Watching the parliament TV broadcasts of the SEN Inquiry has been an interesting affair, but yesterday’s brought tears of outrage to my eyes. More on that in a moment.
It was a roundtable event again, with school heads, teachers and SENCos giving their views to the Education select committee, led by Robert Halfon MP. As ever, it covered more than I have time for here, so I’m just picking up on a few areas.
At the start, MPs asked the teachers what benefits the new system had brought. One teacher said how it had put pupils more at the centre of the process where she was in Hampshire, something that also helps parents. Another spoke of increased co-production with parents (don’t you love those buzz words that we know could actually mean almost anything?)
But greater parental involvement didn’t please one of the witnesses, Jon Boyes, the Principal, of Herne Bay High School in Kent. Mr Boyes was not particularly impressed with greater empowerment of parents to help their children. As he put it, “85% of applications for EHCPs now come from parents, which is a fundamentally ridiculous change from where it was two or three years ago”.
He blamed the access to information (golly maybe even from us!) that means parents are more informed about the process and described that as a “double edged sword”. Some parents, he said, feel more in control, while others feel they’re banging their head against a brick wall.” Though he acknowledged that the parents who “know what they’re doing” (in applying for EHCPs) have more success than those who don’t, he didn’t look especially pleased about it.
But that’s not the thing that especially upset me, strangely enough. MP Emma Hardy, sat beside him, did look a little murderous I thought, but that may just have been my wishful thinking.
On the other hand, Penny Earl, Resource Provision Manager, Stoke Park Infant School, highlighting the pressure of performance tables, said that the 15% of children with SEN get “sidelined” by heads trying to please Ofsted. And that, she said, makes parents litigious to ensure their children get the help they need. Pretty much explaining to My Boyes exactly why parents feed the need to apply for EHCPs…
Teachers also criticised disappointed parents who wanted their children to have 1-1 TA support in class. Because they were having to shed support staff to meet budgets, 1-1s were out - and in any case, the DISS research showed it wasn’t an especially effective way of support. But it’s another reason why parents (who event the law says know their children best) feel the need to access statutory support.
Those who do have EHCPs are often no better off. Jon Boyes explained that he had 34 children with EHCPs with no specific funding so the school had to source the provision from within the existing budget. He also had children whose EHCPs specified specialist provision but there was none available.
Other teachers present bemoaned the fact that independent specialist provision took large chunks of high needs funding out of the system, leaving less for LA-funded schools.
Mr Boyes spoke of frustration of difficult access to specialist services… “I have children going through the process that has taken 30-40 weeks and decision seems to be random.. then you have a plan with no funding that you have to manage.”
This lack of consistency was echoed by Educational Psychologist, Dr Cath Lowther, who spoke about how one young man with complex mental health problems and on suicide watch had been initially turned down for an EHCP assessment, while another student with dyslexia had no difficulties getting an EHCP. Mental health she concluded wasn't given the same regard when it came to decisions made about EHCPs.
Mr Boyes also laid into LAs, saying that money was wasted because decisions weren’t made well and those making them weren’t trained well enough either. This was something echoed by Nicola Jones-Ford, SENCo, Fulham College Boys' School, who said she had six EHCPs that were in need of rewriting and she was having to do it because “No-one in LA is skilled enough to do that.” This took her away from spending time with pupils
It seemed that the teachers didn’t seem to be able to agree on how soon statutory help should sought. Some said that children needed to have EHCPs earlier so that they could get helped sooner, while others said that could mean that the wrong support was put in. One spoke about a child with an EHCP who arrived at school with an autism diagnosis when it turned out they were profoundly deaf, while another said they had to ration applications to educational psychology as they only had a SENCo four days a week.
So what upset me?
It was the evidence of one of the witnesses, Callum Wetherill, Pastoral Leader, of Joseph Norton Academy. It’s a K2-4 special academy for pupils with complex SEMH difficulties.
He pointed to a systemic failure in education “almost encouraging” SEN, with a toxic mix of funding pressures, as well as pressures on children in terms of exams, children being off-rolled with Ofsted’s ethos (up until recent changes announced at least) actively encouraging high exclusion rates. The LA sends children his school as if they’re ‘naughty boys’ rather then children with emotional and mental health difficulties but when they try to source help from CAMHS, there is a wait of for even those with the highest needs of six to eight months or longer - or it’s completely impossible.
“We’re getting a high influx of students coming in with high level of institutional trauma, rather than life-long developmental trauma,” he said. What he means was that children are being traumatised by schools, by being forced to stay in an inappropriate, unsupported educational environment.
The problem with the £6,000 delegated funding…
I learned last week that the £6,000 delegated funding per SEN pupil figure had been come up with in a study done in 2009 by PricewaterhouseCoopers as part of a school funding review. As we know it hasn’t been increased for a decade.
“Evidence showed that the cost point above which children with special educational needs (SEN) became fewer in number and it would be appropriate to describe them as having high needs was around £6,000.” Nadhim Zahawi, SEND MinisterThey Work for You / Hansard
Early this year, the Department for Education will be looking at this figure, “In order to better understand the financial incentives that influence how schools, colleges and councils support children and young people with SEN.
But while the DfE persistently refuses to ringfence the delegated £6k, the teachers felt this was one way that pupils with SEN could have their provision protected from cuts.
SENCo Nicola Jones-Ford said that with 25% of her school’s pupils on the SEN register, she’s held accountable for a pot of delegated funding money, but she has no idea of how much it is as it’s muddled within the school’s funding formula.
Penny Earl meanwhile explained how her school’s head teacher ring-fences the delegated budget and relies on it being transferred to use, despite pressure “from people above” who have advised that the school to use it elsewhere.
On funding in general, Jon Boyes said he local authority, Kent, had, “Exponentially lost control of how it deals with high needs funding since the reforms..”
Tania Beard, Headteacher, St Martin's C of E Primary and Nursery School, explained that the way that funding works isn’t transparent. That while there is supposed to be a notional £6k per child, “Nobody can find it in the budget, it’s not ring fenced, it’s not clear. It would be fairer if schools with high percentage of SEND had a bigger share of the ring-fenced budget. If you have a certain number of children with EHCPs, you get additional funding, but that perncetage has gone up so it is almost impossible to get.”
Ms Beard believes that the more funding is legislated, the less flexibility schools have, but has we have seen from Callum Weatherill, this clearly depends entirely on the school. While schools such as Ms Beard could be trusted to be flexible and put the child first, that clearly doesn’t happen in many others, to the huge detriment of the child.
There was agreement that, like the pupil premium, the SEN delegated budget should be ring-fenced so that it could be used creatively and reported back on, as the PP is.
The missing health
Sabrina Hobbs, Principal, Severndale Specialist Academy, said that although the CFA was supposed to being health to the table, in fact, schools were paying for health input such as SLT (although of course its not always health provision!), mental health and nursing care. In her school they paid in excess of £90k a year for nursing care for children with wrap-around healthcare needs to be secure attending school.
However, a note of alarm was raised by Tania Beard around the introduction of Universal Credit. It meant many children were losing the right to Free School Meals which meant that within a few years, their pupil premium entitlement would also disappear. As this is often used to access mental health resources, this was likely to be disastrous in the near future. As Mr Boyes had also pointed out, mental health was the biggest failing of the reforms, so this is most certainly an ominous signal that needs to be taken notice of.
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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.
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