Carterton School parent Jayne Bryant has spent years tracking through the difficult and complex pathway of special education. Her son Liam, who’s now seven, suffers from epilepsy and is on the autism spectrum.
Jayne marvels at the time and care shown to Liam by his school and its special education needs coordinator (SENCO), Wendy Taylor.
“While it was noticed in kindergarten, Liam had started school before we were able to get the autism diagnosis and that’s where the school and Wendy have been fantastic.”
As a result of that energy and hard work, Liam now receives ORS funding topped with extra support directly from the school. This means he has a full-time teacher aide.
“Wendy’s been in every meeting, right from transition from kindergarten. She’s been involved in doing the forms, working with the RTLB and his class teachers. She’s been overseeing the whole thing.”
But as deputy principal and SENCO, Wendy Taylor needs to keep the big picture in mind as well as the details around individual education plans for each child who needs extra support. Nationally it’s estimated that at least 20 percent of students, and as many as 30 percent, need extra learning support at some stage of their education and that’s a number reflected at Carterton School.
Taylor says analysing data is a big part of her SENCO role. The data she uses is meaningful and backed by knowledge of the child’s background, along with strong relationships with families, as well as with fellow teachers and support staff.
“I liken National Standards data to a billboard with a white background. It’s a blank slate. What we look at in our data is putting the children in the picture. What is it they bring to school in their bag, in their kete, and take home again? It’s that rich, diverse information that we look at.”
School principal, Alison Woollard, says having a SENCO with an overall view of the school means that resources can be targeted where they are most needed.
“Wendy and I look at the whole school achievement data and then the learning teams and the classroom teacher have a closer look at the finer detail.”
As well as being deputy principal, the SENCO role dovetails well into Taylor’s other roles such as the leader of the PB4L programme and pastoral care. These are intertwined for obvious reasons.
“You need to know what children are bringing to school in their bag – the stuff that’s sitting around and underneath the data. The response to a child who is annoyed or angry about something will be different depending on the reason for this.”
But how to share practice?
It was analysing data, along with discussions with the school’s RTLB, that helped her to discover that students who participated in two different learning programmes did significantly better than those who didn’t get access to both.
“We found that the children who were doing both Rainbow Reading and the Steps into Literacy programme accelerated their learning much quicker than those who were doing just one or other of the programmes.”
That was important knowledge that could and should be shared. But currently there’s no clear way to do that other than through informal collegial means.
And the SENCO role varies widely between schools. Combine that with the lack of clear and identifiable pathways of support for students, and schools and families are too often operating in the dark when it comes to special education.
The Special Education Update report released last term is promising to tidy up the system, with a restructuring of roles at the Ministry of Education and the appointment of lead coordinators for children with extra learning needs. Over time, resources will be shifted from older children to younger children to bolster early intervention. SENCOs may end up as the lead coordinators (for multiple services) for children with lower needs.
The problem is that SENCOs are often not resourced or trained for the role, and many are already working at capacity. (The Update largely overlooks growing demand for special education and under-funding, but that’s a whole other article in itself, as are the likely effects of the proposals on ministry staff.)
It’s difficult to quantify the extra hours that Taylor’s SENCO role involves because each day is different, but she estimates it would be at least two hours a day on top of her other duties such as that of deputy principal.
So how does she define her role?
“It’s that overview and coordination of monitoring, and I don’t mean checklists, more checking, to make sure that things are happening because, especially with children whose IEPs aren’t so regular, you need someone to keep an eye on those, and coordinate the personnel.”
So it is a critical role, and one that most schools now have. Yet it is not recognised formally so there is no universally accepted job description or training and no automatic release time or management units attached it.
Principal Woollard says this is a significant weakness in the way special needs in schools are resourced and coordinated. “Having a SENCO role is good practice but nowhere does it say a school must have a SENCO.
“What’s been making it more difficult is the large, and growing, number of children with high needs who are not ORS funded, or supported through high health funding or special behaviour funding. Every principal I talk to talks about that seemingly growing number of children who are finding it difficult to be part of a school.”
She strongly backs the campaign by NZEI Te Riu Roa to formalise the SENCO role and for additional staffing units to resource it.
This was one of the key messages, along with underfunding, raised in the Special Education consultation run by the ministry last year.
In response to questions from EA about the need for funding for the role, the ministry’s head of Special Education Dr David Wales said that schools are already funded for it from school staffing entitlements (which would be abolished by the government’s proposed funding reforms) and operational grants (which have been frozen).
But he did add that, “SENCOs are a very important part of supporting the additional learning needs of children, and they will continue to be important.
“We are planning to identify a small number of schools and/or Communities of Learning to develop and test more coherent approaches to learning support. This will take into account resourcing, models of service delivery; roles (such as SENCO roles); and staff capability needs to improve access and provision of learning support within a community.”
Meantime, NZEI Te Riu Roa members will continue to campaign for proper recognition and resourcing of the SENCO role.