New SEND Minister, Kelly Tolhurst: many responsibilities but none so important as disabled children’s futures

We’d begun to get a little paranoid at Special Needs Jungle that maybe no one really wanted children and young people with SEND. Three weeks have passed since a new line-up of education ministers had been appointed by the new prime minister, and none of them seemed to have responsibility for SEND. It all felt a bit unsettling.

But now Kelly Tolhurst MP, the new minister of state at the Department for Education, has finally been confirmed as Minister for Schools and Childhood. Her role will include SEND, alternative provision and children’s social care, as well as a long and daunting list of other important things.

The schools portfolio has been divvied up, and there are now, slightly confusingly, two ministers with ‘schools’ in their title. The new junior education minister, former teacher Jonathan Gullis MP, has been confirmed as Minister for School Standards, a role that will include behaviour, attendance and exclusions. This tendency to separate government decision-making on support for children with SEND, from decision-making on issues that are so central to their educational experience and outcomes, will never not be a source of frustration.

Handbags at dawn?

Reading between the lines, it seems there’s been a bit of a tussle going on at the top of DfE. It’s hard from the outside to see who might consider themselves to have won and lost here. Is SEND a poisoned chalice or an opportunity to make a mark? Is it an interesting policy challenge for a minister who’s going places, or a minefield that any wise politician would do best to avoid?

This isn’t Kelly Tolhurst’s first ministerial role – in the last few years, she has served variously as minister for housing, transport and business, and most recently as the government’s deputy chief whip. While her biography doesn’t suggest any particular experience of education or support for children and young people with SEND, we’re hopeful she will approach the task with as much commitment as her predecessor Will Quince MP.

Her constituency is within the area served by Medway Council, which has been criticised repeatedly by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission for failing children and young people with SEND. And she has previously spoken in Parliament about her family’s experience of the impact of disability, when her mother suddenly and permanently lost her hearing.

Does it matter who’s doing what?

It really does matter which government minister is ‘ours’. We need to know with whom the buck stops, and where accountability lies. This needs to be with a named person, not just an amorphous government department—not least because of the SEND Review, which is unfinished business that Kelly Tolhurst will have to get up to speed on quickly.

The Government has committed itself to responding to the recent consultation on the SEND Green Paper by the end of this year. This includes indicating whether it intends to proceed with major reforms to the system for supporting children and young people with SEND. This will be a major decision for the Kelly Tolhurst to take: whether to dismantle legislation that gives children and young people the right to special educational provision and support that meets their needs, or commit to making the current SEND framework work as the law requires. The latter is what most parents would prefer. 

Kelly Tolhurst MP, a woman in her early forties with long thick brown straight hair and a heavy fringe. She’s wearing a bright blue dress
Kelly Tolhurst MP, Minister of State for Schools and Childhood, which includes SEND

Kelly Tolhurst’s SEND priorities

So these are just a few of the main questions we think the new minister needs to address without delay:

  1. Will she consider why the SEND Review appears to be based on reducing “demand” for provision (and costs), and what the consequences will be for children and young people who don’t fit easily into fixed “bands” and categories?
  2. Rather than assuming that children and young people are receiving specialist SEND provision they don’t need, will she look at why so many children and young people are not receiving the support that they need and are entitled to?
  3. Isn’t the “local discretion” for supporting children with SEND referred to in the SEND Green Paper actually unlawful? Doesn’t the same law apply in every local authority area in England?
  4. How will the system for supporting children and young people with SEND become more accountable? Will there be negative consequences for local decision-makers – and not just children and young people – when unlawful decisions are made?
  5. Will the Government amend the Children and Families Act 2014 to put SEN Support in schools on a statutory footing, so that mainstream schools have to become genuinely inclusive?
  6. What will be done to change the prevailing culture in many mainstream schools, to make sure that existing equality legislation is upheld and enforced? It isn’t usual in other policy areas to provide “incentives” to follow the law, so the expectation should be that everyone complies with it?
  7. How will the Government make sure that families and young people do not lose the opportunity to challenge unlawful decisions? Currently, the onus is firmly on families to know, understand and enforce their children’s legal rights to special educational provision and support.
  8. Will she consult with local authorities on what the barriers are at a local level to compliance with the SEND legal framework? What do local authorities need from DfE (or other government departments) in order to fulfil their current statutory duties?

The Government has indicated its intention to carry out sweeping reforms of the system for supporting children and young people with SEND families. Of course schools, local authorities, NHS organisations and all of us are waiting anxiously for the new minister to tell us how she intends to proceed. Families of children and young people with SEND are used to the reality that they are no one’s priority. The new minister has a chance to prove us wrong.

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Catriona Moore
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