SEND Inquiry Report: Education committee blasts DfE, LAs and Ofsted over multiple SEND failures

SEND Inquiry Report Education committee blasts DfE, LAs Ofsted multiple SEND failures

Eighteen months ago, the House of Commons Education Select Committee launched a formal inquiry into SEND. The Committee (made up of 11 MPs) published its report today (report links at the end of the article). We've already read it in depth to see what it says and ask what difference will it make?

When launching this inquiry, the committee wanted to look closely at how the 2014 SEND reforms have panned out. They set out to examine

  • how well children and young people with SEND were being assessed and supported; 
  • how well the system implemented the 2014 SEND reforms; 
  • whether funding is adequate and properly distributed; 
  • what co-operation between education, health and social care sectors looks like; 
  • and what difference the reforms have made to young adults with SEND. 

They didn’t look at particular types of SEND – just the system as a whole.

The inquiry was inundated with evidence; it’s been one of the biggest pieces of work that a select committee has ever carried out. The committee received over 700 written evidence submissions (almost 200 of those from parents) and held 12 separate oral evidence sessions.

They didn’t just hear from SEND big-shots at these sessions: the committee also took evidence from seven young people with SEND, and nine parents (including me). You can check out all the published evidence here, and we published a snapshot of parental evidence a few months back too. 

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So what does the report say?

“We are confident that the 2014 reforms were the right ones. We believe that if the challenges within the system—including finance—are addressed, local authorities will be able to discharge their duties sufficiently.”

The 127-page report is rigorous, measured, and absolutely damning. 

It starts out by saying that the 2014 SEND reforms were the right ones, but implementation has gone badly, avoidablywrong. 

The inquiry looked at the actions of central government, local government, inspection agencies, health organisations, and schools in implementing these reforms. And whilst the report rightly acknowledges that good practice happens in pockets on the frontlines, not a single one of these sectors escapes severe criticism.

“Let down by failures of implementation, the 2014 reforms have resulted in confusion and at times unlawful practice, bureaucratic nightmares, buck-passing and a lack of accountability, strained resources and adversarial experiences, and ultimately dashed the hopes of many.”

Education Select Committee SEND Inquiry report Oct 2019


It's not all about the money 

“The significant shortfall in funding is a serious contributory factor to the failure on the part of schools and local authorities to meet the needs of children and young people with SEND. However, unless there is a systemic cultural shift on the part of all parties involved, additional funding will make little difference to the outcomes and experiences of children and young people with SEND”

This report doesn’t major on funding – the select committee carried out a separate inquiry on school and college funding, and you can find our summary of that report here. Like the funding inquiry, the SEND inquiry says that there isn’t enough money in the system – and it goes further, saying that social care is also fundamentally under-funded. 

But the SEND inquiry report is absolutely clear that by itself, more funding won’t solve anything. Unless organisational behaviour changesacross the system - the culture change we have always talked about - in schools, local authorities, health, and in central government - then “any additional money will be wasted and make little difference” to the lives of children and young people with SEND. 

Accountability

The report remorselessly homes in on the SEND world’s accountability vacuum. The Department for Education (DfE) comes in for severe criticism:

“We do not think that the Department for Education is taking enough responsibility for ensuring that its reforms are overseen, that practice in local authorities is lawful, that statutory timescales are adhered to, and that children’s needs are being met. We are concerned that the Department has left it to local authorities, inspectorates, parents and the courts to operate and police the system. There is a clear need for the Department to be more proactive in its oversight of the way in which the system is operating.”

“We asked the Department for Education how it is measuring the success of the SEND system. We are troubled by the inability of the Ministers to clearly explain how they are using the document published in 2015 which set out how the Department was going to hold the system to account, both locally and nationally.”

“The Department did not need to preside serenely over chaos for five years to see that things were not quite going as planned… …The distance between young people’s lived experience, their families’ struggles and Ministers’ desks is just too far.”

House of Commons Education Committee, Special educational needs and disabilities, First Report of Session 2019–20

SNJ provided evidence to the inquiry on the way that local authorities squandered hundreds of millions of pounds of money given to them by the DfE to implement the SEND reforms.  You can find a summary of this evidence here. The DfE could not account for the use of their SEND reform grants, and the Committee members were less than impressed:

“Decisions by the Department for Education to allow local authorities to spend their implementation grant with little or no oversight or safeguards was at best naïve, if not irresponsible and misguided.”

House of Commons Education Committee, Special educational needs and disabilities, First Report of Session 2019–20
“Nobody appears to be taking any action based on the counting and measuring that is taking place, but even worse, no one appears to be asking anyone to take responsibility for their actions. There appears to be an absence of responsibility for driving any change or holding anyone accountable when changes do not happen.”

The Committee’s SEND accountability frustrations went far wider than just the DfE though, and the two SEND inspection agencies come in for criticism too:

“We have found a general lack of accountability within the system. We do not think that the current approach to accountability is sufficient—the absence of a rigorous inspection regime at the beginning set the tone of a hands-off approach. This has been perpetuated by the fact that those required, or enabled, to ‘police’ the system have been limited in part by an apparent unwillingness to grapple with unlawful practice, while others are limited by the narrowness of their remit.”

“Accountability is not just counting and measuring, it is being held responsible for actions taken. Nobody appears to be taking any action based on the counting and measuring that is taking place, but even worse, no one appears to be asking anyone to take responsibility for their actions. There appears to be an absence of responsibility for driving any change or holding anyone accountable when changes do not happen.”

“We were surprised that Ofsted and the CQC told us that it was not in their remit to report on compliance with the law. We were surprised by their apparent lack of conviction: Ofsted is prepared to act proactively and make judgements about unlawful practice in relation to—for example—extremism and unregistered schools, and we see no reason why it should not do the same in relation to unlawful actions regarding special educational needs and disabilities.”

House of Commons Education Committee, Special educational needs and disabilities, First Report of Session 2019–20

Despite this, the committee stops short of calling for a formal SEND regulator. They believe thatproperly tooled-up inspections are what’s needed to improve accountability. The committee also wants to see the role of the Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman beefed up, allowing them to consider complaints about schools as well as LAs. They also want to see Ofsted improve its reporting on SEND in school inspections.

Local Authorities

The inquiry took a lot of written and oral evidence from local authorities. The committee concludes that LAs were set up to fail by central government – LAs weren’t given enough funding, and they weren’t guided and overseen properly.

“The Department for Education set local authorities up to fail by making serious errors both in how it administered money intended for change, and also, until recently, failing to provide extra money when it was needed”

But the report doesn’t paint LAs as hapless, inevitable victims. The inquiry took a lot of evidence from parents and frontline professionals too, and they deployed it well:

“There is a clear need for the Department [for Education] to be more proactive in its oversight of the way in which the system is operating. However, ultimately, local authorities must ensure that they are compliant with the law as opposed to waiting to be caught out by an inspection regime, parents or other professionals.”

“We heard countless examples of local authorities not meeting their statutory duties, and of schools deliberately or otherwise off-rolling, excluding and even discouraging parents from sending pupils to their schools. Many parents and carers are engaged in struggles with their LA. Some of these struggles are by-products of the challenges of the current system, which has led to the experience of an acutely adversarial system. In some local authorities this is particularly problematic, with a minority having acted appallingly, against both the spirit and the letter of the law.”

“We have heard that there is a lack of knowledge about SEND law and local authority procedures which are, in some cases, abused or taken advantage of. This ignorance, wilful or otherwise, serves no one well, least of all the children and young people who the system is intended to support.” 

“We are not convinced that all local authorities have sufficiently invested in training for these front-line staff. Where staff are unsupported or poorly trained, mistakes may be made that let down young people and their families.”

Education Select Committee SEND Inquiry report Oct 2019


SEN Support

Most children and young people with SEND don’t have an EHCP. The inquiry looked at how the system served pupils and students on SEN Support, concluding that this is a neglected area, with deep problems that lead to wider pressures within the SEND system. The report expresses concern at the pressures that school SENCOs face in meeting their duties, as bureaucracy increasingly takes SENCOs away from the classroom.

“We heard a lot about local authorities’ poor performance. But for children who receive SEN Support, they rely primarily on their school to get their support needs right. If, for whatever reason, a school fails to provide high quality SEN Support, the child is failed.”

Health & Social Care

Joined-up approaches to meeting education, health and social care needs were intended to a big benefit of the 2014 SEND reforms. The Committee assess that there are big problems here too:

“We heard that many of the eagerly anticipated initiatives are not living up to their ambition and name. The role of health providers is pivotal, but unsurprisingly, the meshing of two systems has not worked. Unless health and social care are ‘at the table’, we are no further on, and the Education, Health and Care Plan is no more than a Statement by another name.”

“We are seeing serious gaps in therapy provision. We need to see professionals trained and supported so that they are able to support all pupils; these huge gaps in therapy provision across the country are letting down all pupils, but particularly those on SEN Support. We need to know where the gaps are, because children are falling through them, and what is going to be done about it.”

Education Select Committee SEND Inquiry report Oct 2019


Young People with SEND

The other main benefit of the 2014 SEND reforms was the extension of some statutory rights out to the age of 25. Intent hasn’t matched reality here, either:

“The ambition of the reforms does not appear to have been matched in terms of planning, funding and capacity development. There is a disconnect between legislation, the Department’s intention and expectation, wider expectation and interpretation, and the capacity of the system.”

“Unless there is a greater focus on supporting young people into meaningful and sustainable employment and independent living opportunities, we are letting down an entire generation of young people, putting greater pressure on the benefits and adult social care system, and creating long term costs that are unnecessary and unpalatable.”

Education Select Committee SEND Inquiry report Oct 2019


Families’ Experiences

There’s a whole section at the back of the report with anonymised evidence of family experiences with the SEND system. It’s a grim, harrowing reading; this part of the report opens with contact details for the Samaritans, and it’s needed. 

“We do not think that the Department for Education is taking enough responsibility for ensuring that its reforms are overseen, that practice in local authorities is lawful, that statutory timescales are adhered to, and that children’s needs are being met. We are concerned that the Department has left it to local authorities, inspectorates, parents and the courts to operate and police the system.”

All of this is damning, particularly the last sentence, above. How is this possible, five years on, with over £600m spent on implementation?

Helping parents navigate the system is what Special Needs Jungle was set up for. We would like to thank the committee for citing SNJ eight separate times in the report, referencing articles or oral and written evidence. The number is more than all the education press combined. And unlike the press, SNJ's team does it for free and we are a completely independent voice; no one tells us what we can and cannot write". In an ideal world, we wouldn’t be needed.

What happens next?

Reading this report feels a lot like a positive outcome at a SEND Tribunal: elation that finally, someone outside the system genuinely gets it; cold fury that well-paid people have allowed things to fail this far; and apprehension that someone else still has to change things, simply to give our kids the same opportunities that others take for granted.

Read the whole report – particularly the second part of it, which lays out the evidence the Committee drew on to shape their conclusions – and it’s clear that they have listened to individual parents in a way that no one else has. The Committee has repeatedly drawn on Special Needs Jungle as a source of information, eight separate times in the report, referencing articles or oral and written evidence – more than all the education press combined (and unlike the press, SNJ's team does it for free).

“There is a clear need for the Department to be more proactive in its oversight of the way in which the system is operating. However, ultimately, local authorities must ensure that they are compliant with the law as opposed to waiting to be caught out by an inspection regime, parents or other professionals.”

This isn’t the first time that a select committee has held a SEND inquiry. It isn’t the first time that one of these inquiries has reported that the world of SEND has deep problems. But this is the first one to demand quick, decisive actionThis committee doesn’t want a review. It doesn’t want a venerable SEND greybeard taking a year identifying issues and gathering evidence. It wants specific, measurable action taken, and it wants action taken quickly.

The Education Committee has a great deal of influence – but it doesn’t have any executive authority. It’s made 24 recommendations for change in its SEND inquiry report: we don’t have space to cover them here, but SNJ columnist Catriona Moore (whose day job is as the NAS's policy advisor in parliament), will be expertly reviewing them in depth tomorrow. 

The Government has to respond formally to this report. But it doesn’t have to respond straight away, and if a general election happens, it might even be a different Government that responds - responding to an Education Select Committee that would probably be made up of different MPs.

It looks like the current committee has tried to bear this in mind with their call for action. They’re also concerned that government might decide to solve the SEND system’s problems by weakening the rights of children with SEND, or diluting the duties of those paid to support them. The committee have made it very clear that this isn’t the answer.

To finish up, here’s the report’s epilogue. It nails a lot – but it’s still down to all of us to make sure that positive change happens.

“The responsibility of conducting this inquiry and producing this report has sat heavily on our shoulders. We have carefully considered many of the issues that have arisen throughout our inquiry. We recognise that for many, this is not an inquiry, it is their daily life. In September this year, the Department for Education announced its own review of the SEND reforms. Five years on from the Children and Families Act 2014, this is a timely and prudent exercise.

“However, the weight of the evidence, gathered through our inquiry and by others in their own work, reviews and experiences, is clear. The system is not working—yet. There are clear and fundamental problems that need fixing now, not left waiting on the outcome of another review. Apparently random examples of children getting good support are not enough. A reliance on relationships, luck or family circumstance is not enough. Families are in crisis, local authorities are under pressure, schools are struggling. And they cannot wait for the outcome of another review: they have waited patiently for long enough.

“The Government must act decisively and soon. It must implement our recommendations with immediate effect and move swiftly to address the many other problems that we identify in our report. A generation of children depends on it.”

House of Commons Education Committee, Special educational needs and disabilities, First Report of Session 2019–20
“These adversarial experiences are the products of poor implementation, the inability to access the right support at the right time, and services struggling with limited resources. We were warned: Parliament was told that if the reforms were not done properly, the system had the potential to become more adversarial. Not enough was done to prevent this happening. We have a system of unmet need and strain. This unmet need is creating poor broader experiences, for children, young people and their families, schools, colleges and local authorities.”
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Read the report yourself

If you’re feeling strong enough, you can read the whole report yourself. Find it at the links below:

Add your views in the comments of the blog here so they’re accessible to all. 

Also read:

Quote images by Tania Tirraoro. The images have alt text for accessibility and are free for you to share on social media. If you’d like to use them in any other way, please get in touch first

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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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