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SENCOs stretched their professional role during the pandemic

A study of Special Educational Needs Coordinators’ lived experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic shows challenges in maintaining the boundaries of the professional role and an experience of having had to compromise on one's own professional ideals.

Jonas Udd och Inger Berndtsson
Jonas Udd and Inger Berndtsson

At the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Swedish upper secondary schools suddenly switched to distance education, which in one fell swoop changed the conditions for both students and employees. In a new study, doctoral student Jonas Udd, together with Inger Berndtsson, associate professor of education, explores nine Special Educational Needs Coordinators’ (SENCO’s) lived experiences of working at upper secondary school during the pandemic.

The participants were chosen to cover different types of schools: smaller, larger, municipal and independent, in different parts of the country. Each respondent was interviewed on three occasions and also kept a diary.  

"In the material, we see that the respondents’ workload increased with the pandemic. On the one hand, they were given new tasks, and on the other hand, it seems that more students ended up in need of support during the periods of distance education”, says Jonas Udd.

One of the study's conclusions is that the school as a physical location seems to be important for the work of SENCOs. In the school's premises, spontaneous and informal meetings take place that facilitate good relationships which sem to be important for the SENCO profession.

Immediate problems took over

SENCOs are trained to support schools on an overarching level. But when the pandemic restrictions were rolled out, the study's participants were given a steady stream of urgent questions to deal with. Since many students were suddenly in need of individual support, the long-term, organizational work had to take a back seat. The SENCOs in the study testify to inner conflicts. 

"SENCOs have a sense of moral responsibility for all students in need of special support, so the choice to spend more time on individuals is not a strange reprioritization on their part. But some also express shame at having neglected issues that are important for the professional role," says Jonas Udd. 

Inger Berndtsson adds: 

"This is a group that talks a lot about how to shape their role and safeguard the boundaries of it. You are keen on your mission and to bring out the inclusive aspect in it”, she says. 

Questions for the future

Jonas Udd would like to see a large-scale investigation into any lasting consequences of the pandemic for SENCOs. Were there many who expanded their remit, moving boundaries, adding new tasks to the professional role? Did the long-term work suffer? If so, what were the consequences of that? 

Inger Berndtsson reflects on how the study's results can be used to better prepare students on the Special Education Programme:

"For me, it is interesting to think about how the existential aspects are highlighted in the education we offer here at the university. If we know how important informal meetings are and that it is part of the professional role to manage professional boundaries – how do we best equip students for it?"

Text: Kristina Modigh

About the study

“SENCOs’ lived experiences of working through the COVID-19 pandemic in Swedish upper secondary schools” by Jonas Udd and Inger Berndtsson can be found here: