Election manifestos 2024: What’s on offer for children and young people with SEND?

Not long now until til the general election and each of the main political parties has now committed itself to a manifesto explaining what they would do in government.

Politicians talk about their policies in the months and years before an election, and make a few key announcements. But the publication of the manifesto is the moment when we can see what each party is actually committing itself to. Whichever party forms the next government, this is the document we will go back to to check on whether they’re doing what they said they would.

So it matters what’s in there. If you’re in the manifesto-drafting team of a political party that has a realistic chance of getting into government, your aim is to say enough specific things to sound credible and appealing, but not to promise things that you don’t know how you’ll deliver.

Where do manifestos come from?

Manifestos don’t emerge fully formed from a void. They reflect who the parties have been listening to; which voices have been loudest and most persuasive; the particular preoccupations of the party leadership; what has featured most strongly and persistently in the media; and of course what their own priorities and values are. The most pressing issues aren’t always the ones that get the full manifesto treatment. (Adult social care, anyone?)

Obviously, they can’t cover every single thing that needs a public policy solution. But it’s reasonable to hope that they’ll tackle some of the biggest crises. And no one who’s paying attention, especially seeing last week’s SEND figures, can deny that the situation for the growing number of children and young people who need special educational provision is in crisis like never before.

So what’s on offer? What are our election candidates promising to do for our children to make us feel like voting for them?

To give each of the three main parties in England credit, they do all at least mention children with SEND, although there’s very little specific recognition of young people over the age of 16. But in the case of the Conservatives and Labour, it doesn’t go much further than that.

Labour: improving inclusivity

The Labour manifesto acknowledges that,

“too often our education and care systems do not meet the needs of all children, including those with SEND”, and promises to “take a community-wide approach, improving inclusivity and expertise in mainstream schools, as well as ensuring special schools cater to those with the most complex needs”.

Labour also says it “will make sure admissions decisions account for the needs of communities and require all schools to co-operate with their local authority on school admissions, SEND inclusion, and place planning”. Planning ahead to make sure there are school places in every area for children with a wide variety of needs is an essential part of local authorities’ role. It would be good to think that Labour has a plan for making sure that local strategic commissioning happens, rather than accepting the current situation where school placements are too often made in an atmosphere of crisis.

There’s not a whole lot else. Labour doesn’t go into detail on how it will improve “inclusivity and expertise” in mainstream schools. Will there be more funding for specialist advice and support? More learning support assistants and therapists? More training for school staff? Enforcement of schools’ duties under the Equality Act 2010? An extension of the remit of the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman to enable the Ombudsman to investigate complaints about special educational provision in schools? Honestly, there’s more detail in the Labour manifesto on music lessons in schools than support for children with SEND.

Conservatives: more special school places

The Conservative party offers to

“transform education for children with special educational needs, ending the postcode lottery of support by delivering 60,000 more school places and a further 15 new free schools for children with special educational needs”.

This isn’t new information; more special school places have already been announced. Is this all they’ve got? There’s nothing here about making mainstream schools more inclusive for a wider range of children, in line with current Tory policy to reduce the number of children and young people in specialist schools and colleges.

They also say they will “modernise autism and learning disability services”. If this means getting young people out of inpatient mental health hospitals, we’re all for it. But haven’t they had the last 14 years to make progress on this?

The Tory manifesto includes a commitment, previously made but not enacted, to legislate to create a register of children not in school. The Liberal Democrats also say they would do this, as well as “working to understand and remove underlying barriers to [school] attendance”.

Liberal Democrats: a new national body for SEND funding

It’s the Liberal Democrat manifesto that contains the largest number of SEND proposals. The party says it would,

“tackle the crisis in special educational needs provision, and help to end the postcode lottery in provision, by giving local authorities extra funding to reduce the amount that schools pay towards the cost of a child’s Education, Health and Care Plan”.

It promises to establish “a new national body for SEND to fund support for children with very high needs”. This sounds like a SEND version of NHS specialised commissioning, and it would be interesting to understand more about how it would work.

Another Liberal Democrat promise is to “give local authorities with responsibility for education the powers and resources to act as Strategic Education Authorities for their area, including responsibility for places planning, exclusions, administering admissions including in-year admissions, and SEND functions”. Getting a grip on strategic commissioning, which is to say, understanding the needs of children and young people in a local area, the provision that’s available for them and, crucially, where the gaps are, is absolutely essential for making the SEND system work.

The Liberal Democrats also say they would appoint a Cabinet Minister for Children and Young People, develop a cross-government strategy to tackle all aspects of discrimination faced by neurodivergent children and adults. , and protect and support the rights and wellbeing of every child by incorporating into UK law the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. And they say there would be a “specific emphasis on identifying and supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities in the new training programme for early years staff”.

Do vote!

We’re not telling you how to vote! Everyone has their own thoughts about politics and politicians, and about how to balance policies affecting children and young people with SEND with policies on a whole lot of other issues they care about.

But we hope you do use your vote on 4 July. Political parties aren’t all the same – and individual politicians are certainly not all the same – and we all need to make a choice about who we think is best for our children’s futures. Or at the very least, the least worst.

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Catriona Moore
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