The need for confident and qualified SENCOs in PVI nurseries and pre-schools is clear. Last year, an analysis of government figures showed there was a 30 per cent increase in the number of children with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) attending a PVI setting.
While the introduction of the 2014 SEND Code of Practice gave nurseries, pre-schools and childminders a more pro-active role in identifying and supporting special needs at an early age it left them with a big challenge to ensure staff were skilled to do so.
Unlike in schools and nursery schools, where there is a statutory requirement for a designated teacher to be appointed and trained as a SENCO, PVI providers are only expected to ‘identify’ one. According to early years consultant, Janice Darkes-Sutcliffe, this has resulted in a situation where many nursery SENCOs have been – ‘left to get on with it’.
The extent of the problem was revealed to Ms Darkes-Sutcliffe while working as an advisory teacher and lead officer for the Area SENCO Team in Liverpool. Drawing on her close links with many local settings she decided to use her experience to develop an accredited early years SENCO award specifically for PVI providers. This was piloted in 2014 and rolled out nationally with government funding in 2019.
When she was designing the accreditation, she knew it had to be developed in collaboration with the sector. ‘The aim was to use a grassroots approach because teachers and practitioners gather implicit and explicit knowledge through their experiences,’ she says. ’It was important to recognise and build on this.’
She also realised the course had to be hands-on and not just about securing the qualification. ‘I thought that to do a quick training course over a couple of weekends would not have had a great impact,’ she says. ‘It was important to design a course which took place across several months, allowing practitioners to progress at a comfortable speed and reflect on what they were learning.’
The ethos behind Ms Darkes-Sutcliffe's pilot in 2014 has been carried through to the final government-funded qualification.
Run by the National Association for Special Educational Needs (Nasen), the award is a 12-and-a-half-day course, which takes place over a three to four-month period. The visits to special needs schools, which Ms Darkes-Sutcliffe believes are crucial to PVI practitioners' deeper knowledge, remains part of the accreditation, as is the joined-up working between parents, practitioners and other professionals.
The award aims to help fill this gap between PVI SENCOs and qualified teachers in maintained nursery schools. However, the government funding required to ensure the longevity of the course has not been confirmed for the next cohort and Nasen has said the project will not go ahead without this funding.
Call for a review of the Code
Ms Darkes-Sutcliffe says that creating time to share knowledge with other members of staff is also a challenge in the PVI sector, with nurseries opening early in the morning and closing in the evening, allowing ‘very little time for reflection’.
The PVI sector is not alone in facing time pressures. Research published by Bath Spa University this year revealed that nearly three quarters of SENCOs across a variety of settings believe paperwork takes up the majority of their time, rather than interactions with children. The university, along with Nasen, is calling for a review of the SEND Code of Practice and the development of a more consistent approach to SEND provision nationally.
Understanding the time pressures teachers and early years practitioners experience in their settings is crucial for any visiting professional, says autism specialist Gina Davies.
She is the founder of the Attention Autism intervention, which develops children's attention skills through the use of visual and highly motivating activities. Her intervention has had success in a number of learning environments, from nurseries to mainstream schools, based on working to capture a child's attention as a fundamental prerequisite to learning.
She runs courses for professionals and visits schools to improve autism provision. When she visits a mainstream school, she recognises it is important to fit her ‘advice into the teacher's plan’ because they ‘don't have masses of time’.
Ms Davies believes a child with complex needs, such as those associated with autism, can be effectively supported by planning creatively and making practical changes to the learning environment. This is instead of the teacher producing dense and complicated reports about the child's needs, which ‘often go unread or duplicate a lot of information’.
Ms Davies outlines how a visiting specialist's time in a mainstream setting could be optimised. She suggests breaking this down into three visits to the setting, trialling some strategies and recording them using a brief, bullet point list, which stops teachers from falling into the trap of long and complicated reporting. She suggests that an example visit would involve her sitting where the child with additional needs typically sits in the classroom, observing what they see and then making suggestions on how visual distractions could be minimised, for example, with the use of storage boxes or by changing displays.
Ms Darkes-Sutcliffe explains that she took a ‘holistic approach’ to the PVI SENCO award, encouraging input from speech and language therapists and educational psychologists, among others, to fight against the ‘fragmentation’ that is affecting education, and to stop practitioners from working in ‘silos’.
Ms Davies' autism intervention has also had success in mainstream settings as a result of collaborative working. She cites the positive work of the Attention Hillingdon Project, which runs Attention Autism groups in over 80 settings across Hillingdon in London.
Ms Davies, along with a team of speech and language therapists, advanced skills teachers and a trained LA team, model the approach to be replicated by practitioners in their settings, with the course spanning an eight-week period. At the end of the programme, settings continue to be given support to sustain what they have learned. Significantly, children do not need to wait for an EHCP to benefit from the project.
While practical barriers, such as time and financial constraints, often work against early years practitioners and Reception teachers, support from visiting professionals and access to specialist training are key to effectively supporting children with additional needs in a mainstream setting.
Grassroots initiatives, such as the SENCO award developed by Ms Darkes-Sutcliffe, are undoubtedly a positive way of bridging the gap between knowledge and effective SEND provision in PVI settings and must continue to be funded.
Education Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) were introduced in 2014 to improve provision for children and young people with SEND, making access to speech and language therapy, special schools and one-to-one teaching easier, among other things. The system was also designed to improve early intervention, so nurseries could identify special needs earlier and get the necessary support in place in time for school.
However, many children wait up to a year, or even longer, to be put on an EHCP, which can delay their access to the right kind of support in a mainstream setting or stop them from attending a special school.
While the Government launched a review into the EHCP process at the end of last year, with the long-term aim of improving provision across the country, there are ways for teachers and nursery practitioners to better inform themselves about the EHCP process in the meantime. Organisations such as the Independent Provider of Special Education Advice and the National Autistic Society are useful sources for guidance and online support documents.
Creating a sensory retreat
How do you make messy media enjoyable for a child who is sensitive to touch? Preparing the child, offering a choice and adapting the activity are key, says special needs teacher Sophia Rook.
Before children begin a mark making activity, she plays a predictable song to alert them to the start of the next session. The activity needs to be visually clear, so the children sit at a learning table with a special tray, which creates a ‘visual boundary’. She then offers them a variety of materials to explore: some children love shaving foam and paint, but others can't stand the sticky sensation and will prefer sand. The practitioner can then explore ways of gradually desensitising the child to sticky materials.
Including children with additional needs in whole-group activities can prove challenging for nursery practitioners and teachers in Reception classes, particularly when mainstream schools can have more than 30 children in one class. But where educators understand the child's unique needs, simple adpations can make a world of difference.
For example, using a corner of the room to create a ‘sensory retreat’ is a great way to help a child if they are experiencing sensory overload, explains Miss Rook. For a child with autism, the nursery or a Reception class can be a chaotic and confusing place. A calm curtained off area, with comfy pillows, sensory fidget toys and low lighting can give them a break.
Re-thinking carpet time
Sophia Rook, a special needs teacher at Breakspeare School in Hertfordshire, says mainstream teachers need to recognise that children with SEND will develop at a different rate to their neurotypical peers.
The structure of a school day often requires children in mainstream Reception classes to sit in one place for an activity such as carpet time. For children with autism, staying in one place for an extended period can prove particularly challenging.
Miss Rook, who has advised mainstream teachers about special needs teaching within their settings, suggests practitioners manage their expectations and adapt activities like carpet time, so they are more suited to the individual needs of the child.
‘Children could be given an alternative activity if they're not ready for group time, which provides them with similar learning outcomes, or maybe have a smaller social group, like a mini carpet time, in another space where they're still getting that social interaction but in a more achievable way,’ she explains.
If the child is able to participate in carpet time with the rest of the group for a short period, Miss Rook suggests ‘they come for a limited amount of time that is really exciting for them’. If carpet time begins or ends with a particular predictable song, this would be a great time for a child with autism to get involved as the routine helps to lower anxiety.
- There are different expectations for SENCOs in maintained and PVI nurseries, which the early years SENCO award has aimed to eliminate
- Time pressures work against practitioners trying to make their settings more inclusive
- Teachers in mainstream settings should manage their expectations and offer adapted activities if necessary for children with SEND
- Taking a holistic approach to children's learning, with input from professionals outside the classroom, will improve provision
- Making simple adaptations to the learning environment can make a big difference to the child's experience