Can a new Parliamentary Group keep the pressure on to #fixSEND?

As a limping, wounded SEND system drags itself into the third month of the new decade, we are still waiting for the outcome of the DfE’s SEND Review to discover just how serious they are about finally fixing SEND. 

Meanwhile, one politician, Emma Hardy MP, who was part of the Education Select Committee during its SEND Inquiry, has taken the initiative to launch an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on SEND. 

Ms Hardy was voted in as chair of the group at its inaugural meeting earlier this week. Sally Ann Hart was voted as vice-chair. You may remember her for the furore over comments regarding pay for learning disabled people, made in the run-up to the election. 

SEND Community Alliance submitted comments that we will be publishing on the SCA website in due course. On this occasion, I was there to represent our collective (SCA can be represented by anyone from our three constituent groups, depending on who is available). I was among a number of others to say a few words about the issues, as well as a panel of speakers about whom, more later. 

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What’s an All-Party Parliamentary Group?

An All-Party Parliamentary Groups is an informal cross-party group that meets around an area of concern. They can be run and include Members of the Commons and Lords, as well as individuals and organisations from outside Parliament. 

APPGs enable campaigners, charities and other groups relevant to the issue at hand to get involved and (attempt to) influence politicians. Often a relevant charity or other organisation will provide a secretariat for the APPG, helping to run it. The secretariat (administration) for the APPG on SEND is provided by the Headteachers’ union, the NAHT. 

About APPGs (also in text)
Credit: https://www.parliament.uk/about/mps-and-lords/members/apg/

Why is it significant?

It’s actually quite astounding that there isn’t already one, considering there seems to be an APPG for everything else, from Autism to Jazz Appreciation. I gave evidence to the Parliamentary Group on Autism as part of its report on Education in England in 2017. The resulting report, along with other equally damning research, helped to highlight to parliament the parlous state of SEND. 

So it’s clear that while it has no formal place in the legislature, an APPG can be a very useful tool for keeping up pressure and even bringing about change. 

I’ve been asked if I think it’s just “window dressing” or if it means business. I believe that after her work on the Education Select Committee, Emma Hardy, herself a former teacher, has become a powerful advocate for improving SEND. The NAHT’s Rob Kelsall, who was instrumental in bringing the group to fruition is also a SEND parent, so he has a very personal reason to ensure the group has a purpose and mission. 

Added to this, those participating are not there to waste their time. Various advocacy and campaign organisations (including SCA of course), school leaders, SEND professionals, and not forgetting the other supporting parliamentarians, all understand what’s at stake: nothing less than the future opportunities and wellbeing of vulnerable children. It’s way past time to #fixSEND. 

What was discussed?

Funding was, of course, the major issue. The NAHT pointed to its 2019 survey and report, “Empty Promises”, which found:

  • Only 2% of respondents said their top-up funding was sufficient to meet individual Education Health and Care Plans (EHCPs)
  • 94% of respondents found it harder to resource the support required to meet the needs of pupils with SEND than they did two years ago.
  • 83% were not receiving ANY funding from health and social care budgets to support pupils with statements or EHCPs
  • 30% of respondents not receiving services from health and social care to support their pupils. 

This was echoed by other school leaders of special schools. 

Principal of Severndale Academy in Shropshire, Sabrina Hobbs, reported an inequity of top-up funding and “banding” across LAs which meant children with similar needs from different LAs, had different levels of funding. She said local health bodies (CCGs) were not stumping up the cash to fund the right professionals. This meant teaching assistants may have to do the work of speech and language therapists or qualified healthcare assistants– also a liability risk. Her school was employing trained healthcare assistants at twice the cost of a TA, but the CCG hadn’t picked up the difference. 

Ms Hobbs wants (among other things), a national High Needs Funding formula to eradicate the current ‘post-code lottery’. 

Headteacher, Marika Miles, chair of the NAHT’s SEND committee, agreed with this, and also spoke of how the families she works with have a perpetual journey of grief, at every stage trying to get support.

“Our children are not receiving the funding they deserve to give them their fundamental rights and therefore it’s not a benign act, it’s not a neutral act to underfund. Underfunding is an act of aggression and it’s an act of neglect against children with special educational needs and disabilities… these are false economies. The failings now we will be paying for in legacies for years and years to come.”

Marika pointed out that the will to do things right from Government was pointless without the hard cash to do it. 

Doing things right across the board

In my view, it’s not just the Government that needs the will to do things right. If the right money is actually put in – and fairly - things still won’t improve until those with local power in councils and CCGs use it properly to abide by the law – and that includes local policy.

New money MUST be ring-fenced for both delegated funding for SEN Support, and to ensure that money meant for SEND is spent on SEND. The idea in some circles that parents are applying for EHCPs as a “golden ticket” to get something “more” than their children deserve must be stamped out. 

Firstly, if you want teachers to spot emerging needs, you have to train them to spot them. There is evidence that this still isn't happening. If you want them to be able to put in early intervention, you have to provide the funding and support staff to do that. Then, fewer parents may need to climb the treacherous mountain of an EHCP application, because their children have had their needs met in a mainstream school. 

And when a child does need a specialist education, the attitude must be to work together to holistically assess, support the family and provide the education and care to meet the child’s needs. Not delay, oppose and often lie to protect the council coffers. 

It’s premature to look to change the law of what is still a relatively new system, just because public servants aren't sticking to the rules. Funding it properly (for the first time), instigating a single EHCP template, and training the right people to comply with the law, as well as change hearts and minds, will give it a fighting chance. Without these factors, no system will work.

Rights matter

I’ve left the first, and most impressive, speaker to last because it’s something we will be coming back to. 

David Irvine of the Equality & Human Rights Commission (EHRC) spoke about their particular concerns over schools refusing to admit children with SEND. He's also worried about the high proportion of exclusions from mainstream schools, of children and young people with disabilities. 

He pointed to a recent report by the Schools Adjudicator which found:

“Several local authorities made similar comments to one which said “There are some highly inclusive mainstream schools who are open to admitting children and young people at any time and work with the local authority where there is a need for additional resource to support the individual. There are, however, some schools which will refuse to admit as a matter of course and this becomes harder the later in the academic year this is and most specifically in key year groups e.g. Y6, Y10 & Y11.” In some areas it was also reported that there were insufficient specialist places available and that the number of children with EHC plans was increasing.”

“There was considerable concern expressed to me that some schools will not agree to admit a child with SEND but without an EHC plan unless additional resources were agreed. Several local authorities also found that “Many parents report not making a formal application to a school as they are told when they initially make contact to apply that the school is unable to meet their child’s needs.” These challenges may explain why 16 local authorities did not think the needs of children with SEND but no EHC plan were well served when seeking admission in year.”

Office of the Schools Adjudicator annual report: September 2018 to August 2019

A couple of years ago, EHRC set up a fund to enable families to fight unlawful exclusions.  In one case, they managed to overturn the exclusion of an 11-year-old autistic child whose behaviour the school said was “criminal and anti-social”. The judge in the case said it was, “repugnant to define as criminal or antisocial, the effect of the behaviour of children whose condition, through no fault of their own, manifests itself in these particular ways.” 

 Mr Irvine said, “Parents do not feel empowered  to be able to change the decisions made by schools and if the APPG can do anything it’s to support the guidance that already exists to encourage and embolden parents to be able to challenge.”

They are soon to pilot another, similar, scheme and want to hear from families to see if they can support them. 

The EHRC has also recently launched an inquiry into how schools in England and Wales are monitoring and recording their use of restraint and restrictive interventions, following concerns about its use and the lack of data available. You can submit evidence yourself if you have something to share. 

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Watch this space

So this inaugural meeting was electing officers and hearing voices. It brought together a broad cross-section of those concerned with SEND. We strongly believe the parental/family voice should be at the very heart of this APPG. We also believe the voice of the young person themselves should be loud and clear and the APPG should take steps to make it accessible to those whose futures are hanging in the balance. 

What do you think the APPG priorities should be? 

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Tania Tirraoro
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