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Curriculum improvement through a collaborative approach to governance: The impact of a shared specialism between a SENCo and SEND Governor

Written By: Laura Page and Siobhan Walls
8 min read

Introduction

This case study will explore the emerging impact of a shared specialism between a SENCo and SEND link Governor on curriculum improvement at a one-form entry primary school in Kent. Kings Hill Primary School has Special Resource Provision (SRP) for children on the autism spectrum. Like other schools, the setting is currently navigating the limited resources and inconsistent outcomes experienced by pupils and their families in relation to SEND provision. (DfE, 2022; DfE, 2023). As a United Nation’s International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) Rights Respecting School, our values are particularly focused on non-discrimination and participation (School website, 2022, UNICEF, 2022). The joint work of the SENCo and Governor, as well as fulfilling the duties of governance and school leadership, are therefore child centred, aiming to increase participation and outcomes for pupils with SEND across the full breadth of school life. We propose that the benefits to school governance of this shared institutional mindset (Connolly and James, 2022) have relevant implications for the work of link governors in schools.

The current SEND link governor is a former SENCo and Specialist Leader of Education for SEND, who now works in SEND consultancy and works with other school settings on whole-school improvement for SEND. The SENCo is also the Lead Teacher of the SRP and has worked within mainstream primary and secondary settings as well as in Alternative Provision (AP) across all key stages.

The current climate in SEND education

Schools in the UK are facing increasing pressures to meet the needs of children with SEND outlined in the recent SEND and AP green paper (DfE, 2022) and associated improvement plan (DfE, 2023), as well as through associated oral evidence (UK Parliament 2023)  The failed implementation of the law (House of Lords,  2022) is seen as one of a number of reasons that repeated conflict and unmet needs continue to inhibit equity in educational outcomes for pupils with SEND. System-wide issues such as lack of parental confidence, long waiting times for assessment pathways and Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) processes, and inconsistency of practice across the education sector (DfE, 2023), are all felt within the school and local community. In Kent particularly, following the SEND Ofsted inspection, there is now a significant push for more children with SEND to be educated in mainstream settings. Although there is an impact for all schools, the pattern observed has been that “inclusive” schools have become “magnet” schools for families with children with SEND (HoC, 2019, p. 42).  As a one-form entry mainstream school with an SRP, we have seen this with our SEN percentage being above national average and the number of EHCPs in most classes being above the national average for mainstream primary schools. The number of children identified as having SEND nationally has been steadily increasing in recent years (ONS, 2022). Schools are now required to provide a range of support which may previously have been found through support services such as specialist teaching services or children’s centre,  before funding cuts in 2011 (Farquharson et al., 2021). In effect, school leaders find themselves scrutinised for a lack of inclusive practice or over-subscribed yet underfunded having formed a reputation for good inclusion practice.

When reviewing inclusion in the curriculum, it is important to consider the concepts of equality and equity (Guldberg, 2020). Equality reflects the quality first teaching, with every child being treated the same (Equality Act, 2010).  Equity, however, is about meeting the needs of individuals and adapting through reasonable adjustments (GOV.UK, 1995;  DfE, 2014). Recent research suggests a further model of a three-tier approach to pedagogical needs (Norwich and Lewis, 2005; Roberts and Webster, 2020). A three-tier approach looks at support and intervention at a universal, targeted and specialist level. This can create a tension between pupils accessing a curriculum that is rich and broad and balanced, whilst also making adjustments for meeting their individual needs. It is, therefore, important that collaboration takes place between all stakeholders, staff, pupils, parents and governors, to identify the key priorities for the cohort of the school and how the curriculum should be designed to meet their needs.

Collaboration in practice

There is a requirement for Local School Board (LSB) members to maintain strategic oversight and vision setting whilst avoiding involvement in operational matters (DfE, 2020). While the educational experience of the link governor is useful, the boundaries of this leadership are constantly reviewed, through a systematic approach to governor visits from the Multi Academy Trust the school is in. This requires Governors to probe school data, find evidence of impact on school strategies and to understand the progress of staff through CPD. Through additional visits to events such as assemblies, and observation of the resourced provision, the Governor’s experience in SEND is used effectively to report on the overarching inclusion of children. All visits whether more formally planned or otherwise, are nonetheless reported to the LSB to provide a deeper analysis of progress.

The shared specialism between the SENCo and SEND Governor in the case study school has had a number of positive impacts on curriculum improvement. Firstly, it has allowed for more open and productive conversations about SEND. The shared language of the SEN arena and associated legislation has resulted in efficient and targeted conversations that have provoked collaboration with external partners. For example, in discussing the SENCo’s outreach offer, the pair were able to establish that greater input from the local authority in designing the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) may be needed. The SENCo and Governor are able to share their expertise and insights, leading to better understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing the school including funding issues.

A supervisory, rather than coaching (developmental and goal-oriented) or mentoring (advisory and guidance-based) approach has allowed the link Governor and SENCo to manage the boundaries of the relationship by applying an agreed framework to discussion. Through these discussions, professional understanding has led to more collaborative approach to curriculum discussion and in turn planning on part of the SENCo. The Chair of Governor reports that the SENCo has found greater “confidence in her ability to influence curriculum” which as rapidly led to staff improving “adaptations to lessons using her tools and advice”. This is particularly notable in the development of an ‘emergent curriculum’, designed for pupils with complex needs to enable them to participate in the same curriculum as others.

Progress measures for children with SEND

Since the removal of Levels in 2014 and P Levels in 2018, it has been at individual schools’ discretion to choose how they access pupil progress. For pupils working at an age expected standard, this is more straightforward. It is, however, more challenging to show progress for pupils who are working below the age expected standard, with them often assessed at ‘working below’. Governor visits have been focused on the probing of this progress using what the SENCo calls “the right questions”, for example: “what are the principles of the curriculum that we can work towards to show emerging progress for [X learner]”, “How can we track informal and extra-curricular progress towards [X’s] Section F?”. Within our trust, small step trackers which encourage observation and reporting on a child’s social interaction with others e.g. the length of time they were engaged in play with friends or the circumstances in which they were able to ‘share’ with others, were collaboratively designed for pupils who are working significantly below the age expected standard whilst also being aligned with the monitoring of key skills and concepts within our current assessment system. These have allowed staff to capture progress, reporting to parents regularly and subsequently improving parental understanding of their child’s academic and social development.

As part of good autism practice, it is crucial that the voice of the child or young person (CYP) with autism is heard (Guldberg et al., 2020) and this should apply for all pupils with SEND.  As part of the annual review process, there is an expectation that the voice of the child is captured. What is often captured is the parental voice or the school’s interpretation of what they believe to be the child’s voice (Bloom et al., 2020). Local authority documentation can be limited in its ability to capture pupil voice and does not allow for pupils who are non-verbal.  As a school we have worked collaboratively as a staff group, wider trust and with the LSB to review how we capture pupil voice and progress. This is done through photos, video capturing and visuals, but these are not yet readily accepted on statutory paperwork. Through collaboration with our SEND Governor and in light of the proposed homogeny of the EHCP system, including its digitisation (DfE, 2023, 2022), the school can provoke wider discussions to see how this might be achieved using our communication system, Class Dojo (www.classdojo.com). We have seen increased acknowledgment in progress beyond standard grading measures in our with parents, trust executives, governors and other external agencies.

We believe that these emerging correlative points are indicative of a governor/SENCo relationship underpinned by shared elements of a ‘cultural-cognitive pillar of institutionalisation’ (Connelly and James, 2022) that is a collectively shared notion of the arrangements of the school as a distinct institution.

Implications

The shared specialism between the SENCo and SEND Governor in the case study school has had a number of positive impacts on curriculum improvement. It has led to more open and productive conversations about SEND, a more collaborative approach to curriculum planning, and a more reflective approach to curriculum evaluation.

The impact of the relationship has so far only been gathered through qualitative feedback in regular meetings with the Chair of Governors when discussing leader’s progressThe Headteacher, Deputy Headteacher and Chair of Governors, who describe an increase in the SENCos leadership confidence, increased benefit of a peer in the same field of specialism to support decision-making, as well as increased confidence in using innovation in curriculum design. The Headteacher reflected: “this shared understanding has enabled Governors to challenge leaders about the specific design of out curriculum”. The importance of deeper professional conversations being enabled in a psychologically safe environment (Shein, 2017, Edmonson, 2018) is recognised as the Headteacher continues: “constructive conversations on the effectiveness of chosen key systems and strategies to empower pupils with SEND, has enhanced curriculum access and engagement for pupils with additional needs across the school”. Further data will now be gathered through surveys and interviews with SEN Specialist staff to understand if they and the children they support have benefited from any of the approaches identified in this case study.

Conclusion

Overall, the emerging experience of the collaborative relationship and particularly the application of a supervisory model in discussions between the SENCo and SEND Governor,   appears to be positive. Further data and evaluation of this peer-focused collaboration will be undertaken through surveys with specialist SEN staff and through discussions with other SENCos in the MAT who do not have a link governor with a specific background. Schools may want to explore how a targeted recruitment of specialist governors may benefit the quality of interaction in the fulfilling of expectations for effective leadership and management in schools.

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