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The role of a SENCO in relation to leadership

Below is a summary of The SENCO Role – Leading on Assessment, by Tracy Edwards and Mhairi C Beaton.

Wolsey Summary:

Assessment for the needs of SEND means different things at different times. However, best practice for a SENCO is essentially two fold:

1. Encourage the adoption, through directing whole school pedagogy and assessment cycles, of multi-faceted and holistic means of assessing SEND pupils while encouraging those results to be interpreted sceptically and subjectively.

2. Direct the school to find a middle ground between the needs for school’s to meet legal and inspection criteria while also allowing for the flexibility of a more dynamic approach to the assessment of SEND needs and progress. (The authors believe the wording of the new 2019 Ofsted criteria allows ample opportunity to do this).

Setting the scene:

The word ‘assessment’ can have multiple meanings to different teachers at different times, it could mean:

1. The direct assessment of needs

2. The data of a kid’s results.

3. Record keeping as part of the processes of the previous two.

Summative and formative data is both useful to a SENCO. The 2015 SEND Code of Conduct promotes the use of a ‘graduated approach’ to assessment, which is a form of formative assessment involving a stage cycle of ‘assess/plan/do/review’ which is aimed specifically at students deemed to require ‘SEND Support’ (not those identified by a formal EHC Plan.

It is the SENCOs responsibility to guide their staff in how to implement useful assessments.

However – anecdotal evidence suggests most SENCOs spend their time analysing the ‘big data’ (e.g. comparing SEN data to rest of the your group). A Finnish study by Pasi Sahlberg suggests SENCOs should instead be focussing on the small data – such as a lesson study and following the 4 stage cycle.

In reality, a SENCO will use both big and small data to help with identification and assessment of needs. It may also be the case that certain assessment is a better use of SENCOs time than others, which gives rise to the authors main approach, they argue for use of the ‘Paired Principles’.

They are:

1. Critical Triangulation

2. Opportunistic Innovation.

Critical Triangulation:

Critical triangulation is the use of a range of assessment systems, methods and approaches with an openness to the possibility that they may each reveal different things about the learning undertaken. Critical triangulation, therefore, requires professionals to interpret data subjectively with a degree of scepticism. Critical triangulation is an alternative to assessment that is based entirely on a single method or system with uncritical fidelity”

Opportunistic Innovation:

This one begins with an acknowledgement that there will be a degree of ‘learned helplessness’ within schools who wish to stick to statutory data methods used for legal and inspection purposes and will therefore be suspicious of giving teachers the agency to ‘interpret data subjectively with a degree of scepticism’. Therefore, ‘opportunistic innovation’ is defined as “positively exploiting elements of national policies frameworks so that they underpin a rationale for the inventive design of new approaches through which pupil need can be addressed with sincerity”. In other words – finding a way of using critical triangulation while also meeting the legal and statutory needs of the organisation.

Having established this approach some specific examples of ‘opportunistic innovation’ are given:

1. The replacement of P-Levels in the National Curriculum (used previously to assess students failing to score a 1) by ‘pre-key stage standards’ has allowed more flexibility as the pre-key stage standards are deliberately less prescriptive to allow for more ‘critical triangulation’ on behalf of SENCOs and teachers in the classroom. They are meant to allow for evaluation of progress and less demonstration of progress [between the P-Levels].

2. The Rochford Review of 2016 was quite useful as it encourages the use of an ‘Engagement Model’ to address the idea that the existing focus on a SEND child’s attainment against fixed subject specific criteria might not be the best judge of development. Instead, the engagement model suggests the close observation and tracking of the following subjective attributes to achieve a more holistic view of progress:

a. Exploration

b. Realisation

c. Anticipation

d. Persistence

e. Initiation

3. “Deep and sustainable learning resides at the very heart of the new framework for OFSTED inspections. Unlike previous frameworks, the new OFSTED Framework (2019) has a ‘Quality of Education’ grading category within which the curriculum is central. Through this process, data that appears to ‘show’ progress will play a much more marginal role in upholding the accountability of any school. This apparent change of emphasis in the new OFSTED Framework is a response to possible previous incentives for schools to significantly narrow their curriculum offer, to the detriment of those who would benefit the most from having the broadest range of alternatives. Using the new OFSTED Framework, inspectors are now required to assess and evaluate the three I’s:

  1. Intent: the purpose and design of a school’s curriculum

  2. Implementation: the structure and organisation of learning

  3. Impact: results, pupil destinations, reading.

The new OFSTED Framework places more emphasis on where each lesson fits into the bigger picture of the curriculum and the role it plays in wider visions for the long-term progress of pupils. The framework also has an interest in how knowledge is being maintained and strives to move away from notions that a ‘lesson’ can be ‘good’ in isolation

This framework in itself, the authors believe, allows more scope for SENCOs to show ‘opportunistic innovation’ in the way curriculum is designed, e.g. more focus on things like DofE awards.

“These changes have exciting implications for the SENCO role. SENCOs may lead, for example, in implementing systems for evaluating pupil progress in relation to life skills, engagement or health and well-being; establishing clear synergy, for example, between what is ‘taught’ and what is outlined within an Education, Health and Care Plan”.

4. The SEND Code of Practice (2015) is often seen as the gold standard on all things SENCO but it too can be misinterpreted to harm SEND learners, or so the authors believe: For example, the ‘graduated approach’ outlined in the Code of Practice (2015) for pupils identified as ‘SEND support’ might be merely viewed as a record keeping or accountability tool, through which SENCOs can ‘evidence’ that they have ‘tried something’ before putting in a formal request for an Education, Health and Care Plan. However, when viewed alongside the new OFSTED Framework (2019), one can view the graduated approach cycle of assess/plan/do/review more positively, as a framework for iterative and inclusive teaching.


This chapter has focused on the SENCO’s leadership role in enabling assessment practices that facilitate a better educational experience for all pupils. Following a discussion on the different purposes of summative and formative assessment, it was proposed that the use of ‘critical triangulation’ and ‘opportunistic innovation’ can support schools to assess pupil progress more effectively. Both ‘paired principles’ were then examined within the context of current government education policy in England.

In conclusion, it should be noted that effective critical triangulation of assessment is reliant on having confident professional judgement and pedagogy, as is the capacity to accept the invitations from policy, to engage in related, meaningful opportunistic innovation. To truly enact our two paired principles, education professionals need to be able, for example, to select, summarise, interpret and synthesise data from a range of sources (Deluca and Bellara, 2013). This makes the SENCO role, in relation to the leadership of assessment, a highly important one, involving the development of systems, processes and staff.

In addition to strong leadership, pedagogy and creativity, both critical triangulation and opportunistic innovation require investments in resources and time. Collecting small data via close pupil observations can be highly time-consuming, requiring staff who could be otherwise supporting learning more directly. Using several assessment tools simultaneously could arguably add onerously to workload. These entirely valid concerns make it imperative that, in developing inclusive assessment, schools genuinely break away from old ways of working and move into new. Changes cannot simply be implemented on top of previous practices. Schools need to boldly cease assessment activity which may not be contributing to enhanced participation of all pupils in learning and instead introduce new methods of assessment which have been demonstrated to be more ethical and effective.


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