With no ministerial oversight for months, has the SEND Review lost legitimacy? Here’s what needs to happen now

Another day, another new SEND Minister – although at the time of writing their identity remains a mystery. It’s become almost routine, this government’s casual lack of regard for the vulnerable while new ministers horse-trade responsibilities (or so it seems) and we hope today, or soon, all will be revealed.

The previous incumbent, Kelly Tolhurst, in post for about five minutes, clearly looked at the massive brief, gulped, and decided she couldn’t face it after all. Let’s be honest, she didn’t have the qualifications for it, but that never stopped most of her predecessors.

In the Sunak government’s Department for Education, only Baroness Barran has remained in post with responsibility for the School and College System (including home education). She is now joined by three new education ministers. Claire Coutinho, as under-secretary of state – the junior ministerial role that previously held the SEND brief before Will Quince took it with him (it seems so long ago) when he quit then came back with a promotion to Schools Minister. Then there’s Nick Gibb, a former Schools Minister who we’re sure won’t want the SEND brief. And finally, and surprisingly, Robert Halfon, erstwhile chair of the Education Select committee, whose SEND Inquiry kicked off the beleaguered SEND Review in the first place. Wouldn’t it be something if he now had the power to fix what he so clearly noted is broken? For what it’s worth, the SEND review proposals as they stand in no way do that.

Despite all the to-ing and fro-ing, the officials in the asylum… er sorry, Department for Education, are still insisting that there will be, as Catriona outlined last week, a “SEND Improvement Plan” this side of Christmas. This means that despite the fact they have barely (or not even) yet finished sifting through the thousands of responses, and despite common belief that the Schools Bill is swirling around the plug hole, they are already planning a roadmap forward, with little to no involvement from ministers.

Does the SEND Review still have any legitimacy?

Given that it’s supposed to be ministers that decide policy, not officials, we think asking about legitimacy is a completely justified. The lack of ministerial input means any SEND Review consultation response or “improvement plan” will be almost entirely the work of unaccountable Department of Education officials. It’s not their fault, of course, and they are undoubtedly as frustrated as all of us, but it does beg the question of whose vision is driving the review?

What legitimacy can any plan put together by unelected officials have?

What we want to happen now

The disruptions in the DfE, the lack of ministerial direction, input or knowledge, leaves us with one conclusion: We do not want to hear of any further “improvement” plan this year.

Instead of the “SEND Improvement Plan” which may—or indeed may not—be derived from the responses from the SEND Review, we are calling for the Department for Education to publish a straightforward analysis of responses as soon as possible, WITHOUT any further policy announcements or plans attached.

Of the circa 7,000 responses, we want to see what was said and by whom and we want to know what weighting is being given to parental views. We do not want officials deciding courses of actions using responses moulded to fit Green Paper proposals. We want some real co-production—that thing the DfE is always talking about but never really does beyond consultation. We want an opportunity to digest the responses without, at the same time, having to understand how they relate to an “improvement plan” no minister can possibly understand (with the exception of Mr Halfon, who probably doesn’t agree with half of the Green Paper anyway). We’ve waited this long for a functioning SEND system – it’s better to wait another couple of months to agree a way forward rather than have a half-baked one imposed on us.

We are told that so far there is no “clear consensus” from responses. I find this incredibly hard to believe, considering the number of people who were not in favour of proposals like mandatory mediation and a “tailored list of schools”. If you’re weighing LA responses against parents and practitioners, of course you will have a split – and we didn’t need a consultation to tell us that – that’s part of the problem.

We MUST see an unbiased report of the consultation so we can see who wants what, and which part of the sector are they from.

It’s about trust. We don’t trust the DfE to be straight shooters because we have had numerous meetings during which we heard them say the right things about the support families need, and we were heartened. Then they came out with the Green Paper which showed whose side they were on. And it’s not families.

Some existing “improvement” plans don’t fill us with joy…

The DfE’s current SEND debt management plans that are already underway, do not instil enormous amounts of confidence as to how they are improving SEND. As Matt reported, the “safety valve programme”, that numerous LAs have taken up, has the whiff of unlawfulness at its core: ambiguous policy that leads to unintended consequences. LAs are being told to “appropriately manage demand for EHCPs”. This may seem benign, but LAs will almost certainly take this to mean limiting the number of new EHCPs or look to remove them from young people who already have them, whether appropriate or lawful. Well, what did you think LAs were going to do? It’s one thing to tell them to take actions to cut a deficit, it’s quite another to have the skill to do it without ruining the lives of vulnerable children.  

While the DfE claims these safety valve agreements are successful, we view success by how much the lives of disabled young people are improved and we are highly doubtful that this will be the net result.

Legislative changes?

The looming failure of Schools Bill (unless the new government revives it) is important as this removes one route for any legislative changes needed as a result of the SEND Review. Added to this, the prospect of another recession and renewed spending cuts make it even more unlikely that a large-scale funding boost to fund systemic changes to SEND will appear.

So without an obvious legislative path, and without the funding to pay for it, what the DfE are left with is working within the current legal framework. And this suits us fine because there’s basically nothing wrong with the law as it stands.

But it leaves us with the reality that this generation of disabled children, as with the last, and the one before it, is still being failed. These are not just words; they mean a child’s life chances as an adult are diminished, their opportunities are narrowed. The career and earning potential for many are reduced. The quality and availability of social care support for many more is shrinking. Teaching assistants are leaving for better paid, more flexible jobs at Aldi. Our children’s futures are diminishing before our eyes.

What can be done now?

There are some positive aspects: The Universal SEND Services contract is already underway to improve workforce training (I am on its advisory group). There are investments into short breaks placements and the supported internships funding. The Government is also funding the RISE partnership and the What Works in SEND research programme with Warwick University, which won’t bring grass-roots changes any time soon, but is aimed at making systemic, research-backed improvements.

I also think further research should look at the breadth of Ombudsman findings – where are LAs failing the most and what recommendations can be drawn from these to help improve their performance? When you find out the common crunch points, you can figure out were the weaknesses in understanding and practice are and work to solve them. The data is there - it just needs analysing.

But our message to the DfE is DELAY further plans for improvement, DITCH the Green Paper in its current form and PUBLISH a straight analysis of the consultation as soon as possible. Let everyone see the results and let the new minister have time to get to grips with their brief and understand what is needed. Then work with everyone –the cross-sector Special Education Consortium, with SEND experts, and with parent-led organisations such as ours, as well as with LAs—to put our children, not politics, first.

In an upcoming post, we’ll be discussing what parents think really should be in a SEND Improvement Plan, so watch out for that.

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Tania Tirraoro

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