It seems like a lifetime ago, but for most of last year, you couldn’t move for official inquiries into the state of SEND in England.
The National Audit Office also joined the party, spending the first half of 2019 probing SEND and reporting back last October.
The Department for Education (DfE) also kicked off a couple of their own consultations in 2019 – and as other people’s inquiries started to report back with truly gruesome findings, they launched their own ‘review’ of the state of SEND in September. Yes, dear reader, we covered them all.
The DfE’s SEND Review has come to a grinding halt during the coronavirus lockdown, so we don’t expect it to report back for at least six months. But today, one of the last remaining official inquiries into SEND delivers its findings – this time, from Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee.
Why did we need another Select Committee inquiry?
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) does what it says on the tin. It scrutinises public expenditure to make sure that the government is delivering the best value services that it can for the taxpayer, and holds the government to account when it doesn’t.
So whilst the Education Committee’s inquiry focused on the implementation of the 2014 SEND reforms and how well the SEND system works for the people it serves, the PAC’s inquiry focused on finance, funding, and value for money. The PAC’s SEND inquiry was triggered by the National Audit Office’s investigation, which highlighted deep problems with both the SEND system’s effectiveness and financial sustainability.
How did the PAC inquiry work?
The Education Committee’s SEND inquiry was one of the largest single investigations ever conducted by a Parliamentary select committee. Read our reports on it here and here. The PAC inquiry was much smaller in scope. Kicking off in September last year, the PAC took one oral evidence session from a couple of parents (including me), a professional, and a charity, but the general election meant that the it had to shelve the inquiry shortly afterwards.
The PAC resumed their SEND inquiry in February, once the new Parliament began its session and new committee members had been elected. They took one more oral evidence session – this time, taking evidence from civil servants and a SEND adviser from the Department for Education.
They took no oral evidence at all from anyone at the Department of Health. The PAC inquiry ended up being almost entirely focused on education, with very little questioning on health or social care aspects of the SEND system.
What did they discover?
Recommendation: The Department should, as a matter of urgency, complete and publish its SEND review. The review should set out the actions that the Department and others will take to secure the necessary improvements in support for children with SEND, and the timescale within which families will see practical changes. We expect the Department to explain the evidence it has used to support its conclusions, and to set out what quantified goals it will use to measure success in the short, medium and long term.Public Accounts Committee inquiry report
It’s unclear what impact the coronavirus crisis has had on this inquiry. But put bluntly, the PAC inquiry uncovered nothing that parents and professionals didn’t already know about the state of SEND, no "smoking gun".
Like the worst parts of the SEND system itself, the PAC inquiry report doesn’t really bother with health, social care, or provision for young people with SEND, an omission that’s hard to understand, given the acute problems with funding, system operation, and value for money in these areas.
Bizarrely, the PAC’s inquiry doesn’t reference (or even appear to draw on) the epic, forensic, and still largely box-fresh Education Committee SEND inquiry.
Despite all this, the PAC inquiry’s findings and recommendations matter. As a select committee, they can’t force the government to do anything. But what they assess and what they recommend still carry weight within the political system. In political terms, they are hard for government to ignore.
What did the inquiry say?
The Public Accounts Committee SEND inquiry starts with a blunt summary:
“Many of the 1.3 million school-age children in England who have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are not getting the support that they need. This is a failure that damages their education, well-being and future life chances.”
They are also unimpressed with what the Department for Education is doing about it…
“We remain to be convinced that the Department has sufficient grip on what needs to be done to tackle the growing pressures on the SEND system.”
…and like the Education Committee, they don’t want to see these problems kicked into the long grass. The PAC want action, and they want it now:
“The Department has given few details about the [SEND] review and has not indicated when it will be completed. However, the weaknesses in support for children with SEND are already well known—what we expect from the Department now is concrete action to address these significant failings.”
The PAC inquiry report then breaks things down in a bit more detail:
- The SEND system is failing many children – the PAC inquiry describes what some of this failure looks like, but doesn’t really explore why it’s happening. They recommend that the DfE should publish its SEND review immediately - laying out what they plan to do to get the system to improve, and detailing when and how the improvements will happen, with quantified criteria for success.
- There are big, unexplained disparities in SEND support & identification – PAC note that many more boys than girls are registered with SEND, with uneven spread across ethnic groups. They want the DfE to investigate, assess why this is the case, and explain what they’re going to do about it.
- SEND exclusions are too high – The PAC want the DfE to spell out what it’s going to do to reduce the numbers of children with SEND who get fixed-term or permanent exclusions, explaining what parts of the 2019 Timpson review into school exclusions it’s going to adopt, and why.
- Inspections are too infrequent and too narrow, particularly in mainstream – The PAC report points to weak coverage of SEND in Ofsted school inspections, whilst acknowledging later on that the Ofsted school inspection framework has now shifted emphasis.
The PAC notes that the Department for Education makes use of input from Ofsted & Care Quality Commission local area SEND inspections. However, they want to see the DfE use a wider set of intelligence sources to judge the quality of SEND support. Examples of the PAC’s preferred sources include: regional schools commissioners, parent carer forums, schools funding forums, and headteachers. At this point, you have to wonder what the authors actually know about either intelligence analysis or the SEND system if they’re making recommendations like this.
Weirdly, for an inquiry with a financial remit, the PAC only make two main judgements and recommendations about SEND funding:
- Mainstream schools have too little financial incentive to be inclusive. This is an accurate and important point, but it’s one that the Education Committee’s school funding inquiry made nearly a year ago (and still hasn't been acted upon). The PAC recommends that the DfE should work with schools and other stakeholders to "gather ideas" on what to do about SEND funding mechanisms - but the DfE already did this last year, and their consultation failed to generate a useful way forward that satisfied all stakeholders.
- There aren’t enough maintained special school places, and this is causing financial pressure in the system. The PAC focuses on the high educational and transport costs of placing children in independent and non-maintained special schools. They clearly outline a shortage of maintained specialist placements. But they don’t really join the dots to explore what’s causing the overall shift of pupils with SEND from mainstream to specialist provision. Instead, they recommend a systematic analysis of current and future demand for specialist provision. Then they recommend a costed plan to meet those needs, thinking about how to reduce transport distances and costs.
What difference will any of this make?
The PAC SEND inquiry report sits atop a teetering pile of evidence that’s already been gathered about the SEND system’s woes. This latest report adds very little new insight, but it adds a bit of additional political ballast.
We’re not short of inquiry reports. We’re short of effective, inclusive, equitable, and practical action to remedy the problems in the SEND system. There’s little sign of that action coming any time soon, and the coronavirus pandemic has set things back further.
COVID-19 makes some of the PAC inquiry report findings seem almost comically mistimed. The press release that accompanies the report has this headline:
“Desperate parents scramble for “golden ticket” EHC plans to secure adequate support for children with special educational needs”
This is patronising, shallow, inaccurate drivel. We’ve seen too many official bodies use it – people who should know better.
If it’s a patronising Willy Wonka analogy that the Public Accounts Committee want, I’m happy to suggest alternatives. But they won’t like who we’ve cast as the Vermicious Knids.
An EHCP isn’t a “golden ticket” – the output of a random competition, won by a lucky few, with a guaranteed shiny prize at the end. It’s an end-to-end, legally-enforceable service level agreement – an agreement that all too often isn’t fit for purpose, either because it’s been deliberately poorly drafted, or because the service providers believe they can get away with not implementing it.
And given the legislative changes that were enacted last week, there’s never been a less appropriate time to describe an EHCP as a “golden ticket.” With many absolute legal duties now diluted down to reasonable endeavours, any golden part of an EHCP has now been debased.
As happens too often in reports like this, hard-won parental experience and insight is boiled down to what we “feel”, not what we know, assess and contribute objectively. The Education Committee handled this well. The same can’t be said of the PAC inquiry.
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