Dear Boris, you must act now to help disabled children #LetUsLearnToo

On Monday, we ran an article coinciding with the launch of the #LetUsLearnToo video. The campaign is urging the SEND Review not to erode disabled children's rights as the Department for Education, according to Vicky Ford MP, SEND Minister: "...continue to work with system experts to make sure we are designing a SEND system fit for the future."

The "system experts" mentioned is questionable as many who we would consider SEND sector experts have had little input, beyond sending in written thoughts right back at the beginning, pre-pandemic. And parent groups -- even the government-funded National Network of Parent Carer Forums - appear more recently to have been frozen out.

As we speak, the system limps along with local authorities who have only just been inspected still spectacularly failing Ofsted/CQC SEND inspections. That's you Richmond upon Thames and you Bournemouth & Christchurch. And, as of now, there will be no revisits for failed areas as Ofsted plans a new inspection cycle, so what are the consequences of failure?

Implementation failure

I am mightly concerned that, as with the 2014 reforms, there is a group of bright, fast-track civil servants with little to no lived SEND experience, hovering over a lamp-lit desk in the bowels of the DfE, deciding the futures of our children and young people with disabilities without us. And when we have had a chance to speak previously, you just don't know how deeply what you say is understood or weighted, in comparison with what they are being told by local authorities.

Because when it comes down it, the failure of the 2014 reforms is the fault of the government itself. This isn't just my opinion -- there are reports on reports that effectively say the same thing. Yes, it was LAs who messed up implementation, in so many ways. But it was the DfE that took so long to decide on accountability measures, failed to ensure comprehensive national training included hearts as well as minds, and failed to ensure that mainstream teachers were trained to be teachers of SEND. And it was the government that failed to fund the implementation responsibly so that it went where it should and had the desired impact.

So you might think that this time, they would approach it differently, openly, transparently, and with experts who also happen to be parents of children with SEND in the room, making the decisions.

"The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped."

Last Speech of Hubert H. Humphrey former US vice-president 1965-69

But as with the debacle of this week's social care funding announcement, it is clear that this government's priorities do not lie with the weakest in society. If they did, they would fund local authorities properly so councils could be the "benign allies" they used to be:

In the 1970s local authorities were regarded as benign and parents thought of them as allies on behalf of their children and were trusted to take an interest in their children. They were a source of great support and faith to parents and children. The 1981 Education Act was the very worst year for finances and it was from then on that universities and schools began to feel financial pressure. And from that moment on, LAs gradually became, not allies, but opponents, as they were always trying to save money. 1981 was a significant year when Universities began to feel the tremendous Thatcher cuts, so it was disastrous year for the Act to come out, as right from the start there would be far more financial pressures than we foresaw when we published the report in 1978. So from that moment on, things started to go wrong for financial, not conceptual reasons.  

Baroness Mary Warnock, SEND Inquiry, 3/7/18 (précis)

So, while having any faith in the humanitarianism of Boris Johnson may be misplaced, he is what we've got. Here is the text of the letter from #LetUsLearnToo, which he will hopefully read today. Please do share the letter and this post - and sign the petition

Letter to the Prime Minister from the #LetUsLearnToo campaign

let us learn too logo

Dear Prime Minister,

We are an alliance of disabled people’s organisations, national and local charities, parent/carer groups, human rights groups, academics, and individuals that support the rights of disabled children and young people. We are writing to you to highlight the difficulties that disabled children and young people are currently facing in accessing an education, and to outline our concerns about the cross-government SEND Review.

On 6th September, we launched the Let Us Learn Too campaign. Disabled children and young people should be able to access an education that meets their needs and supports them to learn, be happy, and succeed on their own terms. We invite you to watch the video and support Ellie-Mae’s call for an education that has her - and all disabled children and young people - in mind.

In 2019, the Education Select Committee’s SEND Inquiry report painted a devastating picture of the state of SEND provision. Since then the situation has deteriorated further. Disabled children and young people have been disproportionately disadvantaged by the impact of Covid and school/ college closures.

The current cross-government SEND Review was initiated, and its scope subsequently widened, to address these issues. However, we have serious concerns about the way it is being conducted. The SEND Review has taken almost two years so far and has been delayed three times. Moreover, there has been little transparency about who has contributed to the Review. Disabled children, disabled young people and their parents/carers should have been at the heart of this vital work, but so far, other than through the National Network of Parent Carer Forums (which, whilst doing a very good job, cannot, and does not, present as being the sole representative voice of parents, carers and young people with special educational needs) those most directly affected have been largely excluded and even misrepresented. If this continues there is a significant risk of repeating the implementation mistakes of the 2014 reforms.

We simply cannot stand by and allow this to happen. For positive change to occur it’s vital that our views and experiences are heard and acted upon and that we are fully involved in decisions that could have life-changing consequences for us. We, therefore, ask that you:

1. Don’t weaken the law

We agree with the Education Select Committee’s recommendation in the SEND Inquiry report that the Government should resist the temptation to weaken or water down legal duties. The recent refusal of Children and Families Minister Vicky Ford to confirm that the government will maintain all existing legal entitlements for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) has been the cause of considerable unease.

It’s only seven years since the Government made changes to SEND legislation, following extensive research and consultation. These changes built on existing rights for disabled children and young people. Weakening these rights before giving them a fair chance to succeed through proper implementation and support would undo decades of protection and progress.

We have already seen the destructive consequences of the temporary weakening of legal duties under the Coronavirus Act 2020 and related legislation. Disabled children and young people lost essential special education provision and support, which damaged their mental and physical health, undermined their educational outcomes and left some children and young people unable to access education at all.

2. Improve accountability

Widespread lack of accountability is one of the main reasons the current system is failing, and without improvement whatever follows will fail too. The SEND Review needs to prioritise strengthening accountability measures, including close monitoring of the sufficiency and performance of local authorities’ specialist support services.

There must be urgent intervention and robust consequences when individuals or organisations fail to meet their legal duties to disabled children and young people or discriminate against them. Disabled children and young people and their families also require fair access to independent legal advice and support.

3. Monitor effective use of funding

The SEND Inquiry report identified the significant shortfall in funding as a serious contributory factor to the failure on the part of schools, colleges and local authorities to meet the needs of children and young people with SEND. We appreciate that the Government has since increased the size of the High Needs Block. Regrettably, this funding has been used primarily to reduce existing local authority deficits resulting from inadequate funding for the 2014 reforms.

In order to address the disadvantage disabled children and young people are currently experiencing in accessing education, it’s essential that SEND funding is sufficient and effectively ring-fenced, the way it is used and its effectiveness is monitored, and budget holders are made accountable.

4. Invest in inclusion and early support

Too often, provision and support for disabled children and young people are delayed until they reach crisis point, causing distress and long-term damage. Schools and colleges must be adequately funded, resourced and supported to be inclusive, with appropriate, early (and where necessary, intensive) provision put in place to meet the needs of all disabled children and young people and support them to achieve their ambitions. This investment would benefit disabled and non-disabled children alike and would be a more effective use of funding than the current cycle of exclusion, crisis intervention and deficit reduction.

We urge you to take immediate and effective steps to improve outcomes for disabled children and young people and to intervene to change the trajectory of the SEND Review, ensuring transparency and meaningful engagement with disabled children and young people and their parents/carers as equal partners throughout, not as an afterthought when key decisions affecting our future have already been made.

We would welcome the opportunity to discuss this further. Please could you ask your senior policy officials to be in touch to acknowledge receipt of this letter, and the process to be adopted in taking on board our appeal to you.

We look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely,

Sign the Petition!

Let Us Learn Too campaign and undersigned.

Download the letter | Visit the Let is Learn Too website

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Tania Tirraoro

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