Shameful: Birmingham’s SEND has failed a generation of disabled children

The Department for Education has issued a Statutory Direction to Birmingham City Council over the rotten state of its SEND services. How shameful, Birmingham!

Birmingham is the second area to have the ignominy of a statutory directon over its SEND, after Sefton on Merseyside, which had it lifted in June. That's not to say parents think Sefton's services are a whole lot better, but the LA is still under close supervision.

Birmingham failed its revisit from Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission earlier this year. It was supposed to have cleaned up its act after being awarded a Written Statement of Action after its first SEND area inspection in 2018.

The revisit was looking at 13, yes 13, areas of "significant weaknesses". Inspectors decided that it had improved in just one of the areas. One. Were they even trying? It seems not. Who on earth is running Birmingham SEND? Whoever it is, let's hope for the sake of disabled children, young people, and their families in the area they won't be for much longer.

Because let's remember at the heart of this mire of poor practice and incompetence are children, many of whom are very vulnerable. It's sickening, isn't it?

The Secretary of State is therefore satisfied that the Council is failing to perform to an adequate standard in some or all of the functions of Part 3 of the Children and Families Act 2014 (“the 2014 Act”) (“the SEND functions”) to which s.497A of the Education Act 1996 (“the 1996 Act”) applies.

The Secretary of State has appointed John Coughlan as Commissioner for SEND services in Birmingham (“the SEND Commissioner”) in accordance with, and for the purposes of, the terms of reference (“the Terms of Reference”) set out in the Annex to this direction.

Statutory Direction

What does this statutory declaration mean?

The Statutory Direction has been issued under Section 497A(4B) of the Education Act 1996. Essentially, it means Birmingham City Council must do what it's told by Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary, or its new SEND Commissioner (John Coughlan as above) to improve its SEND services. This includes cooperating with, "a review led by the SEND Commissioner on how best to improve services and effectiveness of SEND leadership arrangements in Birmingham."

They then have to put forward an Accelerated Progress Plan (APP) to the Department for Education and NHS England. This APP has to explain plans for improvement including "governance and accountability structures and processes" to support the next phase of improvement. It has delivery targets for improvement for the nest three, six and 12 months.

The Department will undertake reviews of progress against the Council’s APP at least every six months, and more regularly where appropriate. These reviews may cover but are not exclusive to: culture; performance; leadership, management, and governance; quality of workforce training and support; multi-agency arrangements – including the role and contribution of seeking and accounting for the views of the children and families concerned health providers; joint commissioning; and the timeliness and quality of Education, Health and Care plans.

Statutory Direction

Ali Fiddy, CEO of SEND legal advice charity IPSEA, commented:

“Children and young people with SEND in Birmingham have been failed for years by a system that’s riddled with weaknesses, where following the law doesn’t seem to be a priority. It’s almost unbelievable that out of 13 areas of serious weakness identified by inspectors in 2018, 12 remain unaddressed three years later.
“Birmingham urgently needs to be shaken out of its complacency. IPSEA has written to all the city’s MPs asking what they will do to help make sure that children and young people with SEND get the special educational provision and wider support they need and that the law says they should have. We provide training on the SEND legal framework to local authority decision-makers, and I hope that Birmingham will sign up to this.”

Ali Fiddy CEO, IPSEA

So what exactly is wrong in Birmingham SEND?

It's probably quicker to say what's right with SEND in Birmingham. Because the answer is, not much...

The initial inspection failed on so many factors it's fair to ask if they were Maning any SEND provision at all:

  1. A lack of an overarching approach or joined-up strategy for improving provision and outcomes for children and young people with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND).
  2. Inter-agency working was ineffective.
  3. Coordination of assessments of children and young people’s needs between agencies was poor.
  4. Joint commissioning was significantly underdeveloped across the local area. This was the only area they passed the revisit on, but I bet if you asked parents they might spit their coffee out.
  5. Co-production was not embedded in the local area. After the revisit, inspectors said, "Members of the PCF and many parents feel that co-production is weak. Leaders do not seem to fully understand co-production. Parents feel that they are often asked to review things when they have already been decided or completed. Parents also feel that when they do contribute their views, they are not acted upon. They feel that it has been difficult to engage with strategic leaders to develop meaningful co-production. Parents say that they are often the ones pushing for involvement."
  6. Parental engagement was weak. After the revisit, inspectors wrote, "...parents still do not feel that they have an active voice in their child’s education or wider city council developments. For example, in the parent survey, nearly two thirds say that they have never been asked for their opinion about how services could be improved. Developments such as the introduction of the link advisers’ role have not had the impact that leaders anticipated, or hoped for. Too many parents do not understand what this role is or how to engage with the service. Leaders do not keep parents informed as to what is going to happen next. As a result, too many parents do not know where they can access support or advice."
  7. There was a great deal of parental dissatisfaction. After the revisit, it hadn't improved. Inspectors said, "Parents who feel that they have had a positive experience told us that they consider themselves to be the lucky ones...Parents repeatedly say that, for those who are not as well informed, everything, including getting the advice and support they need, is a struggle. This is particularly true at crucial times in the lives of their children, for example when they move educational setting, to employment and training or between services. There are examples of good support given to parents when their child is in the early years."
  8. Birmingham had not ensured that the published local offer was a useful means of communicating with parents and it was difficult to locate.
  9. The initial inspection found that the quality of EHC plans was variable.
  10. Waiting times were too long and children and young people were not seen quickly enough by therapists or professionals in CDCs.
  11. The initial inspection found that pupils with SEND make weak academic progress when compared with all pupils nationally.
  12. Pupils with SEND attend less often and are excluded more frequently than other pupils in Birmingham and all pupils nationally.
  13. Not enough young people with SEND are entering employment or supported employment and the proportion of adults with learning disabilities in paid employment is below the national average.

It's exhausting just typing it. Imagine how exhausting it must be as a parent, child with SEND or disabled young person in Birmingham.

Our SEND analyst, Matt Keer notes the choice of SEND Commissioner and has a few concerns. He says:

“The DfE has a problem here: if they need to appoint an external commissioner to take over a failing SEND service - a commissioner with a track record of excellence in SEND at local authority level, where the hell do they find them?

Birmingham’s new SEND commissioner hails from Hampshire - an LA with a less than stellar SEND track record.

“Last month, the DfE put out a tender for local authority SEND champions: LAs who can become sector-led improvement partners. By the DfE’s own criteria, Hampshire don’t make the grade to be one of these sector-led improvement partners. But all the same, it’s their former boss who’s in the frame to sort out Birmingham”

Matt Keer, SNJ

Why has it taken so long?

It's good that the DfE has taken this action - and we would like to see the same fate coming to pass on any number of other LAs. But the question remains - why has it taken so long to act? Birmingham's SEND has been rubbish for many years and DfE advisors must have noticed it wasn't improving. A generation of disabled children have been failed. Imagine if we were taking about children without SEND? There would be general uproar. Why aren't children with disabilities worth the same outrage?

It's not just Birmingham. Almost all SEND inspections since they restarted have resulted in a fail mark (or a re-fail). We must get to the bottom of WHY the implementation of the Children and Families Act has gone so catastrophically wrong in almost all local authorities, before the SEND Review makes any recommendations or publishes any Green Paper.

We cannot afford for the same thing to happen again to so many children. With the right interventions at the right time (i.e as early as possible) a large proportion of children with SEND can thrive and lead productive lives — and that is something this country badly needs right now.

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Tania Tirraoro

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