Back to School Planning: Suggestions for SENCOs  

As leaders continue to plan for all pupils to return full time to school from the beginning of the autumn term, one of the challenges they face is how to ensure pupils with SEND return successfully. The government guidance highlights the expectation that schools will

‘deliver a broad and balanced curriculum for all pupils, including full educational and care support for pupils with SEND’.

So, how can you ensure full support for pupils with SEND whilst implementing effective COVID-19 health and safety measures in your school or setting?

Here at Edukey, we ran a series of webinars during the lockdown period to support SEND leaders to plan for the return to school. Throughout the webinars, not only did we focus not on the immediate priorities for September, but also the longer-term, strategic approach for the rest of the autumn term and beyond. This included revisiting the principles of effective provision for pupils with SEND, as highlighted in the EEF ‘Special educational needs in mainstream schools’[1] report. The EEF guidance provides five recommendations to support schools in reviewing their current approach and gives an overview of ‘best bets’ for improving special educational provision.  Further information on the report can be found here.

Recordings of our SEND leader webinars can be found here, whilst below is a summary of some of the key planning considerations we covered:

1. Getting the ethos and environment right

Developing new rules, routines and structures to secure health and safety will be one of your biggest priorities in September. For those working closely with some SEND pupils, maintaining physical distance will be a challenge.  However, the DfE guidance states that keeping a 2m distance will not be possible when working with many pupils who have complex needs or who need close contact care and that

these pupils’ educational and care support should be provided as normal.’

When establishing new behaviour expectations,  you will need to take into account individual needs and keep in mind the importance of creating a positive and supportive environment for all. More children might exhibit challenging behaviours as they struggle to come to terms with the changes to the school environment and will require additional support:

  • Focus on developing or re-establishing positive relationships between pupils, their peers and adults.
  • Don’t assume pupils will automatically understand or be able to follow new rules and routines. Teach them explicitly and support their understanding with the use of visuals or social stories.
  • Encourage metacognition and self-regulated learning so pupils become less reliant on others.
  • Establish clear processes for dealing with incidents of unpredictable or unsafe behaviour e.g. spitting, hitting.
  • Plan how you will support pupils who struggle to come back to school e.g. if they have developed a strong attachment to parents or have increased anxiety levels.
  • Fully involve parents in the process and communicate any changes to routines or expectations clearly.

For pupils with existing social, emotional and mental health needs, the impact of coronavirus may heighten their challenges further. Promoting positive wellbeing will be key:

  • Provide opportunities and safe spaces for pupils to talk about their feelings and express their thoughts on the pandemic.
  • Support pupils to communicate their feelings. Try using emotional check-ins or emotion wheels.
  • Use social stories or wordless books to help pupils understand how they are feeling.
  • Consider nurture group type provision for those pupils who require additional support for SEMH.
  • Consider how you will prioritise positive wellbeing through a whole school approach.

Take a look at the Recovery Curriculum[2] to support your thinking. Developed by Barry and Matthew Carpenter, the Recovery Curriculum is a construct designed to support school leaders to think about and plan the transition back to pupils being effective, engaged learners.

2. Understanding our pupils

When pupils return to school in September, they will all be at very different places, depending on their experiences and levels of engagement in learning during lockdown. High quality diagnostic assessment will be more crucial than ever, not only to identify gaps in learning, but also to establish a more holistic picture of pupils’ mental health and wellbeing.

Working in collaboration with families to gather assessment information will be a good starting point.  Gather pupil and parent views on their experiences during lockdown: what did they struggle with? What worked well? What were the child’s successes? We know for some learners with SEND, the access to home learning has provided additional opportunities and a richer engagement with learning, for example where pupils have benefitted from a calmer, quieter environment with less sensory distraction and more ownership over their working patterns.

  • Use transition information initially to communicate key information to staff e.g. Pupil Passports.
  • Don’t conduct ‘formal’ assessments too early on in the term before pupils have settled in to their new class / school.
  • Use additional diagnostic assessments to support the process, for example to assess social, emotional or mental health needs.
  • Revisit your SEN criteria with staff – some pupils may return having suffered trauma or with increased anxiety. Although it will be important to provide support, if the impact is short-term this not necessarily mean the pupil will have ‘special educational needs’.
  • Update your SEN register and monitor any significant changes in levels of SEMH in particular.

3. Ensuring access to High Quality Teaching

High Quality Teaching (HQT) is the starting point for meeting needs and ensuring HQT is in place for all pupils should be a priority for any school in the autumn term. The EEF guidance suggests that HQT is based on strategies that should be in the repertoire of every mainstream teacher. These strategies should be used for all pupils and then applied flexibly in response to individual needs. Particularly useful strategies for using with pupils with SEND include:

  • flexible grouping
  • cognitive & metacognitive strategies
  • explicit instruction
  • using technology
  • scaffolding

It is important that HQT is built upon a clearly sequenced, cumulative curriculum, which considers prior learning and is taught in a logical sequential way. Learners with SEND need to know and understand the connections in knowledge to build on prior learning. You may want to consider providing CPD to staff to support the implementation of inclusive, HQT strategies in the classroom.

4. Providing additional and specialist support

Over the next year, the government is providing additional funding for schools in the form of a catch-up premium.  Headteachers will have flexibility over how to spend the funding, although governors and trustees are expected to have oversight on spending and impact. The DfE guidance states:

‘For pupils with complex needs, we strongly encourage schools to spend this funding on catch-up support to address their individual needs.’

This means the funding could be used, where appropriate, for some pupils with SEND to provide specific support such as intervention programmes, extra teaching capacity, speech and language therapy, or educational psychologist time. Where you are planning interventions, consider the recommendation within the EEF guidance focusing on complementing high quality teaching with carefully selected small-group and one-to-one interventions:

  • Use interventions carefully so they do not become a barrier to learning.
  • Consider the use of structured, evidence-based interventions.
  • Target interventions through identification and assessment of need.
  • Make links between learning in intervention and what happens in the classroom.

It can be useful to consider a tiered approach to providing support – the model can work when we are planning our response to COVID-19 but also our longer-term strategic approach:

For pupils with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCP), there will be an expectation that all the provision stated in their plan will be secured. Over the last few months, temporary changes to EHCP related legislation has meant that local authorities have only had to use ‘reasonable endeavours’ to secure provision. Unless the evidence changes, the government will no longer be modifying the legislation and local authorities will once again be expected to secure all provision. Statutory timescales for EHC related processes will also be restored.

When planning specialist support:

  • Find out what specialist support pupils have accessed during lockdown and what the impact of this has had on pupil progress.
  • Consider any new processes or protocols you will need to have in place for visiting specialists from September onwards.
  • Plan out your annual reviews for the year, prioritising any that were due to take place in the summer term but were postponed.
  • Where annual reviews were successfully completed via telephone or video conferencing in the summer term, consider the practicalities of continuing some reviews in this way.
  • Plan for supporting any pupils who do not return full time in September e.g. establishing a blended approach to learning.
  • Update your SEN information report to reflect any changes in provision as a result of the pandemic (some schools have produced a COVID-19 appendix to their report).

5. Deploying staff effectively

The DfE guidance states that where support staff capacity is available, schools may consider using this to support catch-up provision or targeted interventions, or to provide lesson cover (under the direction of a teacher). However, it is also clear that where TAs are used in different ways, this

should not be at the expense of supporting pupils with SEND.

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to deploying support staff in the current situation (or indeed ever!) so you will need to consider which model, or combination of models, will work most effectively for your school e.g.

  • Assign TAs to one ‘bubble’ to help minimise movement and contact.
  • Assign TAs to work across two bubbles, for example to deliver specialist provisions or interventions.
  • Assign TAs to work across more than two bubbles remotely e.g. to deliver live online sessions to a group of pupils from different bubbles
  • Assign TAs as keyworkers for individual pupils with complex needs e.g. for those pupils who find self-regulation a challenge and need support to keep safe.

Remember that the principles of effective TA deployment remain as relevant as ever. Building on the work of Rob Webster, the EEF report Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants[3] provides a number of recommendations to school leaders on effectively deploying TAs e.g. preparing TAs for their role. In September, if TAs are working in bubbles with unfamiliar pupils or within new subject areas, ongoing training and support will be essential as part of the preparation.

Finally, you will also need to consider to what extent the workload and focus of the SENCO might need to change to reflect the different priorities required to ensure pupils with SEND have a successful return to school.