In order to truly provide inclusive education and raise student achievement for every child, ANNE RUSSELL believes a school’s Special Education Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO) should be part of the school’s leadership team.

The ‘talk’ is Success for All – Every School, Every Child. This four-year action plan, which came about from the Government’s 2010 review of special education, has the objective of New Zealand achieving a fully inclusive education system by 2014.

When describing the basics of inclusion, my advice to schools is to always remember that first and foremost, children – regardless of gender, ethnicity, or degree of special needs – are all students first. Full stop.

The leadership team develops, through their strategic plan, a commitment to raising student achievement and meeting the diverse needs of all students; ‘all’ is not an ambiguous word. Ministry documents inform us that, ‘Inclusion, one of the eight principles of The New Zealand Curriculum, should underpin school leadership and school direction’. The challenge for the leadership team is to create an inclusive culture, where the welcome mat extends beyond the enrolment form at the school office.

School policies and procedures may meet all the legislative requirements, yet spend time observing in the classroom or the playground, participating in IEPs, or viewing differentiated lessons, and you may discover that there is a mismatch between practical implementation and the written policies and procedures. Transferring the ‘talk’ to the ‘walk’ is often the ongoing struggle for some schools. Although funding may play a role, so, too, does attitude and leadership.

We all bring our own life experiences to the workplace; they may consist of religion, values, morals, education, and opinions. As educators, we keep some of these personal perspectives to ourselves, as schools are not always the context to share personal aspects of our lives. We do need to draw on personal attributes that will enhance our inclusive school, such as empathy, patience, tolerance, and understanding.

Empathy, or learning to ‘stand in the shoes of others’, is a worthwhile and valuable attribute when developing special needs policies and procedures.

  • Stand in the shoes of the parents who have already been turned down by five schools.
  • Stand in the shoes of the student who cannot access the toilet as the doors are too narrow for a wheelchair.
  • Stand in the shoes of the teacher aide who doesn’t know how to support the student because the teacher doesn’t have time to adapt the curriculum.

So what are the considerations for an inclusive school culture? What does an inclusive school look like beyond the welcome mat?

It would be advantageous for the leadership team to include the Special Education Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO). A recent NZC Update (Issue 18, 2012) says a school’s SENCO – a senior staff member who is assigned a range of responsibilities according to the school’s needs and often has a teaching and leadership role within the school – can be key to the successful coordination of services, support staff, and programmes.

Although the first day of school is familiar, with families and special needs students warmly welcomed by the principal, the SENCO and office staff, much of the initial work has occurred during the transition to school. The SENCO and class teacher has gathered information and resources, and strategies have been shared and developed, support staff allocated, property considerations made, and curriculum programmes and health safety plans are in place.

It is during transition that positive relationships can be forged. It is essential to have a constructive partnership between home and school, as well as other agencies which may be involved with the student, for example services from health, social, or education sectors.

The SENCO is a key staff member on the leadership team, and yet their role is often vague and undervalued by the education sector despite playing an essential part in supporting students, teachers, teacher’s aides, and families/whānau. From the time a student is enrolled, to the time they leave the school, the SENCO plays a critical role in ensuring a student receives the support they require to achieve and progress, to the best of their ability. The students who appear on the school special needs register will depend on the criteria set by a school, as it may refer to a student’s needs, which require specific or special attention. The register may have gifted and talented, English language learners, moderate physical needs, health concerns, RTLB service, or severe needs.

Raising student achievement for all, goes hand-in-hand with ongoing literacy and numeracy professional development. Student achievement for students with special needs is equally important, so encourage professional learning and development opportunities, for the SENCO, teachers, and teacher aides. It is important to build the capabilities of the SENCO as they should be the first contact for classroom teachers when concerns are raised with a student.

The SENCO’s role may include:

  • establishing a school process for identifying students for the special needs register
  • ensuring there is a robust monitoring process
  • having a sound knowledge of assessment tools, programmes, and resources
  • contributing to the strategic planning of the school
  • knowing how to effectively plan teaching programmes and differentiate the curriculum
  • understanding how the IEP/IBP process merges with the class programme
  • liaising with outside agencies
  • providing advice to teaching staff and paraprofessionals
  • being responsible for teacher-aide employment, appraisals, timetable, and professional development
  • understanding/managing the allocated funding.

The school leadership team has to lead by example when creating an inclusive culture. In the context of special education, I believe that the mantra for a leadership team should be ‘don’t create barriers – create solutions’. n

Anne Russell is a special education consultant for Offbeat Education: Advocating Inclusion

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