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Reports Part of series: Education & Covid-19: BERA Small Grants Fund research reports

Exclusion & the strategic leadership role of special educational needs co-ordinators in England

This report asks whether and how special educational needs co-ordinators (SENCOs) participated in Covid-19-induced school planning for lockdown, provision for vulnerable pupils and full school reopening, and explores SENCOs’ experiences concerning exclusionary pressures and their roles in schools’ strategic direction during this time. It also investigates concerns that schools inclined to off-roll pupils prior to the Covid-19 lockdown may have exploited closures and emergency provision for vulnerable pupils to, for example, persuade parents that home education is a more suitable option for a child with SEND than it might appear under normal conditions.

Report summary

Statutory guidance requires special educational needs co-ordinators (SENCOs) in England to provide strategic leadership to ensure a school ethos of inclusivity (DfE, 2015). The Covid-19 crisis has underlined the need for ‘advocacy’ leadership (Clarke & Done, 2021), as children with such needs are already disproportionately represented in school exclusion data, and increased levels of exclusion post-lockdown – including ‘off-rolling’, the unacceptable and in some cases unlawful practice of removing a pupil from the school roll without using a permanent exclusion (Owen, 2019) – are anticipated (Daniels et al., 2020). Findings from this BERA-funded research project indicate that some SENCOs are routinely prevented from exercising such leadership – for example, when they are omitted from their school’s senior leadership team (SLT) – suggesting that SENCO input to schools’ future crisis planning is an area that requires clarification.

Our research objective was to determine levels of involvement in SLT decision-making and planning for offsite and onsite provision for ‘vulnerable’ children during Covid-19 lockdown conditions, and whether working to prevent exclusion or off-rolling was a SENCO priority. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with SENCOs, including some based in schools in areas of high social deprivation within the south-west of England, where the proportion of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) is relatively high. A concurrent national quantitative online survey provided contextual data.


Profile picture of Elizabeth J. Done
Elizabeth J. Done, Dr

Lecturer (Inclusion) at Plymouth University

Dr Elizabeth J. Done is a lecturer in inclusion at the Institute of Education at the University of Plymouth and visiting research fellow at Exeter University’s Graduate School of Education. She specialises in inclusion, critical perspectives...

Profile picture of Helen Knowler
Helen Knowler

University of Exeter

Helen Knowler is a lecturer in education at the University of Exeter. She teaches and researches in the field of social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) and her current focus relates to permanent exclusion of pupils from school and...