The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

Asking the right questions: Being the chief learner when it comes to SEND

One of my favourite phrases in leadership is when the CEO of an organisation brushes away the ‘executive’ part of their job title and replaces it with ‘learner’. This happens in industry, and, of course, in education.

Successfully shifting from being the expert to the chief learner requires a change in mindset. You need to move from having to know everything about everything, to knowing how to ask questions and focus your attention on the macro not the micro.

This won’t be a new idea for trustees. Non-executive leaders are rarely recruited as the expert in the core business area of their board. Instead trustees are recruited for their ability to question, probe and learn from information that others with a less strategic focus may miss.

In a school environment, one of the key areas that CEOs or trustees may not have direct expertise in is special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), although there are clear duties on them to ensure compliance with equality legislation.

Reflecting on the strategic priorities for SEND will help trustees and CEO’s ask key questions of themselves and their leaders to make sure this is prioritised effectively.

Karen Wespieser

At school level, legal and statutory responsibilities (applying for education, health and care plans, developing accessibility plans, multi-agency working, etc.) may be delegated to the Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCo), and data suggests that over a third of SENCos do not hold an SLT position. There isn’t any data on how many SENCos go on to become headteachers, executive heads or CEOs. I suspect it is very few.

Questions to ask as the SEND learner in chief

The task of improving outcomes for young people with SEND – the pupil group consistently with the lowest outcomes – is vast. There is no doubt that the area is complicated and involves a great many professionals, not least the young people and their families. Trustees and CEOs, who are by design, often removed from the day-to-day work of school may struggle to get to grips with how this fits together and more importantly what impact it is having on students.

Reflecting on the strategic priorities for SEND will help trustees and CEO’s ask key questions of themselves and their leaders to make sure this is prioritised effectively. For example, where does SEND fit within the vision and strategic priorities of your setting? Are you modelling inclusive SEND practices through your culture, values and ethos, and if so, how do you know?

To help support boards in evaluating the extent to which they can secure the high-quality outcomes learners with SEND require, the DfE have commissioned a new SEND Governance Review Guide. The Guide draws upon the six features of effective governance to set out a framework for how to ensure that learners with SEND access high-quality provision.

Six features of effective governance:

  1. Strategic leadership
  2. Accountability
  3. Compliance
  4. Structures and processes
  5. People management
  6. Evaluation

Every board is responsible for holding leaders to account for the education of learners with SEND.

Although the key features of effective governance are well articulated by the government and other sector bodies, the role trustees play for learners with SEND might be less clear, especially when considering areas not directly related to these learners’ outcomes. Furthermore, disentangling strategic and operational decision-making can be complicated when reviewing SEND provision owing to funding, resources and other considerations.

It may be difficult for boards, particularly if they have limited expertise regarding SEND, to identify precisely what their roles might be and how they can hold the leaders of settings accountable internally. One quick win is to ensure you are using shared and appropriate vocabulary so that everyone understands and can communicate about roles and responsibilities. This is especially the case when discussing learners with SEND and their families because of the inherent sensitivities that this can bring.

SEND Governance is not a simple checklist

A review of SEND governance should not be a simplistic checklist of compliance. Instead it should be considered as a developmental opportunity that promotes ongoing discussion and reflection over time, supported by external expertise and linked to clearly identified impact and outcomes for learners with SEND. Boards may need to draw on the expertise of system leaders including National Leaders of Governance (NLG) to support this review of their strategy, structures and processes.

Within our complex education system, developing an understanding of effective ways to meet the requirements of all learners is, at times, challenging. It is crucial that boards have a good knowledge of the context in which the setting operates, for example demands of different educational phases, and the operations and resources available internally and across the local area.

It is the job of the CEO, as the chief learner, to highlight to their boards matters representing the greatest challenges so that transparency, accountability and compliance can be assured; and ultimately improve the education of all young people.

The SEND Governance Review Guide is available free from https://sendgov.co.uk/