The Council for Disabled Children’s new Director on their work to implement the Government’s SEND Change Programme

With Amanda Allard, Director, Council for Disabled Children

You may have seen from our recent podcast with Dame Christine Lenehan, that there is a new director at the help of the Council for Disabled Children. Dame Christine is a hard act to follow, but Amanda Allard, a longtime staff member at CDC, has taken up the challenge.

Of course you know our reservations about the Department for Education (DfE) SEND Improvement Plan for fixing SEND, not least with the reliance on “ordinarily available provision” without a significant—and ring-fenced— boost to the money schools are given to provide this—and schools’ will to do it.

So what is happening to put the plan into action and how is the Council for Disabled Children part of this? Today, Amanda Allard is on SNJ to say hello and tell you about the work they are involved with to implement the plan.

How we’re is working to implement the many strands of SEND change, by Amanda Allard, Director, Council for Disabled Children

Hello! Firstly I would like to take this opportunity to introduce myself to you. My name is Amanda Allard and I’m the new Director at the Council for Disabled Children. It is a pleasure to have this opportunity to put fingers to keyboard in one of my first attempts to fill the (as people keep reminding me) very large shoes of Dame Christine Lenehan. 

Following Matt’s recent blog on the SEND and Alternative Provision (AP) Improvement Plan Change Programme, which raised some interesting points, I hope to offer some clarity on what we hope the Change Programme will be able to deliver for children and young people and their families. 

An opportunity for change

We are all well aware that the current system is, too often, failing to deliver for disabled children and young people and those with special educational needs (SEN). The Change Programme offers a real opportunity to explore the impact of the SEND and AP Improvement Plan proposals on outcomes for children, young people and families. We have heard commitments from Minister David Johnston and the Department for Education (DfE) to genuinely test out reforms, to see what works and what doesn’t. 

The REACh (Reaching Excellence and Ambition for all Children) Consortium is the delivery partner for the Change Programme, and is led by PA Consulting in partnership with the Council for Disabled Children (CDC), Olive Academies and IMPOWER. REACh will deliver a three-phased programme that includes “rapid cycle evaluations” to test and analyse insights, allowing reforms introduced by the Improvement Plan to be assessed, refined and disseminated, in real-time across the nine Change Programme Partnerships (CPP’s) - one in each region.

Amanda Allard is a white woman in he 40s. She has dark blonde hair in a bob and she is wearing glasses. She is smiling.
Amanda Allard, new Director of the Council for Disabled Children

How are parent carers involved?

In terms of parental engagement, it is central to the programme. Part of the role of the REACh Consortium and DfE's delivery team is to work closely with CPP’s and to make sure the right partners - including parent carers - are involved at both CPP and individual local area level. As a first step, each CPP is in the process of setting up their steering group and this has to include parent carers. There is an absolute expectation that each partnership will take a co-productive approach to the reforms they test. Having said that, there are 9 CPP’s including 31 local authorities and there are bound to be differing levels of maturity in terms of their confidence at engaging with parent carers. So, we will be expecting you to keep them and us honest in how well they’re achieving that goal. While this programme focuses on 31 local areas, we also want the learning to benefit all families and children and we will need to work with you all on taking this message out.

What are the concerns?

There are clearly areas of the Improvement Plan, such as tailored lists, that generate concern or scepticism for some families. While I understand and fully appreciate these concerns, I also encounter families who don’t know where to start in their search for a school that will meet their child’s needs. There are also too many parents who have been let down by settings owned by hedge funds who invest their money in glossy brochures, not in decent provision – what you might call the “fur coat and no knickers” approach to meeting children’s needs. 

So, with that in mind, the theory behind tailored lists, where parents receive a quality-assured list of settings able to meet their child’s needs has the potential to address that. However, I am clear that the purpose of the Change Programme, and the REACh Consortium’s role within it, is to test that theory alongside the wider proposals set out in the SEND and AP Improvement Plan so we can be clear on impact and avoid any unintended consequences. It’ll also monitor how the system responds and what it means for children and families. And that brings me to Rapid Cycle Evaluations. 

What is a Rapid Cycle Evaluation (RCE)?

I have carried out research and worked with researchers throughout my career and love doing so. But we cannot wait for the usual research approach, finding out what has worked and what hasn’t after the event. We need to understand the impact of the reforms as ‘rapidly’ as possible! Rapid Cycle Evaluation is the formal title for this approach, which comes from disaster recovery (I can sense a few wry smiles). It’s about gathering evidence in real-time to ensure that everything we are doing is making a difference and has the right focus. Given the importance of improving the system for children, young people and families, the size of the challenge and the investment, such an approach seems right for the Change Programme. Going forward, we’ll be referring to the approach formally as ‘Rapid Cycle Testing’ and informally as the real-time feedback loop, so as to firmly distinguish it from the formal evaluation of the programme being commissioned by DfE.

How does the approach work?

As part of the REACh Consortium, we’ll be working with local area CPPs, asking them to share their data with us as they collect it. CDC, and our colleagues from PA Consulting, Olive Academies and IMPOWER will be formally recording our own observations as we work with the local areas. We will be analysing the data as we collect it. We will then share that analysis back with CPPs to check that it chimes with their experience. Part of that ‘checking in’ will also be with parent carers, ensuring that lived experience is a critical part of that analysis. 

We won’t be marking our own homework. We are working with Warwick University which will be quality-assuring our approach every step of the way. Once we’re confident that we’ve got an accurate picture, we’ll be sharing that with the DfE and will be doing that in three-month cycles. That will give the Department an opportunity to adjust things if needed. It will also help us understand how best to support CPPs to test the changes, as well as enable us to assure ourselves that we’re collecting the right data and to adjust what we collect.

In terms of our ultimate ambition – to meet needs at the earliest point of presentation and thereby improve outcomes for children and young people, the REACh Consortium understands that some of that data will take time to emerge. Therefore, we will be very alive to ‘green shoot’ indicators that demonstrate the direction of travel. So, for instance, if schools are genuinely more welcoming of disabled children and those with SEN and clearer about what they are able to offer to meet those needs at SEN Support, then we should see fewer exclusions. We might also expect to see a change in the number of requests for EHC Plans because if your child’s needs are genuinely being met early then they shouldn’t need one.  But what our Rapid Cycle Testing approach will ensure is that we’re able to pick up on any of those changes and interrogate why they’re happening and ensure that it is for the right reasons.

As mentioned, the Department for Education will also be commissioning a more traditional evaluation and we’ll work with those evaluators to ensure that they can benefit from our real-time learning. Hopefully, that will give them the opportunity to focus on the real depth of what has made successes work so that learning can be baked into any rollout. 

And finally

It is a real privilege to have taken up the reins from Christine. It is a responsibility that I take incredibly seriously. I look forward to continuing to work closely with SNJ as we both continue to advocate for the needs of disabled children and young people and those with SEN. 

About Amanda Allard

Amanda Allard joined the Council for Disabled Children in 2009. She’s worked in children’s policy both as a researcher and campaigner for the last 30 years, covering a diverse range of areas including youth unemployment, leaving care, homelessness, family support and issues facing disabled children and their families. During her time at CDC, Amanda has significantly increased the organisation’s engagement with health bodies and research organisations and was one of the key researchers in a joint NIHR funded project with Exeter University which researched parent/carer and children and young people’s priorities in terms of health outcomes.

Amanda ensures that policymakers understand the reality of frontline service delivery; that the sector is aware of and engaged with forthcoming change; and that providers are prepared for the implementation of new regulations and requirements.

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