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Exclusion and the strategic leadership role of special educational needs coordinators (SENCOs) in England: Planning for Covid-19 and future crises

Elizabeth Done, Associate Professor (Inclusion) at Plymouth University Helen Knowler, Associate Professor at UCL

Disproportionality (the overrepresentation of specific social groups) in school exclusion data is well documented (DfE, 2019). Similarly, time and funding pressures faced by special educational needs co-ordinators (SENCOs) in English schools, and their varying capacity to influence school culture, are recognised (Pearson, Mitchell, & Rapti, 2015). Imbalances in Covid-19 provision for students with ‘special’ needs between private and state-maintained schools in affluent areas and those in less-affluent areas are also evident (Montacute, 2020). Pandemic conditions highlight such issues – hence the granting of a BERA grant to researchers focusing on the SENCO role in areas of high social deprivation. It is unclear how SENCOs have influenced Covid-19 planning and provision in these areas, or whether exclusionary pressures have been exacerbated and how SENCOs have responded to this. Such pressures include formal exclusion and ‘off rolling’ – defined by Ofsted (2019) as a ‘gaming’ of academic performance data.

Current statutory guidance requires SENCOs to strategically lead change within their settings to ensure an inclusive school ethos and provision for all children according to need. However, not all SENCOs are in senior management teams and their capacity to influence decision-making may be limited. Anecdotal reports suggest pandemic conditions have exacerbated exclusionary pressures and led to SENCO preoccupation with managerial and administrative duties. Our study wishes to generate evidence on whether, and how, SENCOs have participated in Covid-19-induced school planning for lockdown, provision for ‘vulnerable’ pupils, and full school reopening, and explore SENCOs’ experience around exclusionary pressures during this time. The researchers teach SENCOs through university-based training and wish to ensure that the SENCO ‘voice’ is heard. Given the sensitivity of the research topic, participants in the qualitative phase are invited to contact the researchers to learn more about the ethical protocol that will guide reporting practice.

‘Anecdotal reports suggest pandemic conditions have exacerbated exclusionary pressures and led to SENCO preoccupation with managerial and administrative duties.’

Our study comprises a national quantitative survey of SENCOs, focus groups and in-depth interviews with SENCOs in south-west England. It sits within a multi-stranded project researching exclusionary pressures and practices in English schools from the perspectives of senior school leaders (Done & Knowler, 2020a, 2020b), SENCOs, parents (Done, Knowler, Pickett-Jones, & Warnes, forthcoming), pupils, and educational professionals. The researchers describe their overall research strategy across multiple strands as a ‘wavelength’ methodology as the objective is not a unified analytical narrative but, rather, a ‘tuning in’ to particular ‘voices’ and the making visible of varied experiences in a field characterised by complexity.

Findings will contribute significantly to research around social justice in education given disparities in exclusion rates between social groups affecting the disadvantaged, those with additional needs or from specific ethnicities (DfE, 2019). It is hoped that findings will support calls for additional funded research into the SENCO role in areas of social deprivation.

The following link will take practising SENCOs to the survey:

For more information about this research contact, or visit:


Department for Education [DfE] (2019). Timpson review of school exclusion. London.

Done, E. J., & Knowler, H. (2020a). Painful invisibilities: Roll management or ‘off-rolling’ and professional identity. British Educational Research Journal, 46(3),516–531.

Done, E. J., & Knowler, H. (2020b). A tension between rationalities: ‘Off-rolling’ as gaming and the implications for head teachers and the inclusion agenda. Educational Review (in press).

Done, E. J., Knowler, H., Pickett-Jones, B., & Warnes, E. (forthcoming). Think piece on parents, ‘off rolling’ and wavelength methodology: Issues for SENCOs. Support for Learning.

Montacute, R. (2020). Social mobility and Covid-19: Implications of the Covid-19 crisis for educational inequality. London: Sutton Trust.

Ofsted. (2019). The annual report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills 2017/2018. London. Retrieved from

Pearson, S., Mitchell, R., & Rapti, M. (2015). ‘I will be “fighting” even more for pupils with SEN’: SENCOs’ role predictions in the changing English policy context, Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 15(1), 48–56.