The last week has brought a succession of big changes at all levels of government. The appointment of a new prime minister was followed by a more wide-ranging purge of existing ministers than many had expected, including a move away from education for Nadhim Zahawi and the arrival – eventually – of a new Children and Families minister, with responsibility for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities.
It’s hard not to conclude that this role is seen by the Prime Minister as something of a bottom of the heap appointment. It was only on Sunday, after practically everything else had been covered, that the new incumbent, Kemi Badenoch was announced as the new SEND minister.
So who is Ms Badenoch and what does she bring to the job? The world of SEND policy may seem marginal and obscure to people who don’t inhabit it, but resolving the growing crisis in support for children with special educational needs and disabilities is arguably one of the biggest current public policy challenges. It’s hard to tell but the Government does actually have more to worry about than just Brexit and the C&F portfolio needs a minister who understands the issues and has enough influence to make things happen.
Naturally enough, the first reaction of parents and SEND-watchers at a time like this – and this is our third minister in two years – is to search for details of the new incumbent’s background, parliamentary contributions, interests and general reputation, to try to get a clue about what they think and how we might get their interest.
Kemi Badenoch has only been an MP since 2017, but she’s clearly seen by the Conservative party as someone to pay attention to. She was appointed vice-chair of the party in January 2018, with responsibility for parliamentary candidates. She is MP for the safe Tory seat of Saffron Walden in Essex (where the legal advice charity IPSEA is based!), has been a member of the London Assembly, and previously had a career in IT. She has degrees in engineering and law, has been a governor of two London schools, and has two young children.
A quick check of the parliamentary monitoring website theyworkforyou.com shows that she has voted against legislation to promote equality and human rights, and in favour of reducing central government funding for local councils. A parent of disabled child from Ms Badenoch’s Saffron Walden constituency said:
“My initial reaction is of hopeless despair. I hope I’m wrong, but so far Kemi has paid lip service to our respite home closure and no engagement on children with disability social care. Literally not interested. Can’t understand how her career path and experience has led to this. Prove me wrong Kemi – PLEASE!”
Our biggest hope is for a SEND minister who will be an ally for children with special educational needs and disabilities. Who will understand the challenges and complexities of children’s lives, grasp the full extent to which families have to do battle with ‘the system’ to get the help and support their children need, and argue within government for the resources that none of this will work without.
A deceptively huge job - and watched by angry parents
It’s no exaggeration to say that the crisis in SEND provision is one of the biggest tasks in government. There is an increasing spotlight in the media on the numerous ways in which children with SEND are being failed. Direct action by parents – not least judicial reviews against local authorities and government departments – is making it impossible to ignore.
The entire school system is facing huge financial pressures, but the gap between the support that children with SEND need and what is available locally is widening every year. A hard-hitting report on school funding published earlier this month by the House of Commons Education Select Committee stated that: “This funding gap is the result of policy choices that now need to be addressed urgently.”
Kemi Badenoch will hear from her new civil servants that the picture isn’t all bad, and that there is much good practice to be shared and learnt from. But she also needs to hear from parents and professionals who work with children with SEND that too many children simply aren’t getting the education they are entitled to, resulting in needlessly poor outcomes.
She needs to address the inadequacy of SEN Support in many schools, which is driving a steady increase in requests for EHC plans as the only way for children to get the support they need. She needs to consider why so many local authorities are doing such a poor job of strategic commissioning the services and support children and families need, and why forward planning has been superseded by crisis management.
Ms Badenoch needs to hear about – and then act upon – the lack of accountability of much local decision-making, the postcode lottery of provision, the ever-increasing amount of money spent on legal appeals lodged by desperate parents, and the failures of inclusion all over the country. Any repeat of Nadhim Zahawi’s much derided line that he’d, “….never seen an EHCP not worth the paper it was written on,” will make her a marked woman by an angry army of parents.
These are big—huge—challenges for a first job in government and disabled children’s futures depend on the results. Special Needs Jungle will be inviting the new minister to meet and discuss them. We are completely independent - we can, and do, say what needs to be said on behalf of our readers and we will tell her the unvarnished truth that she MUST hear.
Will Kemi Badenoch be be the ally we need? We can only hope for the best, but here’s a warning: Any hint of a lack of honesty about the complexity and severity of the challenge, or any lack of transparency about what’s being done about it, will not be welcomed by parents, professionals, and most of all, by young people themselves.
A selection of must-read SNJ posts for new SEND minister, Kemi Badenoch:
- SEND funding “completely inadequate,” says Education Select Committee report
- All rise! SEND figures go up in 2019
- DfE Research: Mainstream Teaching Assistant cuts negatively impacting SEND pupils
- Judge: A remarkable achievement for parents to take the government to court
- People power! Parents and disabled children march to end the #SENDcrisis
- EHCPs in 2019: Bedded in, or bogged down?
- SEND success is a journey, apparently, one with no end in sight
- SEND inquiry takedown: Parents Vs DfE
- The DfE’s out of SEND Funding ideas. Can you help out?
- Poor leadership and SEND law ignorance fails disabled children
- We’re the country’s future. We demand our right to a properly funded education!
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When her younger daughter was diagnosed with Rett Syndrome in 2009 shortly before her second birthday, Catriona found herself dealing in practice with things she’d previously thought she understood in principle.
She juggles her work as policy officer for a national disability charity with caring and advocating for her daughter. She is passionate about improving the lives of disabled children and their families, and making the systems that should support them work more transparently and equitably.