An open letter to James Sunderland MP, offering an educational primer in SEND

During a debate in the House of Commons earlier this month on children and young people’s mental health, James Sunderland, Conservative MP for Bracknell, made a speech about school exclusion and children with SEND. In his contribution to the debate, Mr Sunderland said: 

“Specialist and dedicated settings are the way forward, and I want more dedicated schools established for SEN. Why? It is because it is not fair on the 95% of children in a class if 5% are disruptive, nor is it fair on the 5% to be constantly out on a limb, feeling the odd one out or being excluded.”

Mr Sunderland is an officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on SEND – we know his heart is in the right place, and he wants good special educational provision for children who need it. But there are a few things we think he needs to understand about children with SEND and the system that’s supposed to support them. We hope he will read this open letter, written on behalf of the SNJ team, in the spirit in which it's written, and we'd be happy to talk further.

Dear Mr Sunderland, may we offer a SEND education

Dear James Sunderland,

I, and other members of the SNJ team, read your speech in a debate in Parliament earlier this month on children and young people’s mental health with great interest. Your willingness to speak up for children with SEND in this context is very welcome to us as parents. We are concerned, however, that while you recognise many of the problems that persist in schools for children with SEND, your prescription for what needs to change is neither realistic nor desirable.

First though, thank you for highlighting the Timpson review of school exclusion, which was published two years ago. This review seems to have been shelved by ministers, who had taken to referring to children being ‘suspended’ and ‘expelled’ rather than excluded from school (regardless of this old-school terminology being nowhere reflected in current law). Happily, after an outcry from the Special Education Consortium (of which SNJ is a part) at least "exclusion" has been restored.

Mr Sunderland, you rightly note that children with SEND are three and a half times more likely to be excluded from school than their peers with no special educational needs, and describe this persistently high exclusion rate as “intriguing”. But when you describe “many SEN children” as “disruptive, hard to handle and…with a range of issues”, have you wondered why this is? Could it be because they haven’t had the support in school that would have made all the difference?

Vicious cycle of unmet needs

If the root causes of a pupil’s behaviour are not identified and addressed, a damaging cycle of challenging behaviour, followed by exclusion, may begin. This repeats itself either until a child’s needs are met, they are moved to another school or they end up permanently excluded. Too many children are being let down at school, and are not receiving the education and support they need to succeed.

Current statutory guidance on school exclusion from the Department for Education couldn’t be clearer: “Disruptive behaviour can be an indication of unmet needs.” But schools don’t always have a good enough understanding of what this means in practice.

A common misapprehension is that all pupils must be treated the same way in the name of 'equality' or 'fairness'. Headteachers may say that they can’t make exceptions to their behaviour policy, or that they have a “zero tolerance” policy. They may believe that exclusion is the only solution in order to maintain the safety and wellbeing of other pupils. But the law is clear: schools have a duty to make adjustments to their policies and practices to ensure that all pupils -- including those with SEND -- are able to succeed at school and achieve their potential.

Most children with SEND are rightly in mainstream education

You express doubt, Mr Sunderland, that mainstream schools are the right environment for children with SEND. But with 15% of children at school in England having some type of special educational needs, expecting them all to be in specialist settings is logistically impossible, as well as being simply the wrong solution for many children. It shouldn’t even need to be said, but special educational needs come in all shapes and forms. 

There are many things that mainstream schools can do to support children with SEND. Some of these are required by law, and some are good practice. Schools can access a wide range of resources to help them from places such as the Whole School SEND programme and the Autism Education Trust. Early intervention is proven to be the most effective way of reducing the number of exclusions of children with SEND: in other words, a proactive approach that identifies and meets a child’s needs, rather than a reactive response that punishes them. The solution to high exclusion rates is never going to be to stop requiring schools to be inclusive.

Your call for “focused intervention and allowing children to fulfil their potential in the right environment” is exactly right. But what is the ‘right environment’? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this. Every local authority should have a good understanding of the needs of children and young people in their area, the provision available to them (both inside and outside of school), and where the gaps are. It’s essential that a wide range of school provision is available to meet children’s wide range of needs, and that this is provided as close to children’s homes as possible. You’ll find no disagreement from us on that!

But it’s a mistake to think that every child with SEND needs a place in a special school. You say that “specialist and dedicated settings are the way forward", but this will only ever be true for some children. In any case, local authority special schools are bursting at the seams. Investment is certainly needed, as you say – but not simply in building more special schools. Investment is urgently needed in making sure that every teacher in every school has the training they need to support and include all their pupils, and in ensuring that all schools and local authorities fully understand what the law says about supporting children with SEND.

Adjustments don't have to be expensive

Nonetheless, Mr Sunderland, there are many examples of amazing things going on in mainstream schools, where children with SEND are being actively supported to thrive. Reasonable adjustments, as required by the Equality Act 2010, don’t have to be costly or complex. The purpose of reasonable adjustments is to create an environment that enables children to learn.

Examples include creating a quiet space that a pupil can access when they feel overwhelmed; a distraction-free workspace in the classroom; a staggered start and end to the school day; permission for a child to leave the classroom early to avoid crowded corridors when moving between lessons. It’s about seeing beyond the "problems" a child presents to the individual person they are. It's about supporting the child instead of punishing them.

The hunt for the SEND Review

Finally, we are very pleased that you took the opportunity to press the Minister on when the findings of the ongoing cross-governmental SEND review will be published, and the imperative to invest in children and their futures. The SEND Review - and who is on the team producing it - remains a bit of a mystery, to be honest. No-one really seems to know exactly what questions the review team is trying to answer, how far-reaching their proposed answers will be, or what the impact on children and young people will be.

One of the biggest issues that the SEND Review needs to address is why the SEND reforms introduced by the Children and Families Act 2014 have made so little difference to children’s lives. We remain convinced that the reforms were the right ones, and that the biggest problem is the failure to implement them. 

report published this month by Ofsted concludes that the SEND system did not improve as a result of the 2014 reforms and that the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed and intensified existing problems in the system for supporting children with SEND. These problems were well known and were illustrated in detail prior to the pandemic by the House of Commons Education Committee and the National Audit Office. The aspirations of the 2011 Green Paper that preceded the Children and Families Act 2014 have not materialised in reality: requests for children to have their needs assessed are routinely refused; local authorities put up unlawful barriers to children with SEND receiving the support the law entitles them to; and education, health and social care services regularly fail to work together in any meaningful way.

The accountability gap

The SEND system is failing children not because the law is wrong or non-existent, but because it is not being upheld locally – and there are no real consequences for this. There is an accountability gap between central and local government that the local area SEND inspection programme is not adequately filling. 

It’s clear that ministers are exercised about the number of children who have Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans. Not, as you indicated in your speech, because too few children with SEND have an EHC plan, but because – as the Department for Education seems to see it – "demand" (i.e. need) is too great.

We really need to lay to rest once and for all the damaging misdescription of EHC plans as a “golden ticket”. An EHC plan is for children with SEND who need more support than a school is able to provide from within its existing resource. It should absolutely not be the only way that a child can get any support at all.

As an officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on SEND, we hope you will support us in making the case for an education system that works for children and young people with all types of needs. The widespread culture in local authorities of disregarding the law MUST change. It’s a question of leadership and priorities, as well as resources. We are – as always – happy to talk to you and your colleagues any time about our children’s experiences, and the gap between what the law says should happen for children with SEND and what actually occurs in practice.

The Special Needs Jungle Team

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