SEND Review: A game-changer or playing politics with vulnerable children?

SEND Review: A game-changer or playing politics with vulnerable children?

While the biggest political and constitutional crisis that anyone can remember rages all around us, ministers resign, MPs are purged and no-one is quite sure who will be in Government next week, let alone next year. Despite this chaos, the Department for Education nonchalantly announced on Friday morning that it will be carrying out a ‘major review’ into support for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

The SEND Review is being presented as an initiative to improve services for families, equip schools to meet children’s needs and end the “postcode lottery" of provision that so many of us experience. 

The DfE press release says it aims “to boost outcomes and improve value for money”. It follows hard on the heels of the recent announcement of an extra £700m for SEND across the country in the next financial year. The context is that it’s now five years since the Children and Families Act 2014 was made law and the SEND reforms were introduced.

The real reason for the SEND Review right now?

But what’s the real reason for a major SEND Review right now? The ‘five years on’ explanation sounds plausible, but it isn’t the whole story - far from it. The Government says that it wants to look at “how the system has evolved”: but what can they possibly expect to find out in the course of this review that they don’t already know and haven’t already been told in the plainest of terms? 

Ministers know that the reforms haven’t worked as intended in many areas, and that children with all types of needs are losing out on an education, with long-term consequences for their wellbeing and life-chances. They know that families are struggling and having services withdrawn; they know that more than 8,000 children with SEND have no school place; they know that requests for children to have their needs assessed are routinely refused; they know that local authorities find endless inventive and unlawful ways to put up barriers to children receiving support; and they certainly know that education, health and social care services often simply fail to work together in any meaningful way. 

They know all this because we have all told them, repeatedly. They’ve heard the same consistent narrative for years from many sources who have collected and presented evidence. This includes charities, parent groups, parliamentary groups, think-tanks and others - and of course Special Needs Jungle ourselves. 

This evidence is expected to be repeated and reinforced shortly by two key bodies that the Government can’t so easily ignore. One is the National Audit Office, which is due to publish a report this month on whether the Department for Education supports pupils with special educational needs and disabilities effectively. And the other, of course, is the influential House of Commons Education Select Committee, whose findings on SEND are hotly awaited – and no-one expects them to be pretty.

It looks more like this new SEND Review is ministers doing their best to pre-empt the criticism that seems certain to come their way from the Select Committee, whose plain-speaking chair, Robert Halfon MP, recently described the reformed SEND system as “a big mess”. 

They may also be attempting to neutralise failures in support for children with disabilities as an issue in the imminently-expected general election campaign, in the hope that parents and campaigners might shut up and go away. (Good luck with that.)

An old political manoeuvre

A ‘review’ is a well-known way for governments to ‘park’ a tricky policy issue so that it looks like it’s being taken seriously and acted on, without any actual commitments being made. It means that any time anyone asks a question, the answer is always a variation of “We’re carrying out a review” or “We need to wait for the results of this review”. 

It’s a clever (some might say cynical) move, because everyone who aims to influence the Government on a particular issue has to welcome it and express enthusiasm about contributing to it, even if they know that they are going to repeat all the things they’ve said before. And that’s the case here: this new SEND review has been widely welcomed by charities and sector representatives.

Everyone wants it to work. Everyone wants to make the most of this recognition by ministers that all is far from well in the reformed SEND system and children are not getting the help and support that the Children and Families Act promised. 

From the National Deaf Children’s Society, Ian Noon says: “This all has the potential to be a game-changer for children with special needs. But only if we see immediate action from government, not a review that goes on interminably.” And the legal support charity IPSEA warns: “Whilst we welcome this review as a potential opportunity to address the current SEND crisis, we would oppose further legislative reform and any proposals that would impact negatively on the rights of children and young people with SEND and their families.”

The bottom line for families is that things have to change – urgently – for our children. We don’t really mind how it happens or who gets the credit, but we want the reforms to be fully implemented, everywhere. They were the right reforms, and the principles underlying them hold good. 

The holistic system in the original [2011 Green paper] envisaged covering education, health and care from a child’s birth to the age of 25. It was  based on high aspirations for children, enabling them to achieve the best outcomes they can. Sadly, little of this has materialised. Ministers’ hopes of “a system which is less confrontational and more efficient” (yes, they really said that, in the ministerial foreword to the SEND Code of Practice) have come to naught. In the process, thousands of children’s futures have been harmed and families left on the brink of devastation as the system is sucked down the plughole, taking vulnerable children with it.

Attempting to introduce major reforms to the structure and culture of the SEND system at the same time as imposing severe economic austerity on people who depend on public services, was never going to end in any other way than it has. The Government - or the next one - should acknowledge this, and should use the review to commit to fixing the mess they have made. 

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Catriona Moore
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