|What I find remarkable, is that, throughout the series, your quotes and your colleagues’ quotes, reflect a whole-school approach that’s overwhelmingly supportive and, most critically, pupil-focused. It places the child at the heart of everything – whatever their level of ability. How have you got to that place? How have you organised your roles to realise such an effective approach?
Emma Hillman: “We are a proud community school. Our pupils come from our doorstep. This community is riddled with city issues: poverty, overcrowding, unemployment. So we want these children to leave this school with every chance that other pupils have from other areas in different social and financial circumstances. We are also lucky to have such an amazing group of teachers and support staff – who are committed to doing all of the pastoral stuff that you saw on the programme.
“I’ve worked in four London schools and the children in this school are the funniest and most entertaining that I have taught. They’re gutsy and resilient and they deserve life chances. When Jenny (our head teacher) came in, one of the first things that we did was to restructure the inclusion department. So, we have home/school workers, behaviour mentors and learning mentors who help to support each and every child. So, it’s a really child-centred approach that runs from senior management to every single member of staff across the school.”
Has your whole-school/child-centred approach meant that you’ve been able to navigate the SEN reforms quite easily?
Francesca Richards: “Yes, it’s been pretty smooth for us. This is because a lot of our SEN practices were already person-centred. For example, our annual statement reviews already constructed a person-centred approach that puts the child and the child’s voice at the heart of the process, alongside rigorous support systems that foster this child-centred approach. So, the practice that we have put in place has allowed us to adapt to the changes quite easily.”
Emma Hillman: “Yes, I agree. We have adapted well because we have got onto it very early. We are a person-centred school with a very person-centred LA (Waltham Forest). We were writing and shaping our SEN policy over the summer holidays and we have a governors’ sub-committee ratifying our policy tonight. On the first day of term, we also commandeered a whole training day where staff spoke about SEN and where our SENCO (Francesca) outlined that her new role and responsibilities would consist of checking and supporting staff SEN practice, not doing it for them.
“At the end of the day we all shared a lovely moment. We watched a film of our new pupils with statements (shot at the end of the previous summer term) talk about their strengths, weaknesses, how they like to learn, who they were, what they liked and what they didn’t like. And the power of this approach, is that it imprinted the importance of each child’s individuality and needs (and our child-centred approach) on every single member of staff before the start of term from 1 September.
“To add to this, Francesca worked incredibly hard to make sure that all of our SEN information was available to staff, including the new Year 7s, from the first day of term. She ensured that every single profile had been written, so that staff were able to start planning the learning for each student from the outset. It was a monumental task but worth every moment spent.”
Did Francesca get any sleep?
Francesca Richards: “I got a few nights, yes. But it was all worthwhile and staff feedback has been very positive. We’ve always had an inclusive ethos but, this year, many staff have been knocking at my door, sending me emails and coming to talk to me about the needs of individual students. Our staff simply want to get it right for students and that’s wonderful.”
Emma Hillman: “We’ve also got a really good quality assurance cycle, a process called: ‘in search of good practice’. We regularly walk around the school looking for good SEN practice. When we find some we celebrate it and communicate it through our monthly bulletin. The bulletin is child- and staff-centred and really helps teachers to understand that SEN practice is down to them; that they’ve got to plan and do; and that the SENCO is there to support them, not do it for them. Our staff are very aware that it’s their responsibility and that’s what we expect to see in the classroom.”
Have your day-to-day responsibilities changed since the SEN reforms ‘kicked in’?
Francesca Richards: “Yes, there have been adjustments. I took over the SENCO role this September and have been looking at implementing the new Code of Practice alongside broader practical and procedural change that was not in place in the department already. So, this term, I have been embedding sustainable assessment, in-class support and intervention practices by going into classrooms, watching what’s working and planning with teachers to make sure that students’ needs are being met in the classroom. At present, we may lack time to do all of the detailed planning, but an inclusive approach combined with effective classroom support (particularly in maths and English) means that we are able to meet the needs of our students.
“I’ve just carried out a cycle of research on practice walks by targeting English and maths classes. I’ve followed up these walks with meetings with the class teacher and the TA and have given them practical feedback that they can apply in their daily planning. So, much more of my time is going into ensuring that the teacher is responsible and accountable, and, at the same time, is able to receive the right support to meet the needs of their students.”
Emma Hillman: “I mostly let Fran and her team get on with it. It’s probably the first time where I’ve been in a situation where I have absolute confidence that things are happening. Our TA team is also really strong. We appointed two HLTAs as part of the restructure and they are incredibly good quality. The structure, in terms of the line and performance management is sound. The HLTAs do an awful lot for the TAs and I think that they are really good at developing a team approach. So, I feel that we’ve got the structures right and when you get the structures right you have happy staff.”
How would you advise SENCOs and/or SMTs to adapt to this legislative landscape? What steps should they take?
Emma Hillman: “Plan early, but don’t panic! It’s important to make sensible and rational decisions without rushing into things. It’s vital to remember that the key role of the SENCO is to make sure that your teachers understand what it is that they need to do and in this role the SENCO becomes a challenger, a critical friend and a facilitator. You also need to think about the impact of your intervention and have a really robust intervention process. Most importantly, if it ain’t working and you aren’t seeing results then stop doing it and do something else. Under the new Code, you’ve got to act quickly and see impact and results.”
Francesca Richards: “I agree. Remember, it’s ‘from 1 September’, not ‘by 1 September’. You need to make the right decisions in the long term, so don’t rush these essential decisions. Plan, put systems in place, give those systems time to embed, evaluate them and adjust them accordingly. I also feel very fortunate to have representation on the senior leadership team (SLT). This not only means that I have a voice – through Emma – at the highest level, but has also given me the opportunity to speak to other SENCOs at other schools to fine-tune best practice in the wake of the new Code.”
Emma Hillman: “Yes, we have to do that here, as there are many children on statements and with SEN. I’ve trained and worked as an educational psychologist, a SENCO and have a good deal of experience of working in inclusion, so I will always advocate representation on the SLT. Ideally, one day, I would like to see a world where each SENCO is on the SLT.”