No specialists = No support: The future for children with SEND is bleak without a trained workforce to support them

SNJ is among 114 SEND-related organisations and professional bodies calling for urgent action over gaps in the provision of specialist services for children and young people with disabilities. The gaps are because of a workforce shortage that includes education psychologists, speech and language therapists and teachers of the Deaf. The impact of the shortage means young people with special educational needs don’t get the support they need and ultimately, may have less chance of reaching their potential.

The letter, led by the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, the National Deaf Children’s Society, Speech and Language UK and Voice 21, calls on the Education secretary Gillian Keegan, and Health Secretary Steve Barclay, to tackle:

  • an insufficient number of specialists being trained to meet demand;
  • a growing number of specialists failing to be retained by councils or supported to further develop their specialisms, with some moving to the private sector;
  • growing need for support in general and in more complex cases in particular; and
  • the pressures of COVID-19 exacerbating existing pressure on the specialist workforce and increased waiting times for children

Lack of specialists leads to unlawful practice

It comes on the same day that the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman issues a report into North Yorkshire’s problems recruiting educational psychologists. The LGSCO’s investigation upheld a complaint from a mother over delays in meeting her son’s Education, Health and Care (EHC) Plan. North Yorkshire has been given a relatively small fine but has also been told to review 26 other similar complaints the council had itself upheld but not paid any compensation for lost provision.

North Yorks said it had gone out to four rounds of recruitment, despite offering higher than average salaries and was having to rely on agency staff- along with 70% of other councils. The Ombudsman also noted how North Yorks was just one of many councils who are finding it difficult to recruit staff, so it’s certain that many LAs would face similar fines if more parents had the energy to take their cases all the way to the LGSCO.

It's not like this LA had been doing nothing to try to solve the issues, including hiring extra SEN admin staff to improve timescales for processing EHC plans. But if the bottleneck is a lack of EPs and there are too few willing or available to be recruited, there is a limit to what they can do, other than, perhaps, buy in private ed psychs to pick up the slack. However, as many families know, this is expensive and they are still hard to come by, even in the private sector. But whatever the difficulties, the law must still be complied with.

Disabled children are the ones suffering

It's a difficult situation, but we must never blink from the truth that at the heart are disabled children not getting the provision and support they are entitled to. In the Ombudsman case, the boy has dyslexia and social, emotional and mental health difficulties. The LA was 3-4 months late in issuing his EHCP and the educational psychologist assigned never met the boy, either in person or virtually. They relied instead on gathering information from a teacher and speaking to the boy’s mum over the phone. The LGSCO also found fault with the way the council communicated with the family.

A late EHCP not only delays the right provision, it also means a delay to parents being able to appeal any aspect they are not happy with and there’s already almost a year’s wait for SEND Tribunal hearings.

“Unless urgent action is taken now on workforce planning, we are also at risk of further challenges in accessing the specialist workforce. The long-term future of the specialist workforce must be secured through proper workforce planning so that children and young people now, and in the future, can access the support they need to thrive.
“It’s also essential that children and young people with SEND from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are experiencing inequitable outcomes, are a major focus in the Government’s plans and receive targeted action.”

Open Letter
Open letter text
Open letter - click image to download PDF

The problems are sector-wide

However, as the coalition’s letter says, the recruitment crisis isn’t restricted to educational psychologists. If the government wants more children to stay in mainstream, then deaf children need teachers trained in ensuring they can learn as well as their peers, children with communication issues need speech and language specialists, autistic children need staff who understand neurodiversity.

Specialists also help mainstream teachers develop their own practice and, if they get in early enough, children with emerging issues can be supported quickly. This helps avoid the need for more expensive interventions or provision down the road. It also means it’s less likely a child will become disengaged, depressed, and lose vital learning opportunities.

And as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, they all need teaching assistants who are deserting the role or just not being recruited because of the school funding crisis.

How hard a choice is it, really?

Rishi might think there are hard choices to make to cut deficits, but do children really have the pay the price? Short-changing schools, education departments and especially disabled children is as short-sighted as you can get. We must not allow this government to sacrifice the potential successes of tomorrow’s adults through a continued failure of vision, installing inept and inexperienced politicians to its leadership roles and implementing poorly-thought-through policy. By not investing in education, we will become further entrenched as a country of elites living in an alternate universe while everyone else struggles on in this one.

The open letter asks the SEND Review to address this widening access crisis, but we can’t wait that long. The budget announcement on 17 November must put children first, both with the cost of living and their future educational potential.

“Specialist support, such as through Teachers of the Deaf, is vital in helping deaf children to develop in their early years and have a positive experience throughout their school life, both academically and socially. But with Teachers of the Deaf numbers slashed by 17% in a decade, the situation is getting worse not better
“We urge the Government to commit to investing in the specialist workforce as part of its response to the SEND Green Paper. Without it, deaf children and young people will be left to play a perpetual game of catch-up with their classmates, with devastating long-term consequences.”  

Mike Hobday, Executive Director of Policy and Campaigns at the National Deaf Children’s Society,  

“Across the country, speech and language therapists transform children and young people’s lives every day by supporting them with their communication needs. However, there are simply not enough speech and language therapists to meet the demand for their services and this has been made worse by the pandemic. We urge the Government to use its forthcoming response to the SEND Green Paper and address this crisis by investing in and planning for a specialist workforce that supports the communication needs of children and young people to give them the best start in life.”

Kamini Gadhok MBE, Chief Executive of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists,:

“Our research shows that 1.7 million children are struggling with talking and understanding words. Many of these children will need the support of specialists such as speech and language therapists and advisory teachers. Without this help, they are at risk of falling behind at school, developing mental health problems and getting into trouble in the criminal justice system. The new Government needs to take urgent action to train teachers better and train more specialist therapists so that children with short and long-term speech and language challenges can get the help they need.”

Jane Harris, Speech and Language UK Chief Executive, said:

So, what do we want?

Government must start to put the well-being of people at the heart of everything they do and every decision that it makes. This excellent book by Stephan A Schwartz should help with understanding what that means. If he doesn’t, Sunak can stop worrying about taxing the uber-rich and profiteering corporations, and start worrying about general strikes and more civil unrest, because enough really is enough.

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Tania Tirraoro

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