First thing's first, congratulations to Vicky Ford, MP for Chelmsford in Essex, who has been appointed to be the new Children and Families Minister, which includes SEND, or at least it has so far. May we welcome you to the special needs jungle.
We would like to invite you to meet with us and our colleagues at SEND Community Alliance, the independent, parent-led volunteer organisation that we have formed with SEND Action and SEND National Crisis.
Collectively as SCA, we represent thousands of families who have children and young people with disabilities, as well as many practitioners. We all want to see an end to the dreadful situations being endured by families day after day as a result of lack of funding and a failure to embrace the 2014 reforms. And no, the recent cash injection isn't a solution, but a backfill - and too late for those children who have gone through the last few years without the education they deserve and are legally entitled to.
A lot to learn
As you so rightly said, there is a lot for you to learn and SEND Community Alliance (see our brand new website here) are well-placed to give you the real picture. SCA is the new home of all those "agitators" who won't just accept what we're given and be grateful for it. We are the home of all those "squeaky wheels" who are not settling for less than equal rights and opportunity for children and young people.
I hope you'll be reading the SEND Inquiry report and may others that have preceded it, to show how bad the situation is. I'm equally sure you'll be having a nice, cosy briefing from those with important titles, or others in receipt of Government coin to "participate" or support, but not complain too loudly.
But you need to hear the story, warts and all, not just read the text, so you can truly understand what it is like. Otherwise, how can you do your job to #fixSEND? And make no mistake, that's your job. Not shiny new initiatives, but solid, determined remedial action, in collaboration with parents and young disabled people.
Number five, no wait, six!
You are the sixth person to be SEND minister in less than three years (six if you count Michelle Donelan sitting in for Kemi Badenoch, who achieved pretty much nothing before going off on maternity leave). Yet we have been here, in the jungle, for as long as our children have been alive. For me personally, that's 22 years. You need to hear the independent parent voice as a priority. We're here, waiting. You can easily get in touch.
Your first, easy task - continued Ofsted/CQC SEND inspections
The first thing you can do, before you've even made a dent in your new desk chair, is this: announce that the Ofsted/CQC SEND inspections are definitely to be a permanent feature with a new cycle after 2021. We know that's where "the thinking" is, but it hasn't been officially announced, or a budget allocated.
The current round of SEND Inspections have just over a year to run until all of England's local areas have been put under the microscope for their SEND provision.
At the Ofsted SEND Stakeholder meeting last week, where I represent non-PCF parents, we were discussing how this advisory group will be instrumental in designing the next cycle of inspections, based on the learning from the first round with input from all.
So far, the inspections have revealed a litany of poor, often illegal, practice the length and breadth of the country. The cycle of revisits from those who have failed will continue for some years yet. Those local areas who fail the revisit have an even longer haul but with no real accountability for this second failure.
And still they fail...
What's amazing to me is that some are still failing, even after all those shameful examples that have already failed. LAs inspected early on had "only" the law to guide them. Because it's clearly been a problem for them to follow what's set out in the Children & Families Act 2014, its regulations, the SEND Code of Practice, and all the information on sites like nasen, IPSEA and SNJ.
But now, two-thirds of the way through, those local areas inspected in 2018 onwards have had a growing mountain of evidence from others' inspections about what Ofsted and CQC wanted to see and - crucially - did not want to see. I'm quite sure they have pored over these reports and maybe quivered a little. And still, they fail.
What is undoubtedly true though is that the inspections, though late getting started, have proved a force for good. While far from perfect, they have allowed parents to give frank feedback that has often flown in the face of what LAs have tried to pass off as parents' wonderful experiences. And by and large, inspectors have seen through the lies.
Shine a light on illegality
Without the inspections, this illegality would have gone largely hidden and parents would have had no way to try to hold their LA accountable. The increasing weight of evidence from the inspections has been a huge factor in sparking media interest, other research and, ultimately, the SEND inquiry. I'm not saying it was the inspections alone - there have been other reports, continual Ombudsman findings, and the increase in volume of the parent voice (that we have had a hand in ourselves) has also helped to bring bad experiences to light.
But Ofsted/CQC's reports and demand for Written Statements of Action from failing LAs have made what parents have been saying impossible to ignore.
That's why we need them to continue. Because those areas that "got away with it" the first time round have no Sword of Damocles to hang over them. No one to hold them to account for denying disabled children what they need thrive. Next time round, with what they have learned, Ofsted and CQC, will be more difficult to thwart. Especially backed by a strong and representative advisory group who will always feeding back intelligence and offering improvements.
The new inspections work needs funding
The group's leader, SEND Specialist Adviser, Nick Whittaker, and his team are already working on a new framework that we will be putting our ideas to. But there is no budget allocated, which is hampering the work - work that needs to begin in the middle of next year.
So, make this announcement that everyone wants to happen, so that a budget can be put into place and planning can begin officially. It will be an easy win. Then we need a response to the Inquiry. Just saying "the SEND Review is looking at it" is an insult to families who gave up their time to respond and who, frankly, have suffered enough.
Be on the side of the family - that's your title, Children and Families Minister. Prove it.
- Ofsted/CQC inspections MUST become a permanent part of SEND. Here’s why.
- SEND Inquiry Report: Education committee blasts DfE, LAs and Ofsted over multiple SEND failures
- Public Accounts Committee launches SEND Inquiry (yes another one)
- SEND Review: A game-changer or playing politics with vulnerable children?
- SEND Inspections: Moving ahead but illegality must be called out
- SEND inspections: what do Ofsted and CQC inspectors really think?
- Ofsted/CQC SEND Inspections and Parents: More Than A Feeling?
- Ofsted and CQC report on one year of SEND inspections. It isn’t pretty.