Dear Will Quince, welcome to SEND…here’s 10 of your top priorities

Dear Will Quince

Welcome to SEND. You will no doubt be feeling a little overwhelmed at the moment. And if you’re not, then you must be missing something, because you should be.

I’ve looked at your bio and, from what I can see, nothing in your CV has prepared you for this. You do not appear to have any professional background in education, let alone SEND. 

This does not surprise me; it is the way of government (at least this government) where ambitious politicians, thrilled at the career-advancing prospect of a job in government, rock up at their new department and think they’re going to make a splash. If this is you, be warned: SEND isn’t a paddling pool, it’s a tsunami, and there’s no money for life-jackets.

Listen to the real experts

Most junior ministers might get away with scanning a few briefs prepared by civil servants (who may or may not have a deep understanding of the issues themselves) and then pretend to be experts. Unfortunately, SEND isn’t like that. Awaiting you is an army of real experts – disabled children, young people, their parents, SEND practitioners and sector leaders – and they all know more than you.

We’re waiting to speak to you in the hope that you might not disappear behind the rhetoric of how much the government is doing and instead, truly listen, learn and understand.

Until then, you’re just the latest in a long line of fresh-faced MPs who spend a year or so with us and then head off for better things. SEND is a bit like a ministerial walk through the fire. Your immediate predecessor, Vicky Ford was rewarded with a foreign office job.  The Education Secretary himself Nadhim Zahawi was before her. Neither of them achieved much more than surviving the hot seat.

Will Quince
Will Quince MP

How to make a good impression

You have one predecessor you could look to for advice: Ed Timpson, back in 2014, was an exception to most. He already understood the issues and genuinely wanted to speak to parents beyond those funded by the DfE itself. His parents fostered over 80 children and he genuinely wanted to make a positive change. He wasn’t afraid to meet families and young people and was familiar with the 'e' word (empathy).

Carelessly, he lost his seat. More recently, he wrote a report about exclusions, which could have been better but it was a fair effort and he’s now back in parliament.

Mr Zahawi never seemed to have any empathy whatsoever, while Ms Ford’s speciality was reading scripted platitudes in answer to parliamentary questions from the opposition.

Mr Zahawi seems to have ambitious plans now, so you might want to ask him what he has in mind for SEND as he’s certainly got some knowledge, and if he’d like to speak to parents about it. We would certainly be happy to have a frank chat with you.

“With your help, we are going to transform the lives of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, including those with [SEND] and in care, and ensure that those who have lost the most from the pandemic can recover and flourish”  

Nadhim Zahawi

Over to you Mr Q: Here's a to-do list

And now, Mr Quince, the poisoned chalice is yours. How are we going to remember you when, like Ms Ford, you skip away at the end of your tenure with barely concealed relief and without a backwards glance? 

The first thing you should do is, of course, subscribe to SNJ new post alerts (at the top of this post). It’s free advice and we’re open all hours. If I was writing your to-do list here’s what I would suggest:

  1. Read all the reports written about SEND in the last few years. You can find them referenced and digested on SNJ, but it would be a good idea to read them from front to back.
  2. Understand that special educational needs isn’t something that can be looked at in isolation. Physical and mental health and social care, and in many cases, deprivation and poverty must all be considered. Read the EPI analysis that underlines how the low expectations of poor children with SEND who live in deprived areas, means they have little hope of success in life.
  3. Leave any preconceptions of “sharp-elbowed” middle classes” and “demand” in the recycling bin with yesterday’s Mail and Telegraph. No parent goes through the stress of an EHC needs assessment unless their child desperately needs the support. No parent aspires for their child to go to a special school unless it’s the only place where they can get the support. Few parents of a child with SEND set out to teach them at home unless they have no choice because there is no school offered that is suitable.
  4. Many parents have to give up jobs or entire careers (this one included) because they face long journeys to and from school, or many hospital appointments, or a lack of suitable after-school care, or all three.
  5. Understand that unless we can get back to a position where LAs are a benign force for good in the lives of disabled children, instead of purposefully working against their parents, then they should not be allowed to make both decisions about support and hold the purse-strings. Unless of course, they are going to be funded properly with ring-fenced budgets from SEN Support upwards.
  6. Take a look at both the Carter Review and current the ITT training plans and ensure that the Carter recommendations are included. Unless teachers are trained properly in SEND, early identification won’t improve and too many children will continue to have their needs unrecognised until too late to easily help them.
  7. Ensure that parents are fully-involved in the SEND Review – and not just those in Parent Carer Forums. The DfE’s version of co-production is just consultation, if that. We need to be in the room making decisions, not just being presented with plans drawn up by civil servants with no lived-experience. And no, having a friend whose cousin has ADHD doesn’t count.
  8. Explore what true accountability should look like. Complaints to LAs go unresolved until a parent gets as far as the Ombudsman. And even then some LAs ignore the ruling. All recent areas visited or revisited by SEND Ofsted/CQC inspectors have failed – that’s at least seven years of sub-standard support – a lifetime for some children. Imagine if one of those children was yours.
  9. Outlaw parent-blaming as a first response. Parents should be treated as partners, not suspects. The first question should be what are the child’s support needs? Then, what are the family’s support needs to help them support the child?
  10. Put training at the heart of everything. Not just teachers, but empathy and legal training in local authorities. With 95% of parents prevailing at the SEND Tribunal, this is certainly an area where LA officers are lacking.

Good luck then, Will Quince. And remember, our door is always open.

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Tania Tirraoro

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