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Déjà vu: How will the #SENDReview end the over-promising and under-delivering cycle of support for disabled children?

As you have seen, SNJ are unpicking the detail and supporting parents to have a voice throughout the SEND Review Green Paper consultation. Much is laudable in the SEND review, proposals worthy of print and high aspirations we all agree with. But I am having some serious déjà vu.

I don’t want to ruin anyone’s hope here. But, educationally speaking, yes, the phrasing is tweaked, and seemingly new arrangements are being proposed, yet it is hard to shake off the déjà vu. I am worried. If we are not careful with this consultation period, we will be chasing the same rabbits. 

I have listened to ministers of education pontificate from above and I admit to my own cynical, unhelpful eye-rolling at times. Long-serving teachers are often cited as belonging to some bygone age of education. You see we allegedly suck the oxygen out of new proposals and choke the air out of school improvement enthusiasm.

Young teachers are warned away from us in training sessions and on Twitter. They will catch our negativity; the theory is we don’t embrace change with gleeful thanks. Maybe it's true, we have an instinctive tendency towards wholeheartedly critiquing new proposals instead of blindly diving in. Maybe that really does signal retirement. Gaslighting might convince us that it’s indeed time to hang up the whiteboard pen. 

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Déjà vu or not?

I admit, eye-rolling is not helpful. But maybe old-timers like me aren’t weary of change. Maybe we are weary of pointless change. Weary of the wrong change and repurposed over-promising. Obviously, we must be positive now, more than ever, because quite frankly, our children deserve nothing less. I want to make sure I am not the one choking the enthusiasm out of proposals for the sake of it. I want to support teachers to be the best they can be. Still, I did a bit of compare around ministerial rhetoric. 

2022 Ministerial foreword says,

“…we know that, too often, children and young people with SEND, and those education in alternative provision, feel unsupported, and their outcomes fall behind those of their peers. Too many parents navigating an adversarial system, and face difficulty and delay in accessing support for their child”.

Nadhim Zahawi (Secretary of State for Education), Sajid Javid (Secretary of State for Health and Social Care) 2022

Take a step back in time and contrast that statement with this one. 

“Parents say that the system is bewildering and adversarial and that it does not sufficiently reflect the needs of their child and their family life. Successive reports, such as the 2006 report of the Education Select Committee and Brian Lamb's report in 2009, have described a system where parents feel they have to battle for the support they need, where they are passed from pillar to post, and where bureaucracy and frustration face them at every step. Disabled children and children with SEN tell us that they can feel frustrated by a lack of the right help at school or from other services. For children with the most complex support needs, this can significantly affect their quality of life.”

Michael Gove, Education Secretary (Written Ministerial Statement on the 9 March 2011)

So, not déjà vu then--I have indeed heard it before. Mr. Gove noted his proposed next steps in, ‘The green paper, Support and aspiration: a new approach to special educational needs and disability’. Published on 9 March 2011. It outlined wide-ranging proposals to respond to the criticisms of the previous, previous system. A re-read suggests much the same is proposed again. That consultation ran from 9 March to 30 June 2011. 

I wonder why Government always insist consultations about education run when those in education are steeped in statutory exam prep, statutory assessment procedures and transition prep for the next academic year? Odd. I mean we do want front-line staff to engage in this SEND review conversation, don’t we? Particularly as throughout, fault lies heavily with mainstream settings, low aspiration, unlawful practice, poor teaching etc. The LGA report recently referenced by SNJ, did the same unhealthy habit to lay-the-blame conclusions around mainstream settings, which we must address to move forward.

How to stop déjà vu.

My fear? The political agendas will not be questioned sufficiently, and practical realities of school life placed on frontline staff will be collated, aired, discussed, and fully recognized in this consultation. Then, we will fail in implementation again. We will fail another generation of children with SEND.

This SEND review affords an opportunity to further the academisation programme with new powers, the government say, will address issues. Perhaps. Yet, evidence of success of academisation is contradictory and patchy. In fact, having read some of the findings of a recent report by the University of Birmingham around exclusion rates and autism, I suggest further scrutiny on any political agenda here is needed. The research found,

One of the reasons given for the increasing number of unofficial or illegal exclusions has been the marketisation of the English education system, including governmental pressure in terms of performance league tables (Gazeley et al., 2015; Parsons, 2018). The fragmentation of the education system in England and the lack of challenge offered to schools from Local Authorities (LAs), Ofsted (The Office for Standards in Education) and the DfE has impacted on the accountability for school exclusions over recent years (NAHT, 2018). The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Autism (APPGA, 2017) report highlights this lack of accountability as an important factor in the rise of school exclusions for autistic pupils’ (p11).

Certainly, marketisation and fragmentation of education systems resonated with my frontline experience and my eye-rolling not so misplaced. This research notes other exclusion drivers too; the rise in zero-tolerance behaviour policies, limited access to specialist support, lack of awareness of law, lack of understanding and training for SEND, for starters. For things to move forward, all must be addressed not just the bits that fit a political agenda. 

Co-production is key

One welcome déjà vu within this review exists. The value and importance of co-production with parents. Although no definition of co-production is offered, and no detail on the implementation of it is clear, it is at least still acknowledged. Yet, implementation is everything and SENCos, let alone teachers, are not trained in coproduction with NASENCo (Esposito and Carroll, 2019). Existing practice is inconsistent, and we need greater clarity on the ‘how to’ moving forward. 

Regardless of definition, what I know for sure about co-production is that it takes creativity and time. As does inclusive practice. And a critical thing school staff struggle with is time, or rather the lack of it. It would not surprise me to find that a lack of time might have more bearing on improving things than funding or specialism. But I don’t know that for sure and if we don’t explore and ask the right questions of the right people, we will never know. 

Stop the vicious cycle of under-delivering

In my experience frontline staff have little time to read, to reflect, to discuss, to learn together, to plan together, to review, to deliver, to engage or to monitor. So much has been stuffed into our education system over the decades, but nothing has been taken out. Nothing removed to generate the time needed to face new challenges. If staff can’t co-produce together, across departments, and share within school good practice, because of pressures on time, how will they find the time to do this with parents and across families of schools?

I have said it before, training is important, attitude is important, and much can be achieved with creativity. But please, please don’t over promise and under deliver again. Those arguing that specialisms are not needed in all schools for children with SEND need to show me the evidence. I would not insult psychologists, therapists, or medical professionals by suggesting that the depth of their knowledge and the guidance they offer, is matched by the general understanding teachers gather from distilled training sessions. Specialism matters. 

Like parents of children with SEND, we ask teaching staff to operate in place of occupational therapists, psychologists, social workers, and therapists, with too much expectation. Front-line staff often feel blindsided by the number of overstuffed roles they are required to carry. And we all know what happens to overstuffed drawers: you can’t see the wood for the trees and you end up throwing out the good with the bad. 

Individuals matter

It is clear, however, that the review recognises the importance of the individuals in all this, the parents, the teachers and school leaders who absolutely go the extra mile for our children with SEND. This acknowledgement is welcome. When things work it is because individuals made it so.

But going above and beyond just to make things survivable for children is not sustainable, clearly. "Ordinarily available provision" must feel every day, not perpetually above and beyond. So, failing to consult authentically with front line staff, to capture the real (not politically or ideologically imagined) implementation issues, will only result in killing any good idea that might have worked. 

And it is too easy to dismiss educational staff as moaning, untrained and without compassion. Just as it is too easy to dismiss parents who advocate as demanding, pathologising, middle-class types, or those who can’t advocate as uncaring or neglectful. All are dangerous, lazy narratives that we weave to let us off the accountability hook and stop us from uncovering truths and helping our children. We can’t co-produce together if we can’t hear each other and identify the challenges faced from both sides. 

We know some answers. Societal pressures are great, the curriculum is overburdened, and school performance measures often give false positives. We need accountability measures but as, many teachers can tell you, the children who seemingly succeed in our current system, often do so because their parents pay for additional tuition in the approach to exams or they simply naturally thrive. Back to those individual parents and children.

Thank God for the brave and the sharp-elbowed!

Parents, pupils, and teachers together are certainly agents for positive change, deserving of nothing but respect and admiration. Let’s hope all voices are listened to over the course of this consultation. I only wish our profession was not so battle-weary. I fear that they might miss the chance to consult on this review and Green Paper. By the time they lift their head up, the opportunity may be missed. Frontline staff will be accountable and inspected for the already decided, wondering what happened! 

I am profoundly grateful for individuals with lived experience. I am grateful for those "sharp-elbowed, middle-class parents", if we must insist on calling them that. The informed parent with enough privilege to be heard. Without them, we would not have had the 1970 Education Act at all. Parents lobbied for that. Likely we would not have inclusion without the pressure parents exert. We would not have a significant majority of charities, now supporting thousands of disabled children and families less privileged than themselves. SEND children and their families throw spotlights on issues within the SEND system that would otherwise not be visible or heard at all. I hope they respond to the consultation in their thousands. SNJ is helping them.

I am also grateful for brave school leaders, and unrelenting frontline teaching staff, who ignore the white noise of constant criticism and press on regardless. They go the extra mile for children every day with determination, humour, and a healthy dose of eye rolling.

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Impact matters

Thinking of accountability though…whenever I have enthusiastically launched into rhetoric regaling all the initiatives I have rolled out, training carried out, the co-production with parents, and so on, any Ofsted inspector worth their salt merely replies, “So?”. This is typically followed by, “show me the impact of what you have done”.

With that in mind ministers, it doesn't really matter about your ministerial forewords; what you think you have done, what funds you allocated, what you think you know. It matters not who you say you have listened to, or rhetoric on what you intend and aspire to do next. It only matters what difference actions taken have already made. How your previous rhetoric and aspirational planning translated to provision and impacted on our children. What worked and why? This is accountability. It applies to schools, and it applies to you. 

Also read:

We've been breaking down the SEND Green Paper and have started creating forms with ponder points to help you answer the consultation. You can find it all here


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