MAT SEND leaders play pivotal role in addressing the growing list of SEND challenges

Press Release

Thursday 18 April 2024

A new NFER report further highlights that special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) provision in multi-academy trusts (MATs) and schools is coming under increased pressure, with staffing, access to external support, parental relationships and inconsistencies in Local Authorities’ (LAs’) capacities to effectively support schools, being of particular concern.

The study, entitled The MAT Factor – Exploring how multi-academy trusts are supporting pupils with SEND, emphasises the crucial role MAT SEND leaders* are playing in tackling these problems. It highlights how MAT SEND leaders are effectively centralising SEND efforts, facilitating collaboration, and providing expertise and support to individual schools.

The research, conducted between November 2023 and January 2024, involved 49 interviews with MAT CEOs, MAT SEND leaders and school Special Educational Needs Coordinators (SENCOs) from 19 MATs in England. The objective was to gain insights into the range of approaches MATs take to support SEND provision in their mainstream secondary schools, against a sector-wide backdrop of increasing demand.

The main challenges reported include inadequate funding for staffing, which is leading to recruitment and retention issues for SENCOs and support staff. SENCOs also reported their workload increasing considerably, primarily due to the rise in administrative tasks associated with managing Education and Health Care Plans (EHCPs) stemming from the growing numbers of pupils with SEND.

Respondents spoke highly of the recent introduction of MAT-level SEND leaders, with the report highlighting how they are playing a significant role in helping to deal with these challenges. They tend not to mandate particular approaches but provide a vision or a framework across member schools. SENCOs observed that the introduction of MAT SEND leaders has led to greater levels of cross-trust SEND collaboration and strategic support.

MAT SEND leaders, many of whom have prior experience as SENCOs, demonstrate a strong understanding of the challenges faced by SENCOs, including feelings of isolation. They are adept at providing the necessary support to address these challenges, which was greatly valued and appreciated by SENCOs, as outlined in the report.

The study emphasises, however, that MAT SEND leaders cannot overcome all the SEND system challenges alone. It calls on the government to offer adequate funding to improve access to external specialist support from services, such as Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and speech and language therapists.

The report also underlines how the growing complexity of pupils’ needs, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, are straining resources and placing pressure on mainstream schools due to a lack of special school places.

Key findings from the report also include:

  • SENCOs valued the collaboration, learning opportunities and additional resources that MAT membership offered. This included regular cross-MAT SENCO meetings and access to trust-level specialist services. Such opportunities also alleviated the sense of isolation commonly reported among SENCOs.
  • The full potential of the MAT model to support SEND provision is still to be unlocked. While many SENCOs reported experiencing a range of benefits to being part of a MAT, certain challenges and limitations remain, including the geographical distribution of schools, constraints in LA provision, and the workload and capacity of SENCOs.
  • Interviewees reported inconsistencies between LAs in their capacity to effectively support schools. The research finds that to enable MATs to perform at their highest level, it is crucial that LAs are adequately resourced so that their provision is both timely and effective.

Matt Walker, NFER Senior Research Manager and report co-author, said:

“While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model for the involvement of MATs in supporting SEND, this research suggests MAT SEND leaders are playing a crucial role in consolidating SEND initiatives, fostering collaboration, and offering skills and assistance to individual schools as the sector navigates this crisis.

“It is critical that fixing the SEND system remains a top priority for the government. A good start would be addressing staffing challenges and providing adequate resources for schools and local authorities.”

The report suggests MAT and school leaders should:

  • Empower SENCOs as agents of change within their schools. Their ability to innovate within the overarching principles and vision of the MAT allows SENCOs to respond effectively to the unique needs of their schools and pupils.
  • Focus on strategic workforce planning to address the staffing challenges. This involves targeted efforts to attract, retain, and support SENCOs and supportive staff via manageable workloads, competitive pay, and professional development.
  • Strengthen measures to support the mental health and well-being of SENCOs and support staff.

The report suggests policy makers should:

  • Work towards improving the support provided by LAs. This includes standardising the procedures for EHCPs to ensure a common understanding and approach across schools, addressing inefficiencies, enhancing communication channels, and establishing clear guidelines. The introduction of new National Standards may help with this.
  • Prioritise increased funding for the SEND system to address staffing challenges, provide adequate resources for schools and LAs, and support effective provision for pupils with EHCPs.
  • Fund more research needed to better understand what ‘effective practice’ looks like within the MAT context. In particular, more empirical research is required to understand how different MAT structures and approaches impact on SEND pupils’ outcomes.