More system “reform” won’t fix SEND, because the real problem still hasn’t been accepted

One thing that everyone seems able to agree on is that the system for supporting children and young people with SEND is in crisis. Although examples of good practice exist, children and young people all over the country are being failed every day. This leads to either losing their educational opportunities or their families being forced to engage in lengthy battles to secure the special educational provision they need and are entitled to.

Because what we’ve got now clearly isn’t working, the obvious conclusion, then, is the system itself is failing and in urgent need of reform.

What do we mean by ‘reform’?

But I think we should pause and ask: What exactly does “reform” mean? What needs to change? And what is needed from politicians and policy-makers?

The Cambridge Dictionary says that ‘reform’ means “changing a system, organisation or law in order to improve it”. The SEND system certainly needs to be made to work for our children and young people who rely on it, but does the system itself need to change? Does it need to be dismantled and reassembled? Does the law need to change?

The SEND green paper published in 2022 was based on the premise that a “huge overhaul” was necessary. This is what Will Quince, the children’s minister at the time, told MPs in December 2021.

The subsequent SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan – currently being delivered through the SEND Change Programme – seems to be working towards a change in the law, via the testing of a series of measures pushing at the boundaries of the current legal framework.

The Government’s SEND Review was a genuine opportunity to tackle the SEND crisis and improve the educational experience of children and young people with SEND. However, its starting point was the misconception that the system lacks clarity and, as a result, is littered with disputes, with too many children and young people receiving too much specialist provision.

The reality is that local authorities’ statutory duties to children and young people with SEND are clear, and what the system is actually littered with is unlawful decision-making. It's hard to understand why there’s so much unwillingness to accept that this unlawfulness is the biggest problem in the SEND system. What needs to be reformed isn’t the law, but the prevailing culture and attitudes: attitudes to the law itself, to inclusive educational settings, and to parents of children and young people with SEND.

When parents and politicians say they want reform, what does that mean?

For parents and education professionals at the sharp end of a system that’s failing to provide the special educational provision and support that children and young people urgently need, and for politicians who want to help them, ‘reform’ seems the obvious solution.

It’s true, the system absolutely does need to be made much more accountable. However, there’s no good argument for changing the legal framework underpinning children and young people’s existing rights and entitlements.

Accountability means an end to the current situation where the same local authorities are taken to the SEND Tribunal for the same unlawful decisions over and over again with no negative consequences for anyone other than the families affected. It means ensuring schools understand and fulfil their obligations under the Equality Act 2010, to make inclusion a reality rather than a vague aspiration.

What also needs to change is the toxic way parents are perceived and treated. The narrative that parent carers “expect too much” and make too many “demands”, selfishly causing councils to go bankrupt is endemic within local and national government and their politicians in power.

Parents are blamed for learning about their children’s rights and SEND law—and for expecting legislation to be followed.

Why we should be wary of politicians promising reform

It’s pretty clear what the current government would like to do if it’s re-elected: the SEND Change Programme would continue, with a view to introducing new legislation at some future point. It’s less clear what an incoming Labour government would do with the SEND Improvement Plan and whether it would continue with the current reform programme or do something entirely different.

Politicians do like to make their mark on things. Perhaps there’s more kudos in being a ‘reforming’ minister who introduces a brand new Act of Parliament than there is in being one who looks at a system that isn’t working for the people it exists to serve and resolves to no longer tolerate blatant disregard of the law.

The risk of overhauling the SEND system, of taking it apart and putting bits of it back together again in a different way, is that the detailed framework of rights and entitlements on which the system is currently built could all too imaginably be eroded and weakened. That’s why I think we should be wary of calls for reform. The focus on reform fosters an assumption that the current system for supporting children and young people with SEND – which is rooted in rights – is impossible to implement in its current form.

Under the current SEND framework, every need a disabled child has must be identified and met with provision that’s specified and quantified. There are clear entitlements with little scope for local discretion and a clear role for the Tribunal. There’s enough good practice in inclusion, early intervention and joint working to know it can be done.

SEND reform is unlikely to result in more rights for children and young people, or even the retention of existing ones. We should be wary of any proposed reforms that are driven by local authorities’ capacity rather than children and young people’s needs.

What we need from politicians in an election year

On the basis that we may have a Labour government this time next year, we’re still waiting for some detail of Labour’s policies and plans for supporting children and young people with SEND. So far, all we have is the assurance it wants an inclusive education system and supports early intervention.

It would be useful to know whether an incoming Labour government would keep the SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan and stick to the current government’s proposals for “reforming” the system; reforms that can only go so far without changing the law.

Or will Labour address the central problem that following the law seems to be widely regarded as an optional activity, with very little requirement on local authorities to be accountable for their actions.

The main SEND challenges for a new government will be to:

  • Resist the temptation to re-reform the system;
  • Protect children’s existing rights and entitlements;
  • Make the current system work by making it more accountable; and
  • Get decision-making right first time.

So…

  1. Will a Labour government commit to protecting children and young people’s existing rights to support that meets their needs?
  2. Will it commit to ensuring these rights are delivered in practice?
  3. Will politicians from all parties commit to ending all talk of ‘demand’ relating to our young people who need support to achieve their potential?
  4. Will politicians finally understand that parents aren’t hell-bent on destroying local councils’ finances, but simply want what all parents want for their children and without having to fight for it?

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Catriona Moore
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2 Comments

  1. Vincent Sheppard

    Having been going through this for so long now started 2019 been labelled as careers for our daughter Dr stating that I needed to taken to court to force me to send my daughter to school and also stating that I was causing her emotional abuse and social services be involved ,and this from a Dr at the time who had never met either of us .As you can imagine and know this has been the biggest uphill battle I have ever faced in my life .To many people shifting the blame on parents to avoid professional accountability and the cost to LAs is shocking and all there own fault in 99% of cases.
    One thing I can recommend us Subject Access Release I have now done 6 and the information is shocking to say the least but has proven amazing tool in finding out all the lies about us as a family .If only I had the resources to take LA to court with all the information i have at hand it would be a win in a normal world.
    Thankyou so much for work the email update are what keep me going
    Best wishes
    Vince

  2. Jester5

    It is clear that the SEND system just gets ignored. Families are denied statutory services thay are charged for but never delivered. The sytem is too complex and staff are very evasive. There is too much illegal activity eg, unpaid carers and disabled people are ignored. Social workers lie to avoid doing anything. Managers refuse to communicate. Subject data access requests ignored. Chronic neglect. The government is guilty of fraud and there needs to be accountability. A single point of access with families in control of multidisciplinary plan is needed. Health at centre of every integrated system for swift action today. The Dept of Education and Oftsed are not fit for purpose. Fraud is too easy when Ofsted give notice of inspections which are not often enough. Dept of Education claim they are not responsible for education! There is no excuse for educational failure. Home services/disability grants are badly needed. Too much time wasted fighting a system of tribunals and ombudsman have limited powers. EHCP applications just get ignored. No EHCP assessment, year of medical evidence ignored with staff claiming child has no diagnosis is wrong, GPs ignoring consultant reviews, no documents for tribunal, nothing from Global mediation, total inertia. Consultant hospital paediatrician should be accessible and part of every review. Community paediatrician years of waiting. Those with complex needs lost in a system. Post missing, fake staff names, fake emails, fake phone numbers, confused AI systems, undated letters, total lack of understanding. Compensation is never enough. Childhood only happens once. Children’s commissioner is allowing neglect, abuse, malnutrition, NHS delays for years, racism, discrimination, lack of mental health intervention, homeless, placed in another county miles away with neither county doing anything, transport failure, local services required yet denied. Academy schools profit first, education none. SENCO should be a full time SLT. Chronic staff shortage, rapid staff turnover and unqualified staff is an academy. Teaching assistants rather than teachers. Everything is DIY at your expense. Covid lost learning, food vouchers denied for those denied free school meals, trauma, bereavement and covid infections to school staff/students, inaccessible school trips, education/pupil premium/free school meals funding stolen. Child missing from education with years of abscence is invisible. I fully support all families and suggest networking. Free education is possible. No response from MP is typical. Academies just ignore compliants and solutions. Oftsed rates school good just from reviewing policies, fake data and very short reviews. The inspections should be unannounced and more often. Education can be free. Equality and Carers Acts ignored.
    Good luck everyone

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