The Government’s SEND Improvement Plan: an initial overview

also with Matt Keer and Catriona Moore

“It is time to deliver a more dignified experience for children and young people with SEND and to restore families’ confidence in the system.”  

That’s a quote from the Executive Summary, published today, of the “SEND Improvement Plan” described as a “systemic transformation”. We think most parents would settle for a more lawful experience which, in itself, provides dignity and justice. 

But don’t hold your breath because this plan isn’t an immediate fix, and nothing in it will change the situation for families today or even this year. A lot of it won’t be happening before 2025, by which time we will have had a general election that this government—as it stands—isn’t likely to win.

Also published today with the 100-page Plan is an analysis of the 6000+ responses (including our own) to the Green Paper consultation document. We’ll take a look at this separately too.

It’s not an easy task, analysing and compressing such a lot of words and this post is not going to do it all. Our experts will take long, hard looks at each aspect and we will bring you them in concise chunks over the next few weeks.

As an overview though, the long-awaited plan sets out its mission to:

  • fulfil children’s potential: children and young people with SEND (or attending alternative provision) enjoy their childhood, achieve good outcomes and are well prepared for adulthood and employment;
  • build parents’ trust: parents and carers experience a fairer, easily navigable system (across education, health and care) that restores their confidence that their children will get the right support, in the right place, at the right time;
  • provide financial sustainability: local leaders make the best use of record investment in the high-needs budget to meet children and young people’s needs and improve outcomes, while placing local authorities on a stable financial footing.

These are laudable and highly-ambitious aims. But how will the “Improvement Plan” actually make these aims a reality? Do they even have the capability of doing this?

Biggest takeaway?

Most important for everyone to know is that there are no imminent legislative changes. This means the criteria for an assessment needs is UNCHANGED. So if you are told “the law has changed” or “we aren’t doing EHCPs here” you are being lied to. 

However, like a golden thread, it’s clear that the plan is driven by a desire to reduce the number of EHCPs. It’s mentioned several times, even in the executive summary and that seems entirely the wrong way of looking at it. Any reduction in EHCPs should be a positive by-product of a well-functioning system, not the goal. The goal should be to ensure children with SEND get the support they need, whether they need a plan or not. 

It also needs to be said that children do not acquire an EHCP when they don’t really “need” one. Every savvy parent who has been through the SEND jungle knows this. And if they aren’t savvy at the start, they certainly are by the end, as well as poorer, exhausted, and demoralised. 

The questions the improvement plan needs to answer are:

  1. Will it actually improve education, health and social care support for children and young people with disabilities and their families? 
  2. Will it ensure that local authorities and health bodies comply with their legal duties without being forced to do so by parental complaints or Tribunals?
  3. Will it create the needed training in SEND so that every teacher is indeed a teacher of children with special educational needs?
  4. Will it mean that fewer children are left without education?
  5. Will it ensure that all young people with SEND aged up to age 25 will get the support they need to thrive as adults?
  6. Will it improve support for under 5s with disabilities or emerging SEND and their families?

Obviously we can’t predict the future, but it is clear that the Department has good intentions for all of the above. They are already making inroads into training via the Universal SEND Services programme. And this plan does talk about ensuring statutory duties (whatever they ultimately are) are complied with. 

Systems do not operate by themselves

But let’s be clear: systems are run by people. This plan proposed numerous new Boards, Partnerships and systemic overhaul. But to make a success of anything in this plan, you need the right people with the right mindset, basically the polar opposite to that which we have seen lately from someone near the very top of overseeing change. We told Minister Claire Coutinho recently–directly– that the “golden ticket” trope McArdle quoted must be banned from use by anyone within government. It’s divisive and downright untrue. 

But if these are the kinds of attitudes of the people that the DfE put in charge of overseeing and monitoring change, this, for us, is hugely problematic. Who will these people be and who will choose them? 

We’ll take our time with the analysis

While it’s fine for the press to publish a short story and be done with it, SNJ will go through the plan with a fine-toothed comb - but right now, it looks like the key proposals from the Green Paper that would make most difference to our kids are still largely on the drawing board. Most key proposals won't get implemented nationally until at least 2025, and some of them don't have a timescale at all. The SEND Code of Practice will be updated, but agin, this will be consulted on so isn’t happening this year.

Again: nothing will change immediately; the current law will still be on the books for many years to come. The SEND Review started in September 2019. Once most of the Review's key proposals are fully implemented, this process will have been going for over six years. Longer than the Second World War. More than four times longer than the combined peaks of the pandemic.

A child with SEND who started secondary school at the same time as the SEND Review will now be in Year 10 - if they're still in the school system at all. By the time the SEND Review's core proposals are rolled out nationally, that child won't be of compulsory school age any more. When the final SEND Review proposals kick in, that child probably won't even be a child at all - they'll be an adult.

Ultimately, much of this might not be implemented at all. The more cynical of you have probably noticed that many key parts of this plan will come together in 2025 - after the next General Election and in six words: "a problem for the next government."

This plan starts with a simple, bang-on message: children with SEND only get one shot at a fulfilling childhood. No-one would argue with that. But the SEND Review is far from done. It looks like there are years more of our kids' childhoods to burn away yet.

How are they going to do this? 

 “As we deliver the new national system, our objective is to ensure that all children's additional needs are met effectively and quickly within affordable provision, reducing the need for an EHCP and, where an EHCP is needed, to ensure that parents do not endure lengthy, adversarial and costly processes.”

National Standards “…will set clear and ambitious expectations for what good looks like in identifying and meeting needs, and clarify who is responsible for delivering provision and from which budgets, across the 0-25 system.“
This, it says, will give families and providers “clarity, consistency and confidence in the support that is ordinarily available…. Fewer will therefore need to access support through an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP)”

What’s wrong with this? In theory, nothing— and if a child can get the support they need without parents feeling compelled to fight for statutory sport, then great. But in the world we actually live in, we already have national standards that are routinely disregarded, called the Children and Families Act 2014 that everyone agrees is a largely sound piece of legislation. What makes the powers-that-be think LAs and health bodies will pay any greater attention to new non-statutory “National Standards”? 

The DfE says they will, because the department be doing more monitoring, creating new bodies created to oversee and assess the system, starting at the top with a national board led by the Departments for Education and Health & Social Care. There will be parental representation and we are told it’ll be more than “the usual suspects”. There will also be local-level monitoring boards, presumably, again, staffed by the same people who wrecked the system in the first place. Unfortunately, the plan doesn’t contain “re-education” for those people who still think parents “game” the system to get a shiny EHCP. 

How will they judge success?

It’s clear that the new guard at the DfE, under Gillian Keegan, do want to help. We don’t doubt their good intentions and we welcome the increased focus on disabled children’s lives and futures. But there are so many interlinking facets to this plan, any judgement of success will be a long time coming. 

“We will judge our success, in part, by the extent to which we reduce parental complaints about their experiences of the system and the volume of cases parents take to Tribunal because of the better services we will deliver through the new national system. This will include swifter, better responses to parental concerns such as through our proposals for mediation and new guidance for local authority SEND casework teams, who play a vital role in supporting families to navigate the system and ensuring they have good experiences.”

So here, the Dfe is saying its success depends on LAs complying with the law. And, we hope that, ultimately, this measure of success won’t be because complaining and appealing has been made more difficult. 

Immediate commitments:

Some of the plans have already been announced, such as the dubious “Safety Valve” and Delivering Better Value in SEND programmes, that risk putting LAs in greater conflict with the law as they seek to spend less on high needs. Also already announced is increasing (usually unpaid) supported internships, more funding for short breaks and the new-phase Area SEND Inspections from Ofsted and CQC that have already started.

What’s changing in 2023?

We’re going to look more closely at each aspect over the coming weeks, but for now, let’s look at 2023. 

There is going to be a lot more “engagement” and consultation. However, by the end of 2023 they have made some specific commitments. Commitments for 2023:

  1. set up engagement across education, health, and care during spring 2023 to develop National Standards. As well as LAs, health bodies, professionals and practitioners, this will include parents, carers, children and young people.
  2. by the end of 2023, start testing some elements of the National Standards withup to nine Regional Expert Partnerships. These will consist of a cluster of 3-4 local authorities in each region, including at least one lead local authority. (The same LAs who routinely fail both families and SEND inspections)  

These partnerships will have a very large role to play, including helping “co-produce, test and refine key reforms”. They will also help “guard against unintended consequences and build a strong evidence base to inform future funding and legislation.” Wow, that’s a lot to set up and manage. Who’s going to be on these REPs? Will these be paid, full-time roles? And who will decide this? As they are expected to be operational before the end of this year, we look forward to finding out… These REPs sound like the previous pathfinders back in 2012, but on a bigger scale.

  1. work together to take a joint Department for Education and Department of Health and Social Care approach to SEND workforce planning, including establishing a steering group in 2023 to oversee this work, which we aim to complete by 2025. 
  2. publish a local and national inclusion dashboard from autumn 2023 to support the development of “local inclusion plans”, giving parents improved transparency of , informing decision-making and driving self-improvement across the system with ongoing updates and iterations in response to user feedback. local performance 
  3. If areas don’t improve children’s outcomes AND have better financial sustainability the DfE aims to create a “holistic ladder of intervention”. The Ladder of intervention is an escalating tool for changing people’s behaviour ranging from simply monitoring, to suggesting change, to restricting to eliminating choice until you get the desired change. 

Some undated proposals include:

  • Make health bodies comply with statutory duties by giving greater powers for the Health Secretary of State to take “robust action” when children’s needs are not met. (no date)
  • require every Health Integrated Care Board in England to have a named Executive Board member lead accountable for SEND – if you like the sound of this and you have the expertise needed, why not approach your local ICB? (no date)
  • Work more closely with Department for Education and NHS England to improve outcomes and experiences for children and young people with SEND, including social, emotional and mental health issues, and tackle systemic failings leading to significant concerns.
  • strengthen redress for individual disagreements by clarifying who is responsible for resolving complaints and undertaking further testing of effective mediation approaches – the mandatory mediation plans haven’t gone away, but presumably will be part of this testing (more on this below)
  • set up an expert group to support the development of a bespoke national alternative provision performance framework. This entails a three-tier system, first of AP staff working with a child experiencing difficulties in mainstream, “time-limited intensive placements” in an AP setting, and longer-term placements to support return to mainstream or a sustainable post-16 destination. This is clearly entirely focused on behaviour– but when most children in AP found to have SEND, focusing on behaviour rather than the causes of the behaviour is regressive.
  • “work with local authority, trust and school leaders to review processes and develop options for ensuring transparent and effective movement of pupils without EHCPs, such as those requiring alternative provision, to address behavioural needs.” We don’t know what this means but it doesn’t sound like ensuring every child has a statutory assessment to ascertain needs before being moved anywhere at all. 
  • re-examine the state’s relationship with independent special schools to ensure we set comparable expectations for all state-funded specialist providers: This sounds interesting because one of the main differences is better funding…

The DfE has published a “roadmap” for improvements

We’re not going to deal with funding in this post – we will leave that for Matt’s expertise to pick through

Training & workforce: No more NASENCO

We’ve run several articles on why practitioners think junking the NASENCO is a bad idea, including the fact that there is little evidence base for replacing this with a National Professional Qualification (NPQ) that many see as “dumbing down” the SENCO role. Many welcome an SENCO NPQ but other believe a higher-level, academic NASENCO qualification should be kept. And how annoying if you’ve already striven to achieve one.And what about those already studying? Nevertheless, the DfE is moving ahead with their plan. Will this improve support for children? Debatable, but in any case, it’s not happening this year. 

“We intend to replace the NASENCo with a mandatory leadership level SENCo NPQ for SENCos that do not hold the current qualification, including those that became a SENCo prior to September 2009. To ensure the NPQ is high-quality and provides the knowledge, practical skills and leadership expertise needed for the role, we will work with SEND experts to develop the NPQ framework and course design. 

What do you think of this? Let us know 

Other training and workforce plans include:

  • a review the Initial Teacher Training is already due to start
  • (Already announced) up to 5,000 early years SENCOs but only until August 2024. 
  • Also already announced is funding for two years to train more educational psychologists– this is not enough to close the gap. 
  • Running Early Language and Support For Every Child (ELSEC) pathfinders to improve access to speech and language therapy for those who need it. 
  • Establish a steering group along with the DHSC for SEND workforce planning, 
  • Create the first three SEND practice guides for frontline professionals, 
  • “strongly encourage” the adoption of the DSCO (Designated Social Care Officer) role in each local area, to match a similar existing role in health (via an updated CoP)  
  • Propose new guidance on delivering a responsive and supportive SEND casework service to families. We think both this role and that of teaching assistant need to be professionalised. At present, these vital roles are poorly paid and not seen as important as they really are. A good TA and a good case officer can made a massive difference to the experience of both children and their families.
  • However, all that there is on TAs (the ones who are left) is a promise to “develop a longer-term approach for teaching assistants to ensure their impact is consistent across the system, starting with a research project to develop our evidence base” Haven’t they heard of Rob Webster’s Maximising TAs work, and Amy Skipp’s research that found TA cuts negatively impact pupils with SEND? 

Post 16

Despite Post-16 not having a massive focus in the Green Paper, the DfE does include some words about them. We will focus more on this in a future article, but it seems focused on transitions, supported internships and new “Adjustment passports” into employment about which there is no further information. We don’t think our friends at Natspec will be pleased. 

What about SEN Support?

The government recognises the need for better identification of SEND at an earlier stage, and better school-based support. This costs money to employ teaching assistants, learning tools and most of all, training. 

“By improving early identification and the quality of SEN Support, we expect to reduce the need for EHCPs because the needs of more children and young people will be met without them, through ordinarily available provision.” 

Using the word “expect” is quite optimistic, considering all the things that need to be up and running first, such as a mahoosive amount of SEND training in schools, early years, and even health visitors. And providing SEN Support isn’t free– the nominal budget for schools hasn’t been increased in over a decade. Often SENCOs never see a penny of it as it gets put into the general school budget. 

EHCP changes

A standard EHCP template has long been called for, as well as being able to manage them digitally. Both of these things make it into the improvement plan,

“We think the case is clear for all SEND services to move to digital systems for EHCPs. Digital systems can deliver better experiences for both families and professionals and enable them to continuously improve their services – focusing staff time on working with families rather than managing bureaucracy.”  

It isn’t uncommon for an LA to refuse to send a digital version of a draft EHCP to parents, insisting on sending paper only, making it harder for parents to create an amended version. And a standard, portable plan was called for before the 2014 reforms, so this is long-overdue, but again despite this being known about for years, it won’t arrive in the short term as work will only begin now on a national EHCP template. However, because of the lack of new laws the DfE can only “encourage” LAs to adopt a standard template. If they don’t, the department will “consider the case for mandating its use through legislation.” There you go again with your ladder of intervention

What about ‘tailored lists’ for placements?

The DfE heard considerable opposition to this through justified fears of reduced choice. But still, they haven’t junked it, but it’s been pushed down the agenda. “Tailored lists will only be introduced in an area once the local inclusion plan has been quality assured and signed off by the Department for Education’s Regions Group as being in accordance with the National Standards.” What does this even mean? Who cares, as long as it never happens… 

Mandatory mediation?

We were opposed to the idea of mandatory mediation, as was IPSEA and even experienced mediators. But again, the DfE hasn’t dumped the idea, but they have put it on the back burner while they, “review and build on existing professional standards.

“We will continue to explore options for strengthening mediation and will test and evaluate approaches further before deciding whether to bring forward legislation to make these strengthened processes statutory and make mediation mandatory. We… will take action where local areas are not participating in mediation as required.” 

This last part is aimed at those LAs who either (unlawfully) refuse to participate in mediation, don’t send decision-makers to meetings, or don’t implement agreements made at mediation– becasue it’s not legally-backed as Tribunal decisions are.

“The most notable aspect of the Government’s SEND Improvement Plan is that it contains no plans to change the existing law on support for children and young people with SEND. That means local authorities must follow the law, parents can continue to rely on it and the SEND Tribunal will continue to apply it. While there are things to welcome – such as more guidance for local authority SEND case-workers and, eventually, a long-overdue single national template for EHC plans – there are undoubtedly some mixed messages. 

“It’s hard to see how the imperative of containing costs can be met without restricting the provision that children and young people receive, which is unlikely to be lawful. Perhaps most disappointing is the complete absence of any specific plans to address the persistent non-compliance with the law by many local authorities – an issue that the Government has heard about repeatedly and which lies at the root of the SEND crisis.”

Ali Fiddy, CEO of SEND legal advice charity IPSEA

More special free schools 

More new special free schools are being announced. While more provision is good, children need an EHCP to access one. It seems like the DfE is trying to tackle what’s needed now, but also cut access to special schools by reducing EHCPs. With half of special provision being oversubscribed at present, there is definitely a need, but the new ones announced today won’t be around for years.

How has local government responded?

The LGA, which published a ridiculous report prior to the Green paper being published, gave a churlish response, blaming schools, rather then taking responsibility for their own failings:

“... while the measures announced will help to fix some of the problems with the current system, they do not go far enough in addressing the fundamental cost and demand issues that result in councils struggling to meet the needs of children with SEND.

“We are also concerned over the lack of any plan to give councils additional powers to lead SEND systems effectively. We do not believe the Government has the capacity to hold councils, schools and other partners to account for their work supporting children with SEND.

“Improving levels of mainstream inclusion will be crucial to the success of any reforms, reducing the reliance on costly special schools and other settings. Powers to intervene in schools not supporting children with SEND should be brought forward at the earliest opportunity, but should sit with councils, not the DfE.”

Considering the way local authorities have used the powers they DO have over the 30 years, we don’t think they need any more of them. 

LGA

There is so much more to say, and we will say it, but not today. Was this plan worth the wait? Let us know what you think…

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