Dame Christine: I’d like to set the record straight

With Dame Christine Lenehan, Council for Disabled Children

image of title with image of the tweet and of Dame Christine

Now and again, someone says or writes something that's so surprising, that's the very opposite of what you'd expect them to say, that you think you must have misheard or misread it.

As you can see from the tweets below by prominent SEND parent campaigners, that "something" just happened to them. They - and other parents - had seen a recording of a presentation given by SEND champion, Dame Christine Lenehan, the long-time Director of the Council for Disabled Children (CDC). Speaking to a professional conference Dame Christine made several seemingly inflammatory comments that have left parents angry and betrayed.

The CDC is the Department for Education's main partner for all kinds of SEND training, publications, research and consultation. Special Needs Jungle is also a member of the CDC. Dame Christine is a former disabled children's social worker, who has been involved with supporting disabled children for 40 years, including authoring a number of Government reviews. She liaises with the Government regularly and is one of, if not the, most respected figures in SEND.

What Christine thinks and says about SEND matters. So when she is heard to say to a conference of professionals that she "doesn't believe half of all EHCPs are needed", and "parents love Tribunals" you, as a parent, might be thinking, with friends like these.....

We've known Christine for a number of years and have great respect for her. When we read the above, although dismayed, we strongly suspected that she'd been speaking with her usual dose of irony (the video has since been removed), but that it had disastrously missed the mark. Unfortunately, her words will have already been seized on by LAs who love nothing better than indulge in a spot of parent-blaming. "Look even Dame C says parents are greedy and litigious"

We got in touch with Dame Christine and offered her the chance to respond to the video presentation and the impression it gave, which she has accepted, and she writes below.

Dame Christine Lenehan writes: I'm sorry. I am dedicated to helping disabled children

At a recent National Conference, I talked about some of the elements of the SEND Review and what I want to see coming from the Review.  During the presentation, I made some points in ways that misrepresented my own views and the policies of the Council for Disabled Children (CDC). I am very grateful to SNJ for giving me the opportunity to apologise for that and to set the record straight.

So, what messages did I actually want to convey? I absolutely want to see children’s special educational needs identified accurately and met at the earliest opportunity. Addressing this issue is one of the most important things the Review needs to do. This will need improvements to what schools do before they move children on to SEN Support, and to what happens when they are at SEN Support.

Image of Dr Christine Lenehan in a suit, black-framed glasses and pearl necklace
Dame Christine Lenehan, Council for Disabled Children (Image: CDC)

Children shouldn't need EHCPs to get the right support

The quality of what happens in schools also depends on factors beyond the school: high-quality support available to schools to inform their approach including health and social care support; funding to support schools with their SEN and disability responsibilities; and accountability systems that hold all parties responsible for the way they have delivered their responsibilities, how they have worked collaboratively with other local parties, and how they have all worked with parents and carers both collectively and individually.

If these elements were in place, we could expect lower levels of need for children and young people to have an EHCP – because they are receiving the right sort of help and support without one. That, as some online respondents have charitably recognised, is the message I intended to convey at the CDC event. Instead, I took a shortcut to my final statement about plans. That is not CDC’s policy. Our policy is about improving all those things that, in combination, can improve the provision of support without the need for plans. 

Of course parents don't like going to Tribunal

Secondly, of course, parents don’t like going to the Tribunal. I recognise the process for families as emotionally, and sometimes financially, challenging. We also know that most Tribunal decisions are in favour of parents and are rightly seen as playing as essential role in ensuring legal entitlements to support and provision are met.

The point I wanted to make, and failed to do so, was that we want to, we need to, get to the place where no parent needs to go to the Tribunal to get the provision their child needs. We need to get things right at an earlier stage. 

I want to use this opportunity to apologise to you all for my hasty shortcuts on these two important points. You have rightly pulled me up on both these issues. Our commitment at CDC is to work with you to reduce the need for plans and to reduce the need for appealing to the Tribunal through making sure children and young people get the support they so badly need early and without conflict. That is CDC policy. That is what I am committed to.

Untold pandemic damage

The last 18 months have been a really difficult time for everyone, but particularly so for children, young people with SEND and their families. At CDC, we have worked hard to ensure the vast, sometimes conflicting, information is made as clear as possible and to ensure that the voices of children, young people and families have been taken to the heart of Government.

We have done this through working with over 350 member organisations, through our own networks, such as the Special Education Consortium (SEC), and through our membership of the Disabled Children’s Partnership (DCP). As part of this, we have also provided evidence to the SEND Review Team.

Over the last 18 months it has felt, at times, like the whole system has been under siege with some of the families in the most challenging circumstances feeling deserted and exhausted. We have also been making sure we hear the voices of children and young people, a strong feeling from them about being sad, isolated and angry. Though recognising that for some children the pandemic actually brought them relief from the pressures of a system that was not recognising and meeting their needs. 

Why the delays with the SEND Review?

I also want to recognise that both the impact of the pandemic and the delay in the publication of the SEND Review have increased the temperature of the debates and the urgency for action. What is it about the pandemic that’s caused delay for the Review?

One of the things that have been clear is that the pandemic exacerbated the fracture lines in the system. It showed the challenges that happen when strong lines of clear accountability are not in place. It left families without services at a key time and the broader system confused about who was supposed to do what. It is really clear that the SEND review needs to address this and that not doing so will undermine its impact.

We are actively encouraging the DfE to communicate further on the Review, to answer the questions posed by parents and SNJ, and to commit to full consultation once the Review is out. We are committed to getting that information to you and hearing your voices and experiences. In the meantime, I still will be talking about how we believe the system has to change, hopefully in a way where it is clearer about my actual beliefs and underlying intentions.

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