Mr Zahawi: Publish the SEND Review—but make sure it solves the RIGHT problem

A government reshuffle: it’s as good as anything else for a temporary distraction. There’s always the hope it might result in a minister who really knows and cares about the issues they’re making decisions about and the people whose lives are affected, and has the determination and clout to make things happen.

No one expected Gavin Williamson’s Cabinet career to last any longer than his capacity to provide useful cover for the Prime Minister as the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded and with it, a series of education catastrophes. Objectively interesting as the policy catastrophes might be to people who follow these things, it can’t be stated too often that children and young people with SEND have been disproportionately impacted by the Government’s decisions throughout the pandemic. 

Enter (again) Nadhim Zahawi - and yet another new SEND Minister

The upshot of Gavin Williamson having outlived his political usefulness is that this week we have a new Education Secretary. Presumably as a reward for his recent tenure as vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi has been promoted to the Cabinet. The good news is that Mr Zahawi should know all about the issues facing children and young people with SEND from his time as Children and Families Minister in 2018/19. The less good news is that he didn’t do much back then to address the many ways the education system fails children with SEND, or to instill confidence in parents. 

The main thing we remember about Mr Zahawi’s time as minister with responsibility for children and young people with SEND, is his mind-blowing insistence in an interview with Jayne McCubbin on BBC Breakfast on 30 March 2018 that he had never seen an EHC plan that wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. This begged so many questions at the time, it was hard to know where to begin. (There was also his endlessly repeated assertion to the Education Select Committee that implementing the SEND reforms was “a journey”).

His optimism/naivety was misplaced then. It would be even more misplaced now, when the situation for children and young people with SEND is worse than ever. The pandemic has exacerbated and intensified all the problems that existed and were known about before any of us had ever heard of Covid-19. Ministers (and others, for some reason) have taken to uttering repeatedly that the pandemic has “materially altered the context” for SEND reform – but it isn’t at all clear what they mean by that. If this infuriating phrase appears in one of his official briefings, I hope Mr Zahawi will ask his civil servants for an explanation, and then illuminate the rest of us.

Bring the SEND Review into the light

The new Secretary of State will be awash with pieces of advice about what he needs to prioritise. Supporting children and young people with SEND in the way the law requires is of course only one of his many responsibilities. But yes, removing the SEND Review from the shadows and bringing it out into the open so everyone can see what it looks like must be an immediate priority. 

We assume, from the length of time the review is taking, and from snippets of information gleaned from job advertisements on the civil service recruitment site, that significant reforms to the system for supporting children and young people with SEND lie ahead, and that children’s existing legal entitlements are part of the discussion. But we don’t know much else, because it all remains shrouded in mystery. 

“System experts” are being worked with. “Best available evidence” is being drawn on. There will be a “public consultation” at some point when proposals for change will have already been developed. But young people and parents are not part of this process. The Department for Education likes to talk about “co-production”, but the SEND Review is a textbook example of what co-production isn’t. The parent-led Let Us Learn Too campaign, which Special Needs Jungle is supporting, has shone a spotlight on the Government’s failure to include children and families in decisions that may change their lives.

What about the SEND Minister?

There are many experienced and expert parents who are ready and willing to meet with Mr Zahawi and his new ministerial team, including SNJ of course.

And it really is an all new team. Last night it was revealed that Vicky Ford, the SEND Minister, has hopped it to the Foreign Office in the middle of the SEND Review. Not her fault, but if we needed confirmation that it really is about politics not people, this is surely it. Why move a minister in the middle of a sensitive— and already hugely delayed— review about the education and support of vulnerable and disabled children?

In at education is Will Quince, MP for Colchester and former minister at the Department for Work and Pensions, who we think will get the SEND brief (We’ll update this post when it’s clearer) Meanwhile, another Essex MP, Alex Burghart, is expected to have the apprenticeships brief. Whoever is at SEND will have a vertical learning curve ahead of them.

What's the problem that must be solved?

The first question to the new Secretary of State at such a meeting might be: What is the problem that the SEND Review is trying to solve? We would all agree there are serious problems in the system for supporting children and young people with SEND, but I suspect there would be disagreement on what the main problem is. 

As parents, we can see all too clearly that the SEND reforms mcreated by the Children and Families Act 2014 have not been properly implemented across the country. Local authorities routinely make unlawful decisions and children and young people not receiving the special education provision and wider support to which the law entitles them. There are many reasons for this – budget shortfalls, the culture of local gatekeeping, ignorance at a local level of what the law requires. These have been explored in detail by the Education Select Committee and others.

We DON'T need more reforms

We have a simple, yet elegant, solution: follow the law. The system doesn’t need to be reformed again. We don’t need a new set of principles. Children and young people with SEND don’t need a different set of rights and entitlements. They need national and local decision-makers who are committed to making sure they get the right support, at an early enough stage to make a difference, so they can achieve their potential and live happy lives. This will mean improving accountability for decision-making, allocating the necessary resources and treating parents and families as allies, not adversaries.

Our concern is that the SEND Review has been set up to solve a different problem entirely: a problem that is defined by the Government in terms of ‘demand’. Too much ‘demand’ for finite resources such as assessments, interventions, EHC plans, places at special schools. ‘Demanding’ parents with their sharp elbows and clever lawyers. Mr Zahawi, this is the wrong way of looking at it.

The number of children with EHC plans has increased for a variety of reasons, among them medical advances that mean there are more school-aged children with complex needs than ever before, and a widespread failure to make SEN Support work as the Children and Families Act 2014 envisaged. 

What everyone should be clear on is that every child who has an EHC plan, needs it. EHC plans are hard-fought-for, as the steady rise in appeals to the SEND Tribunal attests. They are not a ‘golden ticket’ to taxpayer-funded treats. The fact that so many children and young people need this level of support is a symptom of the failure within the education system to identify children’s needs and put support in place early enough, with the result that their needs escalate. 

Rather than making it even harder to get support, the SEND Review should be looking at why it has become so difficult. Taking off the rose-tinted glasses and having a long hard look at what’s really happening should be Mr Zahawi’s first priority.

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Catriona Moore
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