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Blog post Part of series: BERA Conference 2023

‘SEN Co’ or ‘SEN Do’? The future of special educational needs co-ordination without postgraduate study

Nicola Preston, Deputy Head of Education at University of Northampton

Over the past 40 years the role and identity of the special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCo) in England has changed significantly from the remedial teacher pre 1980s to specialist teacher and then to SENCo. This role was given formal status in 1994, followed by the introduction of National SENCo Standards in 1998. In 2009, it became mandatory for every new SENCo in a mainstream school in England to gain a postgraduate qualification in special educational needs coordination within three years of taking up the post.

Thereafter, numerous policies redefined provision linked to special educational needs and disability (SEN/D) which influenced and broadened the role of the SENCo to lead on inclusion as well as identifying and meeting the needs of children and young people with SEN/D. Internationally the evidence highlights that while disabilities or diagnoses might be an indicator of the types of needs a student has (Kärnä, 2015), the identification of those needs is more likely to be dependent on how those needs affect an individual in a particular learning environment. The World Health Organization suggests that this contextual or social approach to interventions requires a much wider and evidence-informed approach to ‘correct’ the socially created problems in the environment ‘brought about by attitudes and other features of the social environment’ (WHO, 2002, p. 9).

Leaders of inclusive practice need to be able to think critically, reflect on a range of evidence, and develop strategic approaches to ensure that needs are identified early and accurately. This allows for timely and appropriate support for those additional needs and is more likely to result in better outcomes for children, young people and their families. This evidence-based approach also has the potential to have long-term, cost-effective impact on opportunities for these young people to lead healthy and productive lives. In his analysis of inclusion in educational settings globally, Ainscow (2020, p. 7) states that including all children in schools has become more challenging and argues that inclusion is about whole setting approaches, rather than ‘simply involving attempts to integrate vulnerable groups of students into existing arrangements’. This requires a strategic and evidence-based approach.

‘Leaders of inclusive practice need to be able to think critically, reflect on a range of evidence, and develop strategic approaches to ensure that needs are identified early and accurately.’

Research into the purpose and impact of postgraduate studies suggests that work-based studies at this level often have an impact, not only on the work context but also on the personal and professional development of the employee who becomes a practitioner-researcher (Costley & Abukari, 2015; Wisker et al., 2019). Studies at this level develop an individual’s ability to construct and query established learning, knowledge and ways of carrying out a range of activities and behaviours. Postgraduate research develops the individual to make changes in practice, the field and to self (values, behaviours, understanding) but must be implemented to have impact.

Current proposals from the Department for Education (DfE) are to replace the National Award in SEN Co-ordination with a SENCo National Professional Qualification (NPQ). This would not be at postgraduate level and experienced SEN/D professionals challenge the rationale for these changes. Families and carers value the status of the special educational needs co-ordinator as pedagogue and leader of inclusion not only in schools but in a range of education contexts such as youth secure settings, alternative provision and pupil referral units where increasing numbers of young people excluded from schools receive their education.

Those who have been providers of the National Award in SEN Education for over two decades will be discussing the role of the SENCo, their status as leaders, and the most effective ways to support children and young people with SEN/D at the forthcoming BERA session, ‘The role of the Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator: Evidence and ideas in the context of a major government review of the SEND system in England’ ( 13 September 2023, (3.30–5pm, Rm17). You are welcome to come and hear the evidence presented and join the debate.


Ainscow, M. (2020). Promoting inclusion and equity in education: Lessons from international experiences. Nordic Journal of Studies in Educational Policy, 6(1), 7–16.

Costley, C., & Abukari, A. (2015). The impact of work-based research projects at postgraduate level. Journal of Work-Applied Management, 7(1), 3–14. 

Kärnä, E. (2015). Inclusive research and learning environments: Ideas and suggestions for inclusive research and the development of supportive learning environments for children with autism and intellectual disabilities. In R. G. Craven, A. G. S. Morin, D. Tracey, P. D. Parker, & H. F. Zhong (Eds.), Inclusive education for students with intellectual disabilities (pp. 117–138). IAP Information Age Publishing.

Wisker, G., Robinson, G. D., & Leibowitz, B. (2019). The purpose and impact of postgraduate knowledge. Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education, 10(3), 160–172. 

World Health Organization [WHO]. (2002). Towards a common language for functioning, disability, and health: ICF.