This is the second part in our SEND Inquiry report coverage. See Part one from Matt Keer here
It has been a long time coming, but the Education Select Committee’s report on the SEND reforms didn’t disappoint. I knew when the first page said “The Department [for Education] did not need to preside serenely over chaos for five years to see that things were not quite going as planned” that I was going to enjoy it. Not because it is anything other than grim reading, but because it describes so accurately the world as we know it and calls out so clearly the Government’s complacency.
The statement that “The distance between young people’s lived experience, their families’ struggles and Ministers’ desks is just too far” made me think that our voices have been heard, and we have a powerful ally in Robert Halfon MP and his committee.
You would think we’d have learned by now not to get our hopes up by reports and reviews. But there is something about the urgency of this one that invites a little optimism – as well as justifiable rage, of course. The select committee has so thoroughly taken on board the experiences of young people and families; they state so unambiguously that things have gone badly wrong with the way children with special educational needs are supported in this country; and they demand nothing less than immediate action from the Government.
Straight to the top
The most striking thing about the committee’s conclusions on where the problem lies is that they go straight to the top. The disastrous state of provision across the country for children with SEND is placed firmly at the door of the Department for Education, who – the committee says – should have a better insight into what is really happening beyond Whitehall.
The next most striking thing is that no-one across the system escapes blame for the way our children have been failed, and continue to be failed. Local authorities frequently act unlawfully. Schools neglect their duties to children who need SEN Support. Ofsted has failed to call out unlawful practice and act on it. The report observes that Ofsted is prepared to be proactive and make judgements about unlawful practice in relation to things like extremism and unregistered schools, but for some reason it doesn’t do the same in relation to unlawful actions affecting children with SEND.
The select committee has made a large number of recommendations to the Government – and has been clear that these need immediate action, not more discussion.
Holding people responsible
Many of the recommendations concern the problem of accountability: the whole business of holding people responsible for what is decided and what the consequences are for the children affected. It isn’t just about counting and measuring things, as the ministers and government advisers who gave evidence to the inquiry seemed to think.
MPs heard repeatedly that the SEND system lacks accountability and transparency. Their solutions are a more rigorous inspection framework with clear consequences for failure, an extension of the powers of the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, and new rights for parents to report their concerns directly to the Government.
The committee says that Ofsted should look more closely at what is happening for children with SEND when they carry out their inspections of schools, and should deliver clear judgements on this – either through Ofsted’s existing programme of school inspections or through a new, separate type of specialised inspection that focuses on SEND. This is something that many witnesses called for. What we really want is for no school ever to be judged ‘outstanding’ unless it is genuinely inclusive and delivers an outstanding education for all children.
On the local area SEND inspections that Ofsted carries out jointly with the Care Quality Commission, MPs recommend that these should not be one-off events, as they are at present, but should become part of an annual inspection process – with clear consequences for local authorities and health bodies that fail their annual inspection.
They also say that Ofsted should inspect the training in SEND law that is provided to all local authority staff who are involved in carrying out EHC assessments, writing or reviewing EHC plans, or preparing for Tribunal appeals. This assumes, of course, that staff receive training at all.
New powers for the Ombudsman
When Michael King, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, gave evidence to the select committee earlier this year, he explained that his ability to investigate the SEND system and obtain redress for children stops at the school gate. He made a compelling case for his office to be given additional powers by Parliament to look at exactly what goes on in schools, in the same way that they look at local authorities.
“The committee’s findings of families having to battle a system designed to supportMichael King, Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman
them,echoes what we’ve seen in the complaints we investigate. Sadly, we uphold almost nine out of every ten investigations from children and families with special educational needs and disabilities. This is unprecedented in our work.”
The committee agrees that this should happen, and recommends extending the Ombudsman’s powers to cover “internal school management and free schools and academies”. This will need new legislation, and it is up to ministers to introduce this and push it through Parliament.
New rights for parents
The committee also thinks that parents and schools should have the right to report directly to the Department for Education when local authorities behave in a way that goes against what the law and the SEND Code of Practice say. I hope they’ll have plenty of phone-lines open to receive those calls.
MPs are calling for an annual ‘scorecard’ for local authorities and health bodies to measure their success in putting into practice various aspects of the SEND reforms. They say this could include things like reports of non-compliance with the law, the number of children with SEND who do not have a school place, numbers of Tribunal appeals, and whether local authorities meet the required timescales for carrying out EHC assessments and producing EHC plans.
A neutral role?
The select committee is keen to emphasise that it understands how difficult it can be for parents to navigate the SEND system, describing it as a “treacle of bureaucracy”. It is more than that, to be honest. It’s not just paperwork and procedures that make life difficult for parents, but the deliberate obstacles that local authorities create to keep children out of the system and the ‘no help here’ stance that too many of them adopt.
MPs’ solution to these difficulties is to propose “a neutral role, allocated to every parent or carer…when a request is made for a needs assessment, which has the responsibility for coordinating all statutory SEND processes including the annual review”.
This recommendation raises more questions than it answers. Who would take on this neutral role? Who would pay them, and who would they report to? Hasn’t this already been tried through the information, advice and support services run for local authorities by the Council for Disabled Children? What about the role of parent carer forums run by the charity Contact on behalf of the Department for Education? Wouldn’t this be another way of neutralising potentially critical voices by bringing them ‘inside’?
Strengthening the SEND Code of Practice
The way that SEN Support is provided (or not provided) by schools comes in for a lot of criticism in the report. The committee has taken on board the evidence they heard from witness after witness that the needs of children on SEN Support are too often neglected. The lack of early intervention has driven a steady increase in the number of applications for EHC plans as the only way for children to get the help they need.
The committee’s conclusion is that the Government should strengthen the guidance in the Code of Practice on SEN Support in schools, to provide greater clarity over how children should be supported. This would at least give schools fewer places to hide, and help parents know what to ask for. They also recommend clarifying the guidance in the Code of Practice on EHC assessments and plans.
We are still waiting to hear whether, and when, the Government will carry out a comprehensive review of the SEND Code of Practice, and what this will look like.
New specialist schools
The select committee politely pinpoints a tricky dilemma in the Government’s education policies, namely the difficulties of improving the educational experiences of children with SEND while at the same time preventing local authorities creating new specialist settings. MPs recommend that local authorities should be enabled to created new maintained specialist schools, including specialist post-16 provision, outside of the constraints of the free schools programme.
This should be widely welcomed by parents who want their child to have the school place they need as close to home as possible, and by commissioners who want to reduce the cost of placing children at independent specialist schools. Local authorities should be responsive to their local population’s needs – otherwise what are they for? – and they need to be able to create provision to meet those needs.
There are a whole list of other recommendations – it’s a long and detailed report. The committee says that government departments should work together to develop more employment and training opportunities for young people post-16. It says that the Department for Education should work with other departments to review the capacity of local authorities to meet the independent living needs of young people with SEND.
On health, the report says that the Government should map therapy provision across the country and identify ‘cold spots’. It also says that there should be an outcomes framework to measure how the health aspects of support for children and young people with SEND are being delivered locally.
On funding, MPs say that the Government should look at the ‘notional budget’ that schools receive to support pupils with SEND, and make this a focus of its review of SEND funding.
All of these recommendations are welcome. All are urgent.
The education select committee doesn’t conclude that parents’ expectations are too high, or that thresholds for support are too low, or that a bit more time is needed to allow the reforms to bed in. They reject all of that, saying in the epilogue to the report that “there are clear and fundamental problems that need fixing now, not left waiting on the outcome of another review”.
The committee may not have power to make things happen, but it does have influence – and they need to use this like never before. What comes across most clearly is their insistence that the Government shouldn’t reform the system again, or water down anyone’s legal duties. The law is clear about what children who have special educational needs and disabilities are entitled to, and what everyone should do to support them. The system needs to be made to work.
Image quotes: Tania Tirraoro. You may download free for non-commercial sharing on social media.
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When her younger daughter was diagnosed with Rett Syndrome in 2009 shortly before her second birthday, Catriona found herself dealing in practice with things she’d previously thought she understood in principle.
She juggles her work as policy officer for a national disability charity with caring and advocating for her daughter. She is passionate about improving the lives of disabled children and their families, and making the systems that should support them work more transparently and equitably.
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