Public Accounts Committee launches SEND Inquiry (yes another one)

Public Accounts Committee launches SEND Inquiry (yes another one)

Another day, another SEND inquiry. It seems that inquiries into SEND are like buses. None for ages then three come along at once. 

As soon as MPs were back in parliament yesterday after the cancelled prorogation, the Public Accounts Committee announced it’s launching an inquiry into support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities in England.

What, another inquiry, I hear you say? How much evidence do they need that SEND is in crisis?

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What’s this all about?

This new inquiry comes in the wake of the report from the National Audit Office that found the system for supporting pupils with SEND is not, according to current trends, financially sustainable. 

This inquiry will consider, “whether children with SEND are being supported effectively and the outcomes of that support; and the funding, spending and financial sustainability of SEND support.”

Hold on a second – isn’t this pretty much the same ground covered by the newly announced Government SEND Review, and the SEND Inquiry of the Commons Education Select Committee, which is due any day. Like, ANY day (as in hurry up before there is an election called). 

That SEND Inquiry had around 700 submissions and numerous oral hearings. You can read our reports on the SEND Inquiry here.  Our own Matt Keer gave oral evidence during the inquiry about funding that was so powerful, committee members referred back to it a number of times during the hearings.  

Since then, of course, the Government has announced £700 million for SEND for the next year but there has been no detail about where it’s going or what for, other than, as we mentioned last week, Gavin Williamson, Education Secretary saying he “expects” local authorities to give it to schools. 

And the other thing we’re awaiting is the judgment from the parent-led judicial review of Treasury & DfE. The campaigners & legal team were hoping for a judgment at the end of September, but the SEND Action team now think it’s likely to be early October.

Why another inquiry?

Former Deputy Director of SEND at the Department for Education, Stephen Kingdom, (now Campaigns Manager for the Disabled Children’s Partnership, where we are a member) says a PAC inquiry following an NAO report is standard practice:

So, okay, a report from the NAO and an inquiry from the Public Accounts Committee may be a natural occurrence, but wouldn’t it make sense to wait until after the Education Committee SEND inquiry reports to see what gaps there are and prevent a repetition of what has already been published?

You might think so, but I’m not sure parliament thinks in joined-up sentences like that. In any case, the first hearing takes place on Monday 30th September – yes, next week! And it had better be quick at evidence-gathering because the way things are heading a General Election may be in the offing sooner rather than later. Find out how you can take part at the end.

But still, the SEND Inquiry finished taking evidence a while ago and things have moved on. Also the PAC will have a different focus - value for money - so you never know, it may turn up interesting information we haven’t heard before.

So, if it finds SEND isn’t financially sustainable, then what?

What exactly does the PAC hope to achieve by this inquiry? Whether or not a PAC inquiry follows an NAO report like night follows day, surely there has to be an outcome that can be acted upon. 

How about: Yes, you disabled kids, you’re too bloody expensive. Let’s not bother to educate you and let you spend the rest of your lives depending on the benefits system…. Oh wait…

You see, while supporting young people with SEND is undoubtedly expensive, as I said last week, what, exactly, is the alternative? 

The entire point of supporting young disabled people to be as productive and fulfilled as possible, is so they can live their best lives and, where possible, contribute to a rich and diverse society. Not to mention they do have a right not to be discriminated against just because they cost more than their non-disabled peers. 

If disabled children do not get the help they need to thrive when they are young then they are far more likely to end up needing state help for longer as adults - and that’s far, far more expensive than a few years in a specialist school getting an education and learning skills for life. How short-sighted do you have to be not to get that? That’s a rhetorical question by the way.

How to make SEND financially sustainable - a few ideas

So how do you make SEND education more cost-effective? One way would be to stop LAs wasting money by forcing parents to go to the SEND Tribunal when they win 89% of the time. As a precursor to that, obeying the law would be pretty useful. Then the money that wasn’t spent there could be used actually providing support. Crazy, hey?

The other thing they could do is to ensure schools are inclusive and offer a complete range of provision for all children. This way, with suitable education and support close to home, children wouldn’t have to spent 45 mins each way in a taxi – and transport is another thing that costs a huge amount of money. 

Only that won’t happen, because LAs don’t have the money to make the capital investment required to make it a reality, and making every school completely inclusive is very difficult indeed. Some children need very small class sizes, some need special equipment to ensure a safe and appropriate learning environment, some need highly specialised teachers. All need staff who are enthusiastic about and thoroughly trained in SEND. And then the children grow up and move on, so those teachers and that equipment are no longer needed in that location – so what happens then? 

I’m not saying I have the answers, but independent special schools do play a very valuable part for children with complex disabilities and it would be foolhardy in the extreme to abolish them (please take note, Labour – this is one area of private education you shouldn’t aim to get rid of if you get the chance). I remember being told by my children’s then ISS headteacher, that if the LA did open a school like theirs, it would just ruin it with pointless bureaucracy and lack of innovation.

Anyway, an LA can’t do anything at all with a huge number of schools because they are academies, and out of LA control. So, it’s up to the Government to make sure academies admit children with SEND, keep them and are places of harmonious inclusion. No more sneaky off-rolling or illegal exclusions, no telling parents that the school up the road is much better for their sort of child. But the Government won’t do that, will it? 

The PAC already has a dim view of the DfE

This is what the PAC already thinks of the DfE:

The Committee believes the Department has been unrealistic in its savings expectations, while having little in the way of contingency planning if these savings plans threaten the quality of education and pupil performance. 

There is evidence that strains on the Department’s budget are hitting pupils directly. Cash shortages have led to many schools reviewing their options, such as reducing school hours in an attempt to save money. Some schools are offering a reduced curriculum; some are struggling to fund basic materials such as exercise books. 

We are deeply concerned about the long-term impacts these ‘make-do’ measures will have on pupils, particularly those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. 

We have heard from headteachers the toll that working long hours has on staff and the potential impact on the quality of teaching. Our report on retaining and developing the teaching workforce found that the Department has failed to get a grip on the issue of teacher retention.

The Committee remains concerned about the management of school buildings, in particular the lack of clarity about the prevalence of asbestos and action to address the risks.

Government also continues with its policy of delivering new free schools, many in inappropriate buildings which are costly to buy and maintain and not suitable for the long-term education of pupils. 

Public Accounts Committee

So its MPs are perhaps rubbing their hands in glee that the gift of the NAO report has given them another chance to stick the boot into the Department. The Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education, Jonathan Slater, will be giving oral evidence to the Committee at the beginning of November. He may well be hoping a General Election intervenes before then. 

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How can you take part?

If you haven’t got inquiry fatigue yet, you can submit your views via document upload on the parliament website here: http://bit.ly/PAC-SEND-Inquiry

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Tania Tirraoro

Founder, CEO at Special Needs Jungle
Founder of Special Needs Jungle. Parent of two young adults with autism. Tania is a member of the Whole School SEND Expert Reference Group for SEND Leadership, the Ofsted SEND Inspections Stakeholders Group, and sits on the Advisory Board of the Royal Holloway, University of London Centre of Gene and Cell Therapy.
She is also an experienced broadcast and print journalist & author. Tania also runs a PR, web & social media consultancy, SocialOro Media. She is a Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate with Ehlers Danlos syndrome.
Tania Tirraoro
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