DfE on SEND failures inquiry: We’ll get back to you later (and it’s not our fault)

Clean hands it seems, are not just for the pandemic. The Department for Education has them over any failures in SEND. It’s just not their fault. 

The DfE has finally made its response to the report from the Commons Education select committee’s SEND inquiry. It’s very much a “holding” response before summer and says nothing new at all. The inquiry report was released in October 2019. This response has come nine months later, long enough to ferment a baby to full-term (as an aside, my first grandbaby is due any day, so it's hard to stay focused on SEND).

In a nutshell, it goes: Look yes, we agree things need to improve, but the law is there and we’ve given loads of money already, we’re not planning any primary legislative changes or appointing any independent oversight bodies. Okay?

So I could pretty much stop there as it contains nothing new, which is why there was no rush to write this. But hey, if they have a holding piece, we might as well have one. It’s all a case of “move along, nothing to see here, you’re all over-reacting. And anything that needs to be changed is in the hands of the SEND Review. Which is delayed because of the pandemic, but will report to us, eventually.” Of course, that’s not to say the review's recommendations will be looked at any more favourably than those of the SEND inquiry. 

I recently took part in a Special Education Consortium online meeting (representing SEND Community Alliance) with the Deputy Director of SEND, Suzanne Lunn, where members laid out our concerns. She was given a grilling over several hours and I believe the timing of this reply is more than just a coincidence. 

How the DfE sees its role:

In the response, published as an appendix to the inquiry report, the DfE outlined its role as:

“We have set out that the Department for Education’s responsibility is to set and oversee the statutory framework that underpins the SEND system, monitor the overall health and success of the system and to respond where signs of failure are identified. Our priority is to support and challenge local authorities and their partners to deliver high quality services and to hold them to account where this isn’t happening, taking appropriate action that will support bringing about sustained and long-term improvement.”

And now, here are a few of the, ahem, “highlights”, which is really a list of "things we've already done" that haven't actually appeared to improve the problem.

On Accountability: 

  • We’ve approved a renewed rolling programme of area LA inspections, although the announcement was unaccountably delayed for months (pre-pandemic)
  • We’ve expanded our team of SEND Advisers to “respond more pro-actively and effectively where improvement is needed.” During the pandemic, they have continued “supporting and challenging” local authorities and others, including identifying issues, and gathering and helping share good practice. These advisors, “work alongside and feed into the Department for Education’s SEND Improvement and Intervention Unit.” That must be one very busy and quite depressing place. And of course, we never hear about this work, so it’s impossible to know what impact these unseen elementals of the forest are actually having. I suggest a little more (a lot more) transparency on this would be a good move. How exactly are their actions improving experiences for families and outcomes for children? Publish this kind of impact report so other LAs and their staff can read it and parents can see what's being done. Communication is key.
  • It’s discussing a recommendation with the Ministry of Justice for a yearly digest of trends in SEND Tribunal cases and other data reporting improvements to help LAs to improve their service and ensure they are making lawful decisions. 

On Participation and co-production:

  • Yes, the quality of government-funded SEND advice services (SENDIASS) is not good enough. Its been putting cash in since mid-2018 to pay for the Contact  national helpline and online service. (a bit of transparency about its impact here would be good too – this would be a good indicator of the levels and issues being experienced - maybe Contact could publish an anonymised compendium of calls?) 
  • It gives £15,000 a year to every parent carer forum. New? No, so why is it in this response?

It has to be said that a number of these PCFs have disbanded, collapsed or just abdicated in recent years because of the restrictions on campaigning and for other reasons, leaving Contact prospecting for replacements. Others are at breaking point from the small number of parents expected to participate in a large number of strategic LA meetings, where they may, or may not, be listened to. There is also much work to be done here in some areas, in terms of diversity, including disabled parents, cross-communities, and socio-economic representation. I do recognise (having been there) that those involved do spend a lot of time doing their very best and they are appreciated.

On the pandemic:

  • The Dfe has collated a (very good) list of online resources,
  • It’s given an additional £10 million for the Family Fund for those families most in need of financial support
  • It’s published risk assessment guidance, that has been roundly misused by schools
  • And, bizarrely, points to the "relaxation" of disabled children’s rights, via removal of EHCP timescales and provision duties, as something positive to support families. This is gaslighting at a whole new level, taken directly from the Donald Trump playbook. During the aforementioned SEC meeting, Ms Lunn said the reason for the removal of duties was because it would have “diverted resources from the frontline” in the event of troublesome families choosing to judicially review their LAs over lack of provision. Our survey – definitely coming Monday (or maybe Tuesday) shows this was a misjudgement. Launching a JR is not free, it’s time-consuming and you need specialist knowledge that most families do not have. LAs not families. Our survey shows that most families were less concerned with their child’s full EHCP provision and more with getting any provision at all. It was a total over-reaction.
  • Everything that’s late, including the delay to the SEND Review is the fault of the pandemic.

“Value for Money” for EHCPs

  • The DfE are planning a “large-scale value for money study of SEND provision as part of the SEND Futures initiative, which would provide information on the outcomes achieved and costs of different types of settings for children and young people with EHC plans in England. This is not news – we wrote about the SEND Futures research programme (back in December 2018) It’s something I asked Ms Lunn about during the meeting and was told, as it reiterated in this response, that it had been paused during the pandemic and would be restarting in the autumn. Nevertheless, it’s something we’ll be keeping an eye on, unless I lose the will to live in the meantime.

Cultural change

  • The DfE agrees that a “cultural shift is important” But they didn’t need an inquiry to tell them that – we’ve been telling them since 2014. But it’s apparently only just dawned on them that something needs to actively be done to change it and it isn’t going to happen organically or by osmosis.

Joint working:

  • It’s a priority, yes it’s not good but we’re not doing anything yet: “We recognise that further action is needed in this space to improve effective collaboration across health, education and care, to provide better and more effective support for children and young people with SEND, and will provide further detail through the SEND Review.”

On funding:

  • Basically a reiteration of things they are already doing, such as working with LAs whose schools grant is in deficit of more than 1%. Oh yes, they’re planning a new template and guidance on usage of the Dedicated Schools Grant.

On legislation changes or independent monitoring bodies:

  • The recommendation from the select committee was for a reporting and accountability mechanism for non-compliance, so parents and schools can report directly to the Department for Education where LAs aren’t obeying the law. It also wanted an “annual scorecard” for councils and health bodies to measure success against the SEND reforms. But The DfE says it has enough accountability measures already in place, thanks very much, along with published performance data and existing routes for raising complaints about local authority performance. It cites the council complaints system and the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, the SEND Tribunal, and  SENDIASS (which it’s already said isn't good enough). The Ombudsman shut up shop during the pandemic, so it’s probably cleared its backlog but will be facing an oncoming storm of delayed complaints.
  • The DfE says it does not consider it necessary to create an additional neutral role in support families going through ECHPs or annual reviews, (as it used to have in the Independent Supporter). It again cites the existing services from SENDIASS, that LAs have to consider families wishes by law (which they ignore) and that families also have the Contact national helpline (overwhelmed) and PCFs (Which do not have a support or complaints remit) 
  • On the scorecard: Let’s call it the Local Offer, and if anyone has the time or the data analysis skills, they can wade through the annual “SEN Analysis and Summary of Data Sources”. 

The response actually states that when LAs fail to obey the law, parents can be supported to complain via IPSEA and “a range of charities and other organisations” (presumably including us). Actually, we’re have no resources (at all) to have “people” emailing us with complaints and neither does IPSEA or any other charity not funded by government.

Then it says, “They may also write directly to the Secretary of State to ask him to intervene where a local area has failed to meet its statutory duties or has acted unreasonably in doing so.” However, when I asked Ms Lunn for a direct email address for parents to do this I was told, there was “Almost no point in people emailing” because the DfE is not resourced. It said it relies on the Council for Disabled Children in collating complains or on "surveys"

On SEN Support: 

  • It welcomed the recommendation that the Department should strengthen and clarify the guidance in the Code of Practice on SEN. It is “exploring whether we need to clarify the expectations on schools over the SEN Support they provide to children who do not have EHC plans as we revise the Code of Practice.” Stop exploring and get started - no need to wait for the SEND Review, you KNOW it's needed.

On teacher training for SEND:

  • On training, apparently, "The initial teacher training (ITT) core content framework has been designed around how to support all pupils to succeed and seeks to widen access for all,” Only it isn’t, is it, and certainly not in the early years, as our article yesterday confirms.
  • On ensuring SENCOs are properly qualified before they are in the job – no, that ain’t happening. They’ve got three years from when they get the job. A prospective SENCO surely needs some training first so they can hit the ground running? I like nothing better than to see the words “prospective SENCO” on someone’s Twitter bio – the NASENCO award should be a highly-valued qualification. SEND children need experts, not someone who gets the job on a wing and a prayer (or by default as there's no one else available) It’s not just a title, it’s a highly-skilled role in itself.
  • The DfE has contracted Whole School SEND, to improve the training of the SEND workforce. I have been involved in this work and they are really good, useful resources. The thing is – it’s one thing to deliver the written documentation, it’s another to get schools to know about and to use the training if it isn’t compulsory, especially many school leaders who don’t think they need to know about SEND (apart from all those leaders who follow SNJ, that is). There is much material on the SEND Gateway and this is one area that is excellent and needs to be more widely disseminated – every teacher, whatever their role, should know about and use these resources. I can’t praise them enough, other than the need to get them into every school

On EHC Plans:

  • DfE response: “We agree with the Committee that the process for EHC plans should be looked at, with a view to clarifying and, as far as possible, seeking to simplify it. This is being considered as part of the SEND Review and decisions on that will subsequently inform our review of the SEND Code of Practice.” Now hold on a minute – simplify is one thing, weaken them is another. What is needed is a national template that is portable and that will immeasurably aid cross-sector working. A national medical specialist doesn’t have time to negotiate potentially 151 different EHCP styles to put the right provision needed in there. Why not listen to those experts at the SEND Tribunal, at IPSEA and at SOSSEN, who truly know what a good plan should look like?

On Transition and support into adulthood:

  • The DfE response says there are already sufficient statutory responsibilities in place to support preparation for adulthood and it’s “engaging with stakeholders” to strengthen pathways to employment 

Btw, one thing it can do right now is train its DWP staff to understand that disabled students whose disability precludes them from simultaneously studying and working, are eligible for universal credit support. There is a huge amount of (wilful) ignorance around this, as I know only too well.

  • “The manifesto commitment to produce a National Strategy for Disabled People and to reduce the disability employment gap provides a real opportunity to build on this cross- departmental working…. We aim through education to equip children and young people to be well-rounded individuals prepared effectively for a happy, healthy and economically productive adulthood.” How exciting! We’re watching with interest and as a DPO would welcome involvement. 

Designated Medical Officer/Designated Clinical Officer

  • The DCMO is the medical professional who liaises between the NHS and the LA to ensure the health provision is written into the EHCP. But on the question of making it statutory, the DfE says while it’s an important role, there are enough legal requirements in place already. But they're not ruling it out.  

Local Offer

On the inquiry’s concern that strategic ambitions for the Local Offer are “severely diminished” the DfE says:

  • It’s already detailed what’s required in the CoP and it’s looked at by SEND area inspectors, so DfE isn't going to carry out biennial reviews of whether its doing what it's supposed to.
  • Also, it’s not our job to map provision available through the LO. It’s the LA’s.
  • We’ve given money to LAs in 2017 that mentioned Local Offer duties and it’s not our fault if it wasn’t used for that. Next!

In conclusion

So the reply is just a list of things the DfE is already doing. And in fact, it’s true. There are rafts of guidance and documentation in existence. There is money being dished out for various things, piecemeal. The problem is rules, guidance and expectations aren’t being followed - and therein lies the problem. It's not the system that is broken, it's the people running the system who are to blame.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the SEND inquiry report itself and it still stands, .

“These adversarial experiences are the products of poor implementation, the inability to access the right support at the right time, and services struggling with limited resources. We were warned: Parliament was told that if the reforms were not done properly, the system had the potential to become more adversarial. Not enough was done to prevent this happening. We have a system of unmet need and strain. This unmet need is creating poor broader experiences, for children, young people and their families, schools, colleges and local authorities.”

The DfE responds: “We agree that the SEND system is not working as well as it should, for a number of reasons.” The question that remains is what is it going to do about it, other than what it’s already doing (see above) that clearly isn’t working? SEND Review, over to you. 

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Tania Tirraoro

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