENDCO:
When others feel that a student ‘can’t remember things’, ‘won’t behave’ or ‘can’t cope in mainstream’, you need to be the voice of positivity. You must be the advocate for their successful inclusion.
When others are showing high emotion, you must be the calm voice of reason. This might be the way you deescalate a situation in class, the way you reassure a new teacher or the manner in which you listen to and support a parent. Where others reach for the panic button, you must show calm.
You might be called upon as the one who can get a child to pick up the pen, put down the chair or come out of the cupboard. You might be the one to coax a child back into school, to cajole them to apply for sixth-form or to convince them that their voice is listened to. Your ability to have built rapport with that child will be invaluable when things get difficult.
The best SENDCOs are constantly in corridors and classrooms. They are dipping into lessons, noticing things before they escalate and reassuring staff and students about what they are doing well. It takes a bold SENDCO to consider themselves able to walk into any classroom in a school, knowing that being nosey is an important part of leading SEND. Positive feedback to all can help this but it can take some boldness to be in and out of classrooms in this way.
To strive for expertise
Like many SENDCOs, I started the role knowing barely a fraction of what I needed to know about SEND. Every term I learn about new approaches and often about whole need types that I haven’t previously come across. I frequently go into meetings or classrooms and leave feeling like my current knowledge hasn’t prepared me for it in any way. The willingness to always strive for expertise is much more important than considering yourself to be an expert.
Some tasks make your desk neater and your to do list shorter; other tasks transform the practice of a teacher or the education of a child. Being able to select the most impactful tasks, rather than those that might be high on your own organisational to do list, is a skill in itself.
To let go of perfection
As per the previous point, you must know that some things can remain messy and be okay. You may not have prize-winning annual review paperwork, a gold-standard exam access arrangements folder or the prettiest display, but if the children, staff and parents/carers within a school community rate your leadership of SEND, you’re choosing the right jobs to do well.
This doesn’t necessarily mean sitting on SLT. Having influence at the top level is invaluable; being given 5 different areas of the school to oversee is not. You need to be someone who colleagues feel is worth going to when they need support or want to share some good news. That doesn’t mean knowing everything there is to know about SEND – it means being a hardworking and supportive colleague.
An open door
The very real need to get on with your work can be frequently kyboshed by interruptions. The desire to work efficiently doesn’t marry up with being available, in a busy school environment. Striking a balance between being available often and protective of your time when you need to be, is a tricky one.
A teaching timetable
I truly believe in the need to be able to talk as a practicing teacher. You must be able to share how you approach an element of teaching and learning or behaviour management. You must not forget what you are asking teachers to do in the classroom by meeting the needs of all learners. The most powerful way to ensure that is by teaching yourself.
Some caveats are needed to the above:
- I would love to have all the attributes above. I fail often.
- I have worked with 19 SENDCOs across 10 mainstream schools over 5 years. My conclusions are based on reflections drawn from working with this excellent group of colleagues, rather than from a statistical evidence base.
- There are many ways to be great. What’ll work for one setting and SENDCO won’t work for another. The above are themes – they won’t be a checklist.
I believe in the transformative ability of the SENDCO role. It puts you in the enormously privileged position of advocating for children who may need an advocate the most.
I also believe it’s a difficult job and that it’s easy to do it badly, even with a great deal of hard work and commitment, through a lack of some of the attributes above.
The list is not exhaustive. There’ll be many things I’ve missed. But I hope this list is a reminder that the SENDCO role, when done well, is one of the most important leadership roles in a school.