Early years SENCOs – linking practitioners, partnerships and provision

Professor Adam Boddison (pictured), chief executive of nasen (National Association for Special Educational Needs) discusses how the charity can support the early years workforce, in all its diversity, to achieve a consistent approach to identifying special educational needs.
Early years SENCOs – linking practitioners, partnerships and provision
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The role of SENCOs (Special Educational Needs Coordinators) in early years settings is increasingly key to ensuring effective and inclusive practice.

In addition to coordinating provision within settings, they are expected to establish and maintain effective collaborative partnerships externally, including with multi-agency professionals.

Early years is the least-well funded phase of education, but arguably the most important. The early years workforce is made up from a diverse range of professionals so a consistent approach to the identification of SEN (Special Educational Needs) is hard to achieve in practice.

Research study: Identifying SEN in the early years
For too many children in our education system, it is the case they have already fallen significantly behind their peers by the time their SEN are identified. If needs are identified earlier, then effective provision can be put in place sooner.

In 2020, nasen commissioned Dr Helen Curran to lead a research study on the barriers to early identification with a view to further developing the identification of SEN in the early years.

The study considers the perspectives of SENCOs in relation to identifying SEN in early years settings as well as the resources they used and the wider support they accessed.

The findings are based on an online survey of more than 200 early years SENCOs as well as 19 semi-structured interviews.

The study makes several recommendations, but four in particular emphasise the need for early years SENCOs to have collaborative partnerships with multi-agency professionals:

  1. Work should be undertaken to help develop understanding of the early years SENCO role across the education, health and care sectors.
  2. The sharing of good practice developed by early years SENCOs, particularly in relation to developing family relationships, should be facilitated across the sector and later phases.
  3. Training in relation to speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) should be prioritised within the early years sector.
  4. Information from the progress check at aged two should be shared between the child’s providers as standard practice.

The power of partnership and collaboration

While it is not surprising that SLCN were identified as a priority, the principle of early years SENCOs working collaboratively with speech and language therapists is applicable to SEN professionals more broadly.

The early years sector is made up of practitioners from a broad range of professional backgrounds and experiences and it would be unreasonable to expect them to be experts in all areas of SEN. Therefore, it is the power of partnership and collaboration that can lead to effective practice.

This includes co-production between families and practitioners and between practitioners themselves, particularly those with roles related to health and social care.

Childminders, who make up more than half of all early years providers in England, are often significantly smaller providers than maintained or PVI (private, voluntary or independent) settings. Consequently, the routine communication and access that childminders have to multi-agency professionals is generally less than maintained or PVI settings.

This suggests there is a need not just for more collaboration with multi-agency professionals, but also with each other.

Independent of early years settings, families are likely to be engaging with other professionals across health and social care, such as health visitors, GPs, paediatric consultants, social workers and education psychologists. Collaboration is a two-way process and it is important that these wider elements of provision have a direct link through to the early years settings attended by children.

Safeguarding trumps GDPR
For many children, their early years setting is the place that they will spend the vast majority of their time on a daily basis.

GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations) is sometimes cited by professionals as a reason that more information cannot be shared. In some instances, however, this is not in the interests of the child or the family and more needs to be done to address issues in relation to data sharing to facilitate stronger collaborative partnerships.

It is worth noting that GDPR was never intended to be a barrier to appropriate data-sharing and was designed to tackle inappropriate data-sharing. Given that safeguarding always trumps GDPR, a key question is whether a failure to identify SEN early and a failure to share that information appropriately with families and multi-agency professionals constitutes a potential safeguarding risk.

Download the report here  

nasen’s dedicated early years suite of free resources is available here

Professor Adam Boddison is the chief executive of nasen – a charity that supports and champions those working with, and for, children and young people with SEND and learning differences.

For further information, visit nasen @nasen_org

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamBoddison

By Professor Adam Boddison, chief executive of nasen (National Association for Special Educational Needs).

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