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SEND Review: Fait accompli or a real chance for parents and practitioners to shape policy?

with Christopher Robertson, independent academic and author, policy analyst and adviser

The SEND Review is promised before Easter with a full consultation. But does this mean that everything in the Green Paper will be up for debate? And if something isn't included that needs to be, will there still be a real possibility of it being included from the consultation responses? Too often consultations end up with inconvenient responses being simply ignored.

SNJ continues to meet regularly with the SEND Review team and we hope to find some of these answers from SEND Minister, Will Quince himself, in a promised blog very soon. But today, we have an article from education policy analyst, Christopher Robertson, an academic who has a particular interest in SEND. Christopher also chairs The SENCO Forum national e-community (full bio at the end).

Christopher has concerns about what the Green Paper will bring and offers his take on key principles for how the consultation should be conducted.

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A Practical Parents Workbook for supporting dyslexic learners

Ensuring a co-productive consultation from the SEND Green Paper by Christopher Robertson

Publication of Government’s SEND Review (England) – originally intended to evaluate early implementation of the 2014 Children and Families Act - has been kicked down the road so many times during the past couple of years, parents and frontline SEND professionals could be forgiven for thinking that a deliberate attempt has been made to push ‘the problem’ into the margins of education, health and social care policy.

However, things are about to change it seems, as Children and Families Minister, Will Quince has gone on the record, writing ‘to all parents and carers of children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities’ on November 10th, 2021, and indicating that:

  • the Department for Education (DfE) will publish the SEND Review in the first quarter of 2022, together with new policy and implementation proposals set out in a Green Paper
  • a new Steering Group was set up in September 2021, to help conclude the Review and finalise its proposals. 

There has been talk of the Green Paper proposals being ‘integrated’ into a Schools White Paper together with proposals from the ongoing Children’s Social Care Review, but given the importance of getting SEND policy right, I do not think we should get side-tracked by the imperative of ‘dovetailing policy’ rumours. 

Furthermore, it seems unlikely that DfE will rescind on its commitment to publish the SEND Review and SEND Green Paper proposals this side of April 2022. Whether it tries to squeeze these together remains to be seen.

Co-production lite?

It is worrying though, that the Minister also stated in his letter that:

We still have work to do on the Review and I do not think it is helpful to offer up specific details ahead of publication of the full set of proposals. I think it would be more helpful for people to see them all together, so that they can make an informed judgement about whether they will lead to the lasting changes we all want to see. 

Open letter from SEND Minister Will Quince MP

This does not resonate well with the principle of co-production intended to underpin 2014 SEND legislation. Rather, it makes me feel more than a little uneasy about its trajectory to date, given the DfE’s poor communication and engagement with parents/ carers, children and young people, or with a wide range of professional stakeholders, about issues it has been addressing and the shaping of proposals to improve the SEND system in England.

Still, given that Will Quince is new in post, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt and running with the assumption that, once published, there will be a real opportunity to comment on, refine and reshape proposals set out in the Green Paper, and even help to reject any that are deemed to be plain daft or damaging to children, young people and their families.

This leads me to the Consultation Principles (2018) that any government department should be using when seeking feedback on significant policy proposals, in this case on plans to improve the SEND system in England.

Here are the key principles*, with additional comments of my own that relate to the SEND Green Paper consultation.

Christopher Robertson

1. Consultations should be clear and concise  

Use plain English and avoid acronyms. Be clear what questions you are asking and limit the number of questions to those that are necessary. Make them easy to understand and easy to answer. Avoid lengthy documents when possible and consider merging those on related topics. 

As we know, the world of Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) is riddled with jargon and acronyms, so the Green Paper will need to avoid using these, but also provide a glossary of terms.

Given that the SEND Review has steadily extended its remit over the past two-and-a-half years, the consultation will need to strike a balance between length/detail and accessibility/user-friendliness. Respondents will need to be ‘alert’ to what might not be included in the questions asked and be prepared to make use of any ‘other issues you wish to raise’ that consultation documents include.

2. Consultations should have a purpose  

Do not consult for the sake of it. Ask departmental lawyers whether you have a legal duty to consult. Take consultation responses into account when taking policy forward. Consult about policies or implementation plans when the development of the policies or plans is at a formative stage. Do not ask questions about issues on which you already have a final view.

Let us hope that the consultation is clearly focused on SEND system improvement and not, for example, on ‘cost-cutting measures’ dressed up as streamlining or efficiency measures.

Concerns abound about the SEND Review’s lack of engagement with both parents and professionals during its ‘formative’ development phases. With this in mind, we can expect that there will be gaps in any suggested proposals, because parents, children and young people and many front-line professionals will have vital first-hand experience of the SEND system that the Review team will not have. These gaps will need to be noted in consultation responses.

3. Consultations should be informative  

Give enough information to ensure that those consulted understand the issues and can give informed responses. Include validated impact assessments of the costs and benefits of the options being considered when possible; this might be required where proposals have an impact on business or the voluntary sector. 

As I have already noted, information about the SEND Review has been hard to come by and details of a ‘task and complete’ steering group – that met for the first time at the end of September 2021 - were only announced on 10 November! This means that options for system change and improvement will not be publicly available until the SEND Review and Green Paper proposals set these out. We need to bear this in mind during the consultation and be prepared to suggest alternative proposals where appropriate and not be bound by ‘what’s on offer’. 

4. Consultations are only part of a process of engagement 

Consider whether informal iterative consultation is appropriate, using new digital tools and open, collaborative approaches. Consultation is not just about formal documents and responses. It is an on-going process.

We know that so-called ‘iterative’ consultation during the SEND Review has been limited. This makes it vital that formal engagement during public consultation uses a range of approaches – not just an online survey – and that these are equally valued.

5. Consultations should last for a proportionate amount of time 

Judge the length of the consultation on the basis of legal advice and taking into account the nature and impact of the proposal. Consulting for too long will unnecessarily delay policy development. Consulting too quickly will not give enough time for consideration and will reduce the quality of responses. 

Department for Education (DfE) consultations often run for six weeks (excluding holiday periods). However, using a range of consultation approaches – to enhance engagement - is time-consuming, so this needs careful consideration when government sets a close date for feedback on its proposals. The impact of the pandemic may also need to be factored into the timeframe. (Tania's note: The DfE has indicated the consultation will be 13 weeks)

6. Consultations should be targeted  

Consider the full range of people, business, and voluntary bodies affected by the policy, and whether representative groups exist. Consider targeting specific groups if appropriate. Ensure they are aware of the consultation and can access it.

Consider how to tailor the consultation to the needs and preferences of particular groups, such as older people, younger people or people with disabilities that may not respond to traditional consultation methods. 

7. Consultations should take account of the groups being consulted 

Consult stakeholders in a way that suits them. Charities may need more time to respond than businesses, for example. When the consultation spans all or part of a holiday period, consider how this may affect consultation and take appropriate mitigating action, such as prior discussion with key interested parties or extension of the consultation deadline beyond the holiday period.

Taking these two principles together, the public consultation must reach out to a range of audiences, including parents and carers of children and young people across the spectrum of SEND (those with EHCPs and those receiving SEN Support) and children and young people themselves. It also needs to be accessible to a wide range of professional audiences including education, health and social care services, and voluntary sector organisations. 

Traditionally, larger and better-funded associations and organisations have been better placed (in terms of time and capacity) to respond to consultation than smaller voluntary sector groups. Similarly, busy front-line professionals like SENCOs are likely to have much less time to respond to a consultation than education professionals with SEND responsibilities but less direct contact with children and young people.

When taking account of different target groups, using a range of consultation methods will elicit better, more helpful responses. These methods should also avoid the trap of being unwieldy. For example, expecting parents and carers, or SENCOs, to wade through questions aimed at a different target group will quickly induce a sense of frustration and consultation fatigue.

Following the required process

The DfE is required to seek internal collective agreement before publishing the SEND Green Paper consultation. It will need to publish it on gov.uk, supported by appropriate announcement information and signposting. Government principles recommend it will also need to disseminate information about other consultation approaches it intends to use.

Following the consultation, the DfE is required to publish the response on the same page on gov.uk as the original consultation. It is not clear how ‘non-traditional’ and targeted consultation evidence might be included, but guidance principles indicate that it should be included.

This should be within 12 weeks of the consultation close date. If further time is required, this needs to be explained.

When it does respond, it will need to indicate how many responses were received, and most importantly, how responses have informed policy development.

Finally, although it does not have legal force, the government’s own consultation guidance should not be ignored or ridden roughshod over. 

*A full list of consultation principles can be accessed here. Updated in 2018, the principles are designed to improve the way all government departments consult by adopting a more proportionate and targeted approach. Consultation guidance seeks better engagement with the public through:

  • the use of more digital methods to consult a wider group of people at an earlier stage in the policy-forming process
  • providing easier ways for the public to contribute their views
  • using clear language and plain English in consultation documents
  • ensuring ‘consultation fatigue is avoided by only consulting on issues that are undecided.
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About Christopher

Christopher Robertson is an independent academic and author, policy analyst and adviser to educational organisations, with a particular interest in SEND policy and implementation. His previous roles include lecturing in SEND at the University of Birmingham, Canterbury Christ Church University and the Institute of Education – University of London.

Christopher chairs The SENCO Forum national e-community and is a long-standing member of Birmingham’s SENDIASS independent management board.

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