David Bartram OBE

In 2008, after being a SENCO for about 10 years, I was seconded to work with London Challenge. London Challenge, set up by the Blair government, was a secondary school improvement programme that ran in the capital from 2003 to 2011, and was expanded in 2008 to include primary schools and two new areas – Greater Manchester and the Black Country where it was known as the City Challenge.

During the period of the London Challenge, secondary school performance in London saw a dramatic improvement, and local authorities in inner London went from the worst performing to the best performing nationally. It was a privilege for me to observe some of the most experienced and successful headteachers in London, working together to transform such challenging and vulnerable schools.

I spent many hours in strategy meetings observing discussions about specific schools. I remember having a conversation with one of the London Challenge advisors, who told me that schools in difficulty were often not sure how to prioritise next steps; that although schools are incredibly complex places, improving schools is often about keeping things simple, prioritising a few key areas and doing these really well.

In my experience, the same can be said for leading great SEND provision in schools - SEND provision is most effective when schools keep their approach simple and concentrate on doing a few things well.

Yet we appear to be making the leadership of SEND increasingly complicated. For example, I’ve seen SEND audit frameworks for schools that contain literally hundreds of statements on how to deliver effective provision. The danger of creating this overly complex approach, is that it persuades teachers across the country that they may not be sufficiently expert enough to help children experiencing difficulty. It also undermines the confidence of headteachers in mainstream schools to drive through change in order to improve outcomes for this significant group of learners. The net result is isolation of SENCOs and the maintenance of a school-wide view that marginalised learners are somebody else’s ‘problem’. This supposedly privileged knowledge has distracted attention from the ways in which we may use our common humanity to understand others and use our common sense to make schools more humane, inclusive places. (Thomas, G. and Loxley, A. 2007)

School leadership is regarded as a catalyst for improving learner outcomes (Day, Gu and Sammons, 2016) and this is clearly recognised in the field of SEND (Rayner, 2007). Steve Radcliffe, in his book Leadership: plain and simple (2012), recognises the importance of leaders owning their own agenda and argues that leadership is only about doing three key things well, an approach which he summarises as Future-Engage-Deliver or FED. When it comes to leading SEND in schools, the more we keep things simple, the better.


In this FED model, the first key area focuses on the future - your vision for your provision and what you want all the staff to achieve together for your learners. The overall strategy should be based on what the research and evidence about great SEND provision tells you is most effective, so long as it is applied to your context.

Radcliffe argues that for you to be most successful as a leader, you really need to care about your vision or goal. Getting a powerful match between what you are both good at and passionate about can make a huge difference to how successful you will be.

When it comes to leading for SEND, taking some time out to really think about what your job entails will usually pay huge dividends. It is easy to get sucked into reacting to events, external accountabilities and individual learner needs. While these are all clearly important, finding ways to step back and see your bigger strategic picture as well as the need to build engagement with all staff across the school is your secret to even greater success. Too often, leadership of SEND can fall into the trap of being reactive; of making sure you meet external demands that the system places on you rather than leading for what you want to achieve for the learners you serve (Buck, A. 2018).

Key themes to support your vision:
  • Leaders and governors work together, using evidence, to establish a clear vision, ethos and strategic intent for leaners with SEND at the school.

  • SEND has a high profile in the school. There is a culture of high aspiration for all learners.


Once you are clear on your vision for the future and your strategy for achieving your goals, the next key area of work is to build and sustain great relationships with all those stakeholders, including your teachers, outside agencies, learners and parents who are going to make it happen. In other words, this is all about getting a collective buy-in to what you want to achieve.

For example, embedding parental involvement is based on extensive but often ignored evidence that greater parental involvement has a dramatic impact on progression, attainment and wider outcomes as well as improved attendance and behaviour. This is especially relevant for children and young people with SEND who are already vulnerable learners. High quality parental involvement needs planning and focus. Parental engagement needs to be part of a whole-school approach and there should be clear leadership of parental engagement within the school.

We also know the importance of working with our teachers. High quality teaching is the foundation for progress for all learners. It is believed that the difference between poor teaching and highly effective teaching equates to just under half a year’s extra progress for most learners. The effects of high-quality teaching are especially significant for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds: over a school year, these learners gain one and a half years’ worth of learning with very effective teachers, compared with half a year’s worth with poorly performing teachers (The Sutton Trust, 2011). The Code of Practice recognises that, ‘high quality teaching, differentiated for individual pupils, is the first step in responding to pupils who have or may have SEN. Additional intervention and support cannot compensate for a lack of good quality teaching’ (Department for Education, 2015).

Key themes to support your engagement

  • Leaders with responsibility for SEND are involved in reviewing and helping teachers improve the quality of teaching for all learners.

  • The school has created a culture and ethos that welcomes and engages parents and carers of learners with SEND.


The third stage in this model is focused on making sure you deliver. Leadership isn’t only about strategy and inspiring others. It’s about making sure things happen when you want them to and to the standard you expect.

This means having the right systems and processes in place. For example, rigorous monitoring and tracking helps to inform strategic decisions regarding interventions and classroom practice. Systems that support this process, such as the use of a provision map, will help in planning the range of provision across the school and can give a clear link between provision and learner progress.

Appropriate intervention cannot be put in place if a learner’s needs have not been correctly identified. It is important to take the time to reflect on a school’s range of current screening and assessment tools and where necessary to engage with the relevant professionals to ensure precise identification. Schools sometimes use interventions based on their current or historic offer, or based on areas of staff expertise, rather than drilling down into the individual needs of the learner and then personalising the intervention around them.

Key themes to support your delivery:

  • High quality assessment and identification leads to teachers being better informed about learner need and, in turn, improving outcomes for learners with SEND.

  • The school rigorously evaluates interventions and classroom practice for learners with SEND. Adjustments to the provision are made accordingly.

Leaders are central to improvement in every aspect of effective schooling and widespread excellent practice in SEND will remain a distant hope unless we empower all our leaders to realise that teaching learners with SEND is not some form of alchemy. Leading great SEND provision in school is actually about great leadership. So, don’t be concerned if you haven’t ticked all the boxes on the latest SEND leadership framework – concentrate on doing a few things really well.


Buck, A. (2018) in Bartram, D. Great Expectations, Leading and Effective SEND Strategy in School. Suffolk: John Catt Educational pp.16-17.

Day, C., Gu, Q. and Sammons, P. (2016) The Impact of Leadership on Student Outcomes: How successful school leaders use transformational and instructional strategies to make a difference. Educational Administration Quarterly. 52(2), pp.221-258.

Department for Education (2015) Special Educational Needs and Disability Code of Practice: 0 to 25 Years. London: Department for Education.

Dyson, A. and Millward, A. (eds.) (2000) Schools and special needs: Issues of innovation and inclusion. London: Paul Chapman.

Ofsted (2010) London Challenge. (online) Available at: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20141105213955/https://www.ofsted.gov.uk/sites/ default/files/documents/surveys-and-good-practice/l/London%20Challenge.pdf

Radcliffe, S. (2012) (2nd Ed.) Leadership: plain and simple. Edinburgh: Pearson.

Rayner, S. (2007) Managing Special and Inclusive Education. London: Sage Publishing.

Thomas, G. and Loxley, A. (2007) Deconstructing Special Education and Constructing Inclusion (2nd Edition). Maidenhead: Open University Press.

The Sutton Trust (2011) Improving the impact of teachers on pupil achievement in the UK – interim findings. (online) Available at https://www.suttontrust.com/wp- content/uploads/2011/09/2teachers-impact-report-final.pdf

David Bartram OBE

A teaching assistant, history teacher and senior leader, David has led special educational needs and disability provision (SEND) in London schools for over 15 years. He works closely with the Department for Education to develop SEND policy and was an expert advisor to the Timpson Review on school exclusions. David has worked directly with over four hundred school leadership teams across the UK to improve their provision for disadvantaged children.

David is author of the SEND Review Guide, a national peer review framework funded by the DfE, and Editor of Great Expectations, Leading an Effective SEND Strategy in School. He was Director of SEND at the London Leadership Strategy and an advisor to the Mayor of London’s education team. David is a consultant for the British Council and as part of this work he has supported the development of SEND policy in a number of countries including Ethiopia, Seychelles, Thailand and Malaysia. David is also trustee of the KPMG Foundation, which seeks to bring about systemic change in business and society and unlock the potential of the most disadvantaged children in the UK.

David was awarded an OBE for Services to Special Education in the 2016 New Year's Honours list.




Written by Guest Blog

Leave a comment

More stories

Why joint working is vital for good outcomes; How to work effectively in school-home partnership

Liz Murray (Founder of consultancy Spotlight Education Support & SENCo at Priestnall School) and Claire Ryan (Parent to young people with S...

Time to join the CompassionEDrevolution

By Jon Reid, Senior Lecturer in Child Development and SEN/ Inclusion, School of Education. PGCE, PGDES, PCTHE, MSC.OXON, MBPSS, FHEA  #compassion...