We don’t need ”fundamental SEND reform”. Just sharpen the teeth of the legal system we already have.

Getting the Children’s Minister’s attention at a webinar this week attended by 200 parents of children with SEND was an excellent opportunity to give him an unmediated insight into our thoughts and fears about the SEND Review. It was also a chance to get some kind of clue about his own impressions of the system on which our children rely for special educational provision and wider support.

Parents were invited to submit questions in advance of the webinar, and the most frequently asked question was what the upcoming SEND Green Paper might say about accountability for SEND decisions, and what the consequences would be for councils who repeatedly flout their legal obligations. Will Quince said the Green Paper will “strengthen accountability”. He then added that “a bigger issue is making the system less confrontational”.

With respect, Minister, these are two sides of the same coin, not separate agenda items. Greater accountability – meaning that public bodies face real consequences for failing children and young people with SEND, and therefore have an incentive not to fail them – will create the less confrontational system that policy-makers want. The bottom line, as we see it, is that the SEND system will be less uncomfortably “confrontational” when the law is followed in every local area. The SEND Review team must have heard this at least a hundred times.

Fight-free system

Will Quince has heard the message loud and clear that parents of children and young people with SEND have to fight for their children every step of the way. He made a point of saying at the webinar that he “applauds” parents who fight for their children, but added that he worries about children whose parents aren’t in a position to fight for the support they need. He then said that his ambition is for a system “where no-one has to fight”. He sees the solution to this as “clarity about entitlements”.

But entitlements are pretty clear already. What is lacking is accountability to ensure that every child and young person can access them. My fear – and I couldn’t wish harder to be wrong – is that the Green Paper will propose some kind of watering down of children’s existing rights and entitlements as a way of increasing consistency of provision. This type of levelling down is the very reverse of the aspirations that underpinned the last set of SEND reforms in 2014 – and hardly consistent with the Government’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda.

 We don't need no whole-scale reform

Interestingly, the minister did say that, “...if you look at some of the issues around the reforms in 2014, it was the implementation and the lack of multi-agency join-up that was the was the problem”. We have been saying this very thing for years! But if Will Quince accepts that the main problem with the 2014 reforms was a failure of implementation, why then did he also talk about the need to “fundamentally redesign” the system for supporting children and young people with SEND?

Fundamental redesign is not what our children need. What is fundamentally needed is a way to make local authorities and schools follow existing law as set out in the Children and Families Act 2014, the Equality Act 2010, the Children Act 1989 and other key pieces of legislation. Legislative reform and policy upheaval are a distraction from what should be the main task at hand: making the existing SEND framework work as it should, rather than requiring parents to keep taking responsibility for enforcing the law.

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Catriona Moore
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