Lessons learned from 27 years supporting SEN students

Recently retired after 27 years managing an in-school SEN provision, Gary Whall discusses the changes he has seen and the lessons he has learned
Lessons learned from 27 years supporting SEN students

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When I started teaching in 1979, special educational needs were not really recognised in mainstream schools. Of course, there were students with poor reading ages, low literacy skills and/or low numeracy skills, but these students were simply taught in the lower sets.

Apart from this all students were treated the same. As you can imagine, there were a lot of students who were misunderstood and frequently in trouble.

Looking back, you can see they had difficulties, but nobody really thought about it. You had Jack who continually walked out of class saying it was too noisy, Ben who would react badly when getting something wrong, and Joe who refused to work at times.

These were all “naughty boys” – or were they? Who would be involved with these boys now? All students were expected to conform and get on with it or simply got removed. Thankfully things have changed.

Two years after stepping into the classroom, the Education Act and SEN Statements were introduced (in 1981). It promoted an integrative approach, which later became the inclusive approach, supporting children with SEN.

However, by 1988, when the national curriculum framework and school league tables were introduced, there was still no sign of the SENCO – all students were just part of the pastoral system.

Come 1993, the Act was updated, making SENCOs mandatory in all schools with guidelines for identifying pupils and assessing their needs. A breakthrough had been made.


Becoming a SENCO

I was a teacher of mathematics and PE, however come 1996 the then SENCO of my school went on sabbatical and I was asked to hold the fort. At that point there was only one statemented student and a small SEN register.

But I am not the sort of person who can just hold the fort, so I made changes, bringing in procedures for the identification of students’ needs and assessment procedures. It was obvious that students and teachers were struggling.

At the end of that year the SENCO resigned and I quickly became director of inclusion, which involved not only looking after SEN, but also safeguarding, the Learning Support Unit, English as an additional language, and of course teaching all the while.

So many hats to juggle and while we made it work should we have done? No! SENCOs should be, I believe ardently, non-teaching if we are to do the job efficiently. It is so important to be there for everybody when they need you – students, support staff, teachers, and parents/carers. Sadly, this is not a luxury that many schools can afford.


Whole-school changes

Even though I put procedures in place, I was still the one person who identified the students and placed them on the SEN register. There was obviously a major need for whole-school training.

We had to get away from: “Is this one of yours?” I would often respond: “No, I didn’t give birth to him (or her).”

As we know very well now: we are all teachers of SEN. Back then, the teachers needed to understand the needs of the students in front of them and understand how to adapt.

As more students were being identified and progressed through the stages of the code of practice, the list of statemented students began to grow.

We started to become known as the school that supported SEN students and so more statemented students applied for places every year. Last year I read 52 consultations for places – we had gone from one statemented student in 1997 to 94 students (with Education, Health and Care Plans) in 2023.

We set up training sessions for all staff with outside agencies and held surgeries for teachers to understand who is on their class register.


Support in and out of the classroom

As the number of students with SEN rose, so did the different types of difficulties. To make it work, we needed more support staff. It is not just about providing support in the classroom, but also ensuring the child is set up for the day.

We needed to put in place a comprehensive transition plan, meeting the primary school SENCOs and their students in their own school before bringing them to ours. Summer school was another transition success.

Most importantly though, we needed to make sure the students were ready to learn when they arrived in the classroom. And so we set up Meet and Greet, Start Right sessions, escorting pupils to and from lessons.

A Buddy Club could take them out of the playground if they wanted, there was the opportunity to go to dinner early, and End Right sessions could release students before the rush. All these assisted in lowering students’ anxieties.

After-school activities, especially homework club, life-skills, and sports sessions, became vital, as did taking SEN students on trips to provide new experiences.


Putting students first

I know many SENCOs have few support staff, however these colleagues are integral to the success of all interventions as well as working in the classroom.

I was lucky. Before the days of trusts and academies I had control of the SEN budget and ensured the money was spent on SEN students.

I had 78 support staff at the time. Then, my staff was halved but the students with EHCPs began to rise. Our workload got bigger because of course our determination to support all our SEN students remained the same.

Helping SEN students to progress, especially in relation to preparing for life in the future, is what we work for.

It can be tricky. Some students may struggle with the format of mainstream secondary school timetables and the larger number of students. Some may wish to do their own thing in class or feel compelled to do something outside of what a teacher would expect.

We decided to develop the school and specialised in autism and in 2023 we had 78 autism spectrum disorder students. Dealing with their many different sensory needs and frustrations can be challenging, but it is so worthwhile as you watch them grow.


Parental communication

I have learnt over the years that it is vital to work closely with parents. They can give you so much insight into the workings of their child and are so passionate, fighting hard for their child’s needs to be recognised and accepted.

I have found that parents want you to be available and willing to listen. Being available at both ends of the school day is important, providing an informal opportunity to ask a question. Parent get-togethers have also been a huge success, allowing them to talk to one another so they don’t feel they are the only ones who have children with needs.


Budget is key

Being a SENCO is not easy, but it is hugely rewarding. You may find yourself in an office the size of a cupboard, with a small team. You may even be a teacher as well as a SENCO.

But the one thing I would recommend is to ensure that all of the SEN budget is spent on SEN students – with the right support and the right resources, anything is possible for your students.

  • Gary Whall managed Bristnall Hall Academy’s SEN provision for 27 years and has recently retired. He won the Teacher of the Year Award at the 2023 Nasen Awards. For more information on the awards, visit https://nasen.org.uk/awards

Check out the SecEd website for more: https://www.sec-ed.co.uk/ 

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