Last reviewed 16 April 2021
Rebecca Fisk, an experienced Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO) outlines some of the issues to consider and national training opportunities when becoming a SENCO in early years provision. A SENCO is pivotal in good inclusive practice, which can make all the difference to children and their families.
The role of Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO) or Inclusion Coordinator (INCCO) is varied and rewarding. It brings responsibility and involves being approachable, supporting others and having good organisational skills. Being a SENCO is a management and leadership role.
Each early years provider is expected to have a person identified to lead on the inclusion of children with Special Educational Needs or Disabilities, whilst those in maintained provision must have a SENCO. In practice, this will often be a role which involves leading on other aspects of additional needs, such as Children Looked After, bi-lingual children and those in receipt of Early Years Pupil Premium.
The Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) outlines the requirements as follows:
“Providers must have arrangements in place to support children with SEN or disabilities. Maintained schools, maintained nursery schools and all providers who are funded by the local authority to deliver early education places must have regard to the Special Educational Needs Code of Practice.
Maintained schools and maintained nursery schools must identify a member of staff to act as Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO) and other providers (in group provision) are expected to identify a SENCO. Childminders are encouraged to identify a person to act as a SENCO and childminders who are registered with a childminder agency or who are part of a network may wish to share the role between them”. (EYFS 2017: 31 paragraph 3.67)
SENCO qualification for maintained providers
Many maintained nurseries are on school sites and are overseen by the school SENCO. In maintained provision and schools there is a requirement that the SENCO completes a SENCO qualification with Masters degree level characteristics. The learning outcomes for this are outlined here and are useful to read for SENCOs in all early years and school provision. It states that:
“The Code of Practice envisages that the SENCO will provide leadership and professional guidance to colleagues and will work closely with staff, parents and carers, and other agencies. It challenges SENCOs to promote person-centred, inclusive, practice in which the interests and needs of pupils with SEN and/or disabilities are at the heart of everything that they do”.
Level 3 National SENCO Qualification Award – Non-maintained providers
As an early years provider, not in a maintained setting, there is now a National SENCO Award at Level 3 which can support professional development for the person with this responsibility. The SENCO qualifications can be found on the Government’s Check Early Years Qualifications page.
The Early Years SENCO qualification specification, the job description and some case studies by Action for Children can be found here.
The Level 3 Early Years SENCO qualification specification outlines the key component parts of the qualification and the issues a SENCO needs to be knowledgeable about, and able to lead on, within the setting.
SEN identification and early action
The role of the early years SENCO
Supporting colleagues in their work with children with SEN
Liaising with professionals or agencies beyond the setting
The role of the SENCO
Being a SENCO can be a busy and demanding role, so it is essential for the role to be given non-contact time to manage the administrative side of the work. It is important to have a clear job description. Here are things to consider when developing the SENCO role in non-maintained early years provision. The Foundation Years organisation outline that the Early Years SENCO role involves:
ensuring all practitioners in the setting understand their responsibilities to children with SEN and the setting’s approach to identifying and meeting SEN
advising and supporting colleagues
ensuring parents are closely involved throughout and that their insights inform action taken by the setting, and
liaising with professionals or agencies beyond the setting.
Continued professional development (CPD)
It is important for SENCOs to continue to develop their own professional knowledge and skills. This can be sourced from a wide range of national organisations, such as the National Association for Special Educational Needs (NASEN), The Communication Trust, and the SEND Gateway. It can also be provided through regular subscriptions to various publications or newsletters, local council training opportunities and those from private providers. There is a wealth of professional development opportunities and one important way of doing this is through peer network support. Many local councils will facilitate early years cluster meetings and expect SENCOs to attend regularly to keep updated with national and local developments.
Often SENCOs will lead their own learning, and this may revolve around particular needs or conditions a child may have, learning from other professionals who have expertise in this area of SEND. SENCOs can enhance their learning by working closely with parents to better understand a child’s needs and requirements, as well as strategies that work for that child. The national charitable organisation which helps families with advice and support around medical conditions and raising a child with disabilities is known as Contact, and is a useful resource for SENCOs and families to access together. Due to the young age of children in early years settings, families and SENCOs are often learning together about a child’s needs and negotiating the local pathways to referral and assessment on the Local Offer. A good understanding of the SEND Code of Practice is essential for SENCOs as well as knowing about the local council’s processes for supporting children with SEND, whether that is through additional inclusion funding, through Advisory Services or training opportunities.
There is a lot of information for a SENCO to process and they play a key role in disseminating learning and best practice to other practitioners. It is helpful to have a regular SENCO slot at each staff meeting to raise the profile of SEND in the setting and ensure inclusion remains high on the agenda for all staff.
Local Joint Area Inspection for SEND
Each local authority is inspected under a Local Joint Area Inspection to see how well they are meeting the requirements of the SEND Code of Practice. More information about the process can be found here. After each inspection, the area will have clear actions to develop further to keep improving. Details of the inspection outcomes should be published on the Local Offer.
The SENCO role sits within wider national and local guidance and is key to implementing the law around inclusive practice for young children in early years settings. It is a role that can sometimes be an ‘add-on’ to other responsibilities but warrants its own clear job description, allocated time and professional development. It is a rewarding job which carries responsibility. SENCOs must be committed to inclusive practice which is evaluated regularly and adapts to changing knowledge about SEND.
Good inclusive practice benefits all children in a setting, not just those with SEND or other additional needs. Well-trained and knowledgeable SENCOS can make all the difference to how children with additional needs feel about themselves, how they thrive and learn and gain skills for their future. The SENCO role is one that can empower children, their parents, and the staff to belong to a community, to feel valued and to be treated fairly.
References and further reading
Department for Education (March 2017) Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage - Setting the standards for learning, development and care for children from birth to age five.
Foundation Years: Level 3 Early Years SENCO Qualification Specification.
Foundation Years: The Role of the Early Years SENCO purpose.
National College for Teaching and Leadership National Award for SEN Coordination: Learning Outcomes.
CONTACT for families with disabled children.