The nine top asks from SEND organisations for the next government

by Tania Tirraoro and Sharon Smith

Earlier this week, Catriona covered what the main political parties have set out for SEND in their manifestos. Today we’re looking at what SEND organisations are calling for in their manifestos.

Nationally, although they have no chance of leading the government, the LibDems have the most developed plans. This is no surprise considering the leader, Ed Davey has a teenage son, John, who is disabled, so he has a deep personal understanding of the issues facing families. And while the Children and Families Act became mired in a decade of poor implementation, its very inception–again originally a Lib Dem plan, though pushed through by former Conservative minister, Ed Timpson–shows that politics can listen to parents and the sector and make a difference. 

Many sector organisations, including us, have briefed Labour on SEND over the last few years, so while we know they do understand the issues, they are going to have a hell of a search down the back of the Treasury sofa to come up with the cash to fix the funding issues when, as expected, they take up residence.

Hasn’t the SEND Improvement Plan fixed things?

Funding is one of the main issues and we don’t think the current SEND Improvement Plan will fix it. Yes, the Plan had a public consultation, but some of the proposals seemed to have been plucked out of a hat of bad ideas. We are seeing this now with the Safety Valve LAs facing parent-led legal challenges, and LAs being unable to meet the requirements of their agreements. We’re also seeing cuts that the DfE has recently told us should not be happening:

“Safety Valve plans are developed and owned by local authorities, and they hold the responsibility for consulting and implementing the plans. Safety Valve agreements are not an exercise in making reductions to services, and do not, under any circumstances, excuse or prevent local authorities from delivering on their statutory requirements to provide for children and young people with SEN. During the pre-election period local authorities with Safety Valve agreements will continue to implement their plans, with support from DfE officials and SEND Advisers as part of operational business as usual.”

DfE Senior SEND Official 

It’s so baffling how LAs are supposed to reduce costs against the backdrop of recent SEND and EHCP figures without contravening the law, that at this point, we are living in a Kafka novel.

No money aside, what do SEND organisations want from the next government? 

In a nutshell, the sector is calling for accountability, better funding and to uphold rights. 

SNJ doesn’t have its own manifesto because, as part-time volunteers, we simply haven’t had the capacity to do this. However, as we are part of the Disabled Children’s Partnership and the Special Education Consortium both of whom do, we’re happy our views are represented. In any case, it’s pretty clear what we think just by keeping up with our articles.

The Special Education Consortium is a professional-level cross-sector influencing group. The SEC develops strategy based on a consensus of its members, so its manifesto is what all its broad membership agrees on. It follows that reading its manifesto is a good indication of SEND priorities. You can also watch the SEC manifesto launch featuring SNJ’s Gill Doherty here)

Special Education Consortium priorities

The SEC’s three main priorities are:

  1. Ensuring the education system is designed to be accountable for properly supporting disabled children and young people and those with SEN.
  2. Guaranteeing a long-term funding strategy to account for the additional costs of SEN and Disabilities, including strong investment in the education and specialist workforce.
  3. Ensuring the education system listens to, respects, and meaningfully incorporates the voice of disabled children and young people and children and young people with special educational needs, as well as their families, in the making of national policy and the implementation of individual special education provision.

Disabled Children’s Partnership priorities

Similarly, the Disabled Children’s Partnership is a coalition of disabled children’s groups at a more grass-roots level, run by Mencap. We are also members. The DCP’s key asks in its manifesto are:

  • Make disabled children a priority. Those at the heart of politics need to prioritise the needs of disabled children and their families and to acknowledge disabled children and their families as equal, valued members of society. We want all parties to commit to the appointment of a Minister for Disabled Children and to producing a cross-party disabled children’s strategy. 
  • Clarify and enforce rights, and review the law. The next Government must commit to stronger accountability within the SEND system; to making the education system inclusive; and to ensuring that disabled children and young people receive the support they need across the education, health and social care systems. 
  • Address funding shortfalls and create a dedicated fund for disabled children. Making disabled children the priority and having a system that is fit for purpose with effective accountability will help make this happen, but the right level of funding is also vital.

What about individual SEN and disability organisations?

Of course, different organisations have different specialist focuses, and this is reflected in their manifestos. 

As well as SEC and DCP, we’ve looked at the manifestos of a number of organisations. The links are to their individual manifestos:

You would expect that as these organisations all focus on disabled children and young adults, they would all want the same thing. Indeed there is a correlation, especially about upholding the rights of disabled people as outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities , and upholding the laws of the land such as the Children and Families Act 2014, Equalities Act, Care Act, and so on. Learning Disability England for example, calls for the UNCRPD to be fully incorporated into UK law. However, each has a slightly different take. 

However, the most common correlations are:

  • ⁠greater accountability
  • more funding
  • invest in the specialist workforce
  • social care reform
  • ⁠employment & housing opportunities
  • ⁠accessible information
  • more inclusive mainstream schools
  • dedicated Minister
  • ⁠listen to CYP and families

1. Greater accountability

Accountability is one of the top asks for all organisations. The SEC’s accountability asks are echoed by most, including

  • Ensuring Ofsted only gives a “good” or “outstanding” grade to education settings that have also had their SEND provision rated at a similar level. 
  • The SEC has also called for the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) to have wider powers to investigate complaints about SEND provision in schools, something the Ombudsman has previously called for itself
  • The SEC wants an LA duty to ensure it has sufficient local provision provision for disabled children and young people and to publish this publicly, something also mentioned by Natspec for further education.
  • Likewise, IPSEA (an SEC member) calls, as you would expect, for current laws to be properly applied. It describes as “key to resolving the SEND crisis” ensuring local authorities fulfil their statutory duties. IPSEA says non-compliance should be seen as unacceptable and unaffordable. 
  • The NASS wants the new government to “uphold the statement within the Children and Families Act 2014 stipulating the choice of education placement “should enable the achievement of the ‘best possible’ outcomes for children and young People with SEND.” 

2. More funding

Funding is always a key ask for SEND. While ministers trumpet how much has gone into the sector, this is against a backdrop of chronic underfunding for years that has taken its toll on provision – and on children’s life chances. 

The NEU is calling for the new government to “Reverse cuts to schools, colleges and nurseries and increase education spending to five per cent of GDP.” While not SEND-specific, this would naturally improve access to the much-vaunted ‘ordinarily available provision’ – resources a school is supposed to be able to provide to children without EHCPs, but so often can’t. 

Fair funding is also called for by the SEC so the “Dedicated Schools Grant, the National Funding Formulas, and post-16 disadvantage blocks adequately meet the needs of all children and young people through early years settings to post-16 provision.”

The coalition also wants more funding for high needs, an exploration of a way to recognise disability and low incidence needs in the funding formulae, SEN support funding to extend to post 16, and more money to fund health (especially CAMHS) and social care. Most significantly, it’s called for historic deficits to be written off, thus negating the need for Safety Valves.

Natspec, the post-16 specialist education association, also asks for fair funding, but for further education, “to enable …high-quality learning programmes for young people with different levels of need.”

Meanwhile, the NASS is calling for government financial interventions Safety Valve and Delivering Better Value in SEND with local authorities that risk them breaking SEND law, to be paused. We agree!

3. Invest in the specialist workforce

This is a major ask across the sector, led by the RCSLT as part of the #SENDInTheSpecialists coalition (SNJ is a part of this), calling on all parties to invest in and properly plan for the specialist workforce for children and young people with SEND. With growing speech and communication (SLCN) needs as seen in this year’s SEND figures, the call for better investment in speech and language therapists is clearly justified. The funding and workforce call is also backed by the Special Education Consortium

The NASS, meanwhile is asking for a government strategic review of special schools. 

4. More inclusive mainstream schools

The National Education Union (NEU) wants early intervention without “unnecessary bureaucracy.” The SEC is also calling for a “cultural shift towards inclusive education system,” something that seems as far away as it ever was. Inclusion is more than just shoehorning children with SEND into mainstream schools. Without inclusive policies, buildings, lessons and culture, this is akin to setting them up to fail. 

ALLFIE, which campaigns for inclusive education, “demands” an “inclusive education law, guaranteeing disabled children a right to inclusive education with the necessary support.” However, for ALLFIE, inclusive education also means shutting all specialist provision in favour of “non-segregated” mainstream education, a view that is not shared by other organisations at this time, for very practical reasons.  

IPSEA, along with SEC (where IPSEA is an important voice) both call for a change in culture to one in which “differences are accepted, reasonable adjustments are made based on children’s individual needs, and training is provided to all school staff.” And so say all of us! 

5. Dedicated Minister for disabled children

While SEND is part of the portfolio of the Children and Families Minister, this role has many responsibilities and is usually held by a junior minister. In their manifestos, many sector organisations, including the NASS that represents special schools, are calling for the establishment of a specific minister for disabled children, and at a senior level. 

The DCP says, 

“A Minister for Disabled Children would have clear responsibility, accountability, and power across departments. Making sure that the right support from health, social care, education, and other services are in place for families. This arrangement would also be mirrored at a local government level, giving disabled children and their families clear pathways to the support they need across all services.”

6. Social care reform

Social care reform is a top ask for Learning Disability England so social care “meets the rights of people with learning disabilities and their families and provides fair pay for social care workers.” 

Fair pay and a social care workforce plan is also called for by Mencap, while the Disabled Children’s Partnership is also calling for the children’s social care reforms already underway to recognise and prioritise the circumstances of disabled children and their families. Mencap is asking for a “ long-term funding settlement” for social care and a changes to social care pay structures for minimum salaries to be on a par with those of NHS 

7. Employment & housing opportunities

Learning Disability England is one of the organisations calling on the government to help people with learning disabilities, “get the jobs they want, supported by a system that recognises contributions, not forcing poverty,” and asking for people with learning disabilities to have the same access to housing options as their non-disabled peers.

Mencap meanwhile, asks for a new supported employment programme for people with a learning disability, particularly for those over the age of 25 and without an Education Health and Care Plan. We think this is also important for disabled adults without a learning disability but for whom employment is a massive challenge, particularly those who are autistic or have ADHD. There is the DWP’s Access to Work scheme, but you already have to have a job, or a promise of one, to access this. 

Better housing and employment opportunities and support are unsurprisingly a major theme of Post-16 association, Natspec’s asks.

8. Accessible information

Ensuring disabled people can access the information they need, especially for elections, is on the agenda for Learning Disability England, RCSLT, and Mencap. The RCSLT is is calling on parties to undertake Communication Access training.

LDE also calls for reasonable adjustments and accessible information to be made a priority for the NHS, “Promoting the use of multiple formats for all written communications from the NHS, whether printed or online, including large print, braille, easy read, and audio.” The NHS really shouldn’t need the government to tell it to do something so fundamental. It routinely provides information in other languages, so why should making it accessible for millions more disabled people not be an equal priority?

Mencap additionally asks for health inequalities to be tackled with a Reasonable Adjustment Flag and the revised Accessible Information Standard. 

9. Listen to CYP and families

Last, but most importantly, the importance of listening to parents and children is mentioned a number of times. It’s one of the key things mentioned by Edward Timpson in our recent podcast.  If you don’t know what we want, how can you get it right? If only the DfE had actually listened as well as gathered views in their SEND review consultation, eh? To add insult to injury, we sent them, at their request, local parent groups in areas testing their Change Programme, but we’ve heard from some of these groups to say they’ve since received the brush off when they got in touch. Awesome. 

If they really listened they would see that what we want is, as the SEC says, for the government to enforce existing legislation, “ensuring co-production of policies and meaningful engagement at all levels.” And we say, not just with the ‘usual suspects’.

What else is being asked for?

While there is a lot of correlation, there are also asks specific to particular organisations. We’ve mentioned a few, such as ALLFIE and SEC above, but here are a few others: 

  • IPSEA wants SEN Support in schools to become a statutory requirement for children with SEND who need some extra provision and support but who do not need an EHC plan. This isn’t dissimilar to the system in Wales.
  • RCSLT wants speech and language therapy to be provided in all prisons, youth justice teams, and young offender institutions to support people with communication and/or swallowing needs.
  • It also wants a reform of the Mental Health Act and embedding speech and language therapists as a core part of the mental health workforce.
  • Natspec is calling for and end to the use of unregulated high-needs provision
  • The NASS asks for “research into the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people with SEND and establish a strong evidence base identifying best practice and interventions that have the greatest impact”. 

Do you agree with these? Let us know in the comments

Also read:

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