Disabled children increasingly turned away from early years settings. A SEND charity aims to tackle the SEND inclusion crisis

with Catherine McCloud MBE, CEO, Dingley’s Promise

SEND in the early years has historically been much neglected in SEND. The Government’s Change Programme has plans for Level 3 (A-Level equivalent) training for 5,000 early years SENCOs, but this is only for a small number of deprived areas.

One charity trying their best to change this is Dingley’s Promise, which operates early years centres mainly across the south of England. Their CEO, Catherine McLeod MBE is today launching their Manifesto for Early Years Inclusion with the aim of boosting the profile of SEND and inclusion in the early years. She wants to see the DfE’s Change Programme put its words into action to really make a positive difference.

Catherine is on SNJ today exclusively to explain more about their goals for ensuring young children with additional needs gets the focus it needs for the future.

The Manifesto for Early Years Inclusion: turning the tide for children with SEND in the early years. By Catherine McCloud MBE

As most people reading this will be aware, the government’s Change Programme is moving ahead with its aims of giving children with SEND and their families better support and access to education – and a focus on inclusion. One encouraging sign of the SEND and AP Plan was that it seemed to recognise how critical the early years are in building a truly inclusive education system. It mentions the importance of this stage throughout the document.

However, the time is coming when the government is going to need to back this up with action as the early years sector is in crisis and children with SEND are being disproportionately affected. While new early years entitlements are being introduced, all the evidence suggests that this is not going to improve the situation and unless we act now, it is likely to make things even worse.

Catherine McCloud
Catherine McCloud MBE

Early Years entitlements: good, impact on SEND provision: bad

Every time a new entitlement to early years provision has been introduced, what’s provided for children with SEND has dropped. It’s something that we simply cannot afford because currently, only 18% of local authorities have enough provision for children with SEND in the early years according to Coram. Research carried out by Dingley’s Promise in autumn 2023 found that only 15% of local authorities who responded felt that they have enough provision for children with SEND, and 78% of them thought that the new entitlements were going to make the situation even worse.

Early Years settings are also very nervous about the impact of the new entitlements. Despite the Equality Act 2010 making it unlawful to discriminate against children with SEND, we are increasingly hearing of children being turned away from settings because of their disability, and our own research backs this up. One in five parents who responded said their child had been turned away by early years settings, a number that’s likely to increase as the new entitlements are introduced if no action is taken.

Settings stated that one year ago, 27% of them had no more places for children with SEND and forecast when the new entitlements come in, more than half—a huge 57% of them—will not be able to take any more children with SEND. This is scandalous in light of the equality duties in this country, and so urgent action needs to be taken to turn the tide on this rapidly worsening situation.

Launching our manifesto for Early Years Inclusion

Dingley’s Promise today launches the Manifesto for Early Years Inclusion, which outlines the challenges but also offers clear recommendations for how decision-makers can improve the current situation. The recommendations are broken down into three areas: Workforce Development; Funding for Inclusion, and; Sufficiency of Places.

1. Workforce Development

While the Government has invested in SENCO training in the early years, families tell us they want all practitioners in early years settings to understand how to work inclusively, rather than relying on a SENCO to be in the setting to be confident that their child is being supported effectively.

77% of settings who responded to our research said that SEND inclusion training was a priority for them. After our own inclusion training, 96% of trainees said they now felt they could support more children with SEND. The changes to the Early Years Education qualification criteria were a huge step forward in this regard as they will have a whole unit on SEND and inclusive practice. In addition, we are calling for mandatory inclusion training for all practitioners, plus refresher courses to ensure that practitioners have the knowledge and confidence to include all children in their settings.

2. Funding for Inclusion

The Early Years Alliance found that in 2022 92% of settings had to fund the cost of SEND support themselves. Our own research backs this up with 86% of settings having done this, and 62% doing this on a regular basis. The sector is in a financial crisis and if settings are not funded properly for supporting children with SEND it’s likely they will resort to excluding children.

Our recommendations include unlinking Disability Access Funding (DAF) from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to increase take up, simplification and standardisation of the processes to apply for SEN Inclusion Funding (SENIF) so that it can be accessed quickly, and a proportion of high needs funding ringfenced for the early years. If we want early intervention to work, we have to recognise its value and invest in it in the earliest years.

nursery worker plaring with child

3. Sufficiency of Places

It is clear from the statistics that there are not enough places for children with SEND, but it is something that isn’t being tracked effectively or supported by the system to improve. Therefore, we want to see:

  • a duty on local authorities to detail supply and demand for children with SEND in the early years,
  • active partnership working with parents to understand when they are being turned away, and
  • improvements at Ofsted so their inspectors are skilled in understanding if settings are inclusive. If they are not, it should preclude them from gaining an outstanding grade.

All of this takes a system where local authorities, Ofsted, families and settings work together for better outcomes. Dingley’s Promise will launch these recommendations with a commitment to continue to work with children, families, local authorities and settings in order to improve the system.

There is a new team for Early Years SEND in the Department for Education who are looking at current barriers, and we have been involved in a number of conversations about how to address key issues for ensuring children with SEND have access to high-quality provision in the early years. We hope these discussions will continue and lead to long-term change and improvements in the early years because, without this, we will never see the kind of inclusion and high-quality provision that our children and their families deserve.

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