SEND reforms: Transformation or Missed Opportunity?

A research paper discussing the 2014 special educational needs reforms in England, has raised serious questions about the legislation's ability to improve inclusion and equality for those it was designed to help.

In his paper, Nick Peacey, Visiting Research Associate, at UCL Institute of Education, questions how the reforms reflect the UK's commitment to international rights conventions and suggests that ideology took precedence over whether the new legislation could work with the existing educational environment in England.

Above all, competition and emphasis on a narrow group of educational standards have been elevated to an extent where they stifle the progress of inclusive education in England, and menace the life chances and well-being of children and young people at risk of failure while bringing stress and ill health to teaching and other staff.  Nick Peacey A transformation or an opportunity lost? RISE


The paper also suggests moving away from the term “special educational needs” to a term which explicitly relates to the individual’s eligibility for additional or different resources

Nick Peacey's paper, published by Research and Information on State Education (RISE) calls for a review of the reforms, and he has very kindly expanded upon his findings exclusively in today's guest post, below, for Special Needs Jungle.

blackboard image with story title: SEND reform, A transformation or an opportunity lost?
A closeup of a freshly erased blackboard. Background texture with space for text


NICK PEACEY writes...

Let’s start with a quiz. Answers are in the paragraphs below and discussed in more detail in my RISE paper. The sections in brackets relate to where you can find this in the paper itself, the link for which is at the end of this post.

QUIZ: Special education in England 2015

1. (Section 8.4) By what percentage did GCSE scores for English pupils with special educational needs on free school meals (FSM) drop between 2013 & 2014?

i. 10%
ii. 20%
iii. 30%

2a. (Section 10.4) How much does the state spend annually on teaching assistants (TAs)?
i. £20 million
ii. £50 million
iii. £1 billion
iv. £3 billion or more

2b. If a parent or carer wants to know if their child’s school is deploying their TAs effectively, where can they look for the most up-to-date advice on best practice?

3.(Section 4.2) Over the last three years, the proportion of English children and young people between the ages of 0 to 18 in specialist provision (state-funded and independent special schools and Pupil Referral Units) has:
i. gone up
ii. gone down
iii. stayed about the same

4. (Section 9.9) A recent report for the Government points out that ‘some schools in the system are struggling to meet the expectation that they should fund the first £6000’ to resource an intervention for an individual with SEND.
Which two types of school were mentioned as having particular difficulty?
i.Large schools
ii. Small schools
iii. Free schools
iv. The most inclusive schools
v. The least inclusive schools

5. (Section 9.8) What reason did the House of Commons Education Committee give for emphasising the need for minimum standards for the Local Offer in its 2012 report?
i. So Ministers would know what to expect of every local authority?
ii. So Ministers would know what to expect of every school?
iii. So parents would know what to expect of every local authority?
ii. So parents would know what to expect of every school?

6. (Section 8.3) What percentage of PSHEE lessons did Ofsted’s 2013 Review find inadequate or requiring improvement?
i. 20%
ii. 30%
iii. 40%
iv. 50%

My paper offers answers to the questions above and I hope many more. I wrote it in some frustration.

Despite the mighty SEND labours of the last few years we find ourselves with the same stubborn statistics (about seven out of ten exclusions are still for SEND pupils, 1.4% of 0-18 year olds are in specialist provision(Q3)) with some new stinkers to contemplate: very possibly because of new assessment arrangements, there has been an extraordinary drop between 2013 and 2014 of 32% in GCSE scores for those identified as having SEN from the poorest families- those eligible for free school meals.

What's going on? It's all in the big picture

So what is going on? My answer is based on the mass of international evidence that tells us that you can’t do much through special provision until you take good care of the ordinary day to day sort.

In other words, the 2014 Children and Families Act and the 2014 SEND Code of Practice may be worthy enough, but can’t compete with sweeping curriculum and assessment changes, neglect of Personal, Social Health and Economic Education when Ofsted finds 40% of lessons requiring improvement (Q.6) and the weakening of local support by a thousand cuts. Policymakers do not help when they ignore or misunderstand research on the ordinary, such as that on the dangers of grouping by ‘ability’ for lower attaining pupils (Section 8.6).

Two documents offer pointers to getting ordinary practice right.

  1. The superb Ofsted SEN Review in 2010 worried at the number identified as having SEN (the press grasped that) and also pointed out that even if SEN were identified, you were far from certain to get appropriate provision (the press did not grasp that).
  2. The House of Commons Education Committee emphasised the Local Offer as an opportunity for parents to understand what all schools [its phrase] should be providing as a minimum standard for ‘low to moderate SEN’ (now named SEN support), so that they would feel less need to ask for assessment for an EHCP.

This must be right, mustn’t it? Children and young people should only be identified as having ‘special’ needs if we can reassure ourselves that they have had the best that ordinary teaching can give them. Otherwise special provision becomes a way for schools to evade their responsibility to first rate teaching of all (not just the ones on the C/D grade boundary!) and an escape route for desperate parents to build something beyond what is on offer to their child. Then ‘SEN support’ must really mean something if the pressure for the guarantees seemingly offered by the EHCP is not to drive the system.

Inhabitants of the Special Needs Jungle know that is not the whole story: as Edward Timpson has wisely said, ‘We have to change the culture’. A laissez-faire approach to ordinary provision by schools, colleges and other settings is unlikely to change the culture in a context that stresses individual institutions’ academic success above all. You can see this in the report for the DfE that is the source of Question 4: the schools that were found ‘struggling to meet the expectation that they should fund the first £6000’ of an individual SEN intervention were unsurprisingly, small schools, and most significantly, ‘the most inclusive schools’ those that most willingly welcome students with SEND.

So policymakers must lead culture change by setting out clearly what provision, including assessments, professional development and qualifications of appointees, such as SENCOs, we should expect of all our schools, colleges and other settings. This can be negotiated locally, as the recent report suggests, or nationally, as the Commons Education Committee recommended. (We can allow for variation in context through the Code’s sensible rubric ‘must have regard to’, or ‘do this unless you can justify doing something different.’)

The new Code of Practice, with 282 pages weighed down by the minutiae of EHCP procedures, cannot do an adequate job as guidance on ‘ordinary’ provision. For example, consider that poor management of ‘additional adults’ such as teaching assistants, can mean a pupil with a TA making slower progress than one without. Making best use of teaching assistants (Q2b), should be read by everyone in the Jungle. It tells us that we spend £4.4 billion a year on TAs (Q2a): the Code only offers a few lines on how we should be making the best of this expensive investment.

Naturally enough, many parents’ groups centre their work on the fight for specialist resource and provision. These fights will continue. But the evidence tells us that those working for the betterment of SEND practice should ideally run two pronged campaigns to:

  • enhance what goes on in regular classrooms and learning situations for individuals, particularly those who are vulnerable
  • ensure that interventions, are appropriate, timely and properly reviewed and modified as necessary.

Parents, carers and communities need confidence to fight for inclusive ‘ordinary’ provision. Recommendations in my paper (Section 12) are intended to support this:

  • an Institute specifically concerned with fairness in education that, like the Institute of Fiscal Studies on taxation and spending, can publicise the evidence and ensure policy makers do not neglect research
  • well disseminated resources expanding sections of the Code of Practice to describe what should ordinarily be available
  • a model of peer review when a group of local authorities (perhaps 4 or 5) brings relevant data on provision, outcomes, admissions and exclusions of pupils to a ‘share and compare’ event, where LA teams, including parents and disabled students can ask questions and share ideas on how they are enhancing equity in education, particularly in relation to SEND.
  • The paper is available here:
  • Report by Schools Week into the paper, quoting Tania


Tania Tirraoro

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