Lee Scott is a very nice man. Earlier this year, at the request of the then Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, he criss-crossed England speaking to schools, colleges, families and local authorities to find out how they all thought the SEND reforms were going. A kind of fact-finding mission, if you will.
Then Mrs Morgan was given the old heave-ho and we wondered what would become of his inquiry. Yesterday, we got the answer as SEND Minister, Ed Timpson unveiled Mr Scott's nine-page report telling parents what we already knew and what we now hope new Education Secretary, Justine Greening, will know as well.
That it's all (or at least mostly) a bit crap.
Mr Scott was a good choice as the former Prime Minister’s "Special Needs Tsar" in 2014, and he's patron on the UK Autism Foundation. During his intrepid fieldwork, he heard from more than 200 parents and young people. These included me and a delegation of parents and SNJ readers who gave our views on the reforms, particularly for the post-16 age group. We also provided him with many, many testimonies from parents sent in to us. He heard some hair-raising tales and during our meeting, he looked, at times, shocked, at what he heard.
Mr Scott chose not to mention individuals or name LAs in his narrative, which means that no one is really held to account. However, he stresses that making judgements was not his remit, rather it was to gather evidence to add to that already received not only by previous reports but by the Ofsted/CQC reports.
Mr Scott was keen to emphasise this is not a scientific study but a series of "frank and real" discussions from a limited sample
What did the report say?
Mr Scott, being a nice man, called it a 'mixed picture' and made a valiant attempt to highlight some areas of good practice. I do wonder if he mentioned every single good example he found in the report, whereas if he'd mentioned every example of poor practice and shoddy treatment the report would have been ten times as long.
And while we're on the subject of length, after hearing from 200 people, I'm a little surprised the report's main text covers under 10 pages, although it does make it easy to get through. It is, however, also because the issues he heard were repeated, it seems, time and again, so he has grouped them into the key themes.
The Key Themes
"Communication works both ways – it’s not just about being nice to each other, it’s about being clear, honest, and assertive. It’s also about empathy – something that isn’t always easy to achieve, if, for example, you’ve had no personal experience of caring for a child with SEND, or if you have little understanding of the issues faced by children who are adopted and their parents." Lee Scott
- Communication: Some good practice was mentioned including the LA that, after being criticised for delays in EHCPs because it was trying to do them properly, worked with parents to revised its processes. But communication was undoubtedly the biggest problem parents were facing including lack of communication during transitions from school to college, when a child changes school or moves to another LA and even within schools from one year to the next.
"I heard often that parents or young people who pushed hardest were the ones most likely to get the support they needed. Many families don’t feel confident to do this. Some feel they will be seen as difficult, and so are scared to approach schools, colleges and local authorities. Some families report that schools and colleges are sometimes intimidating, unresponsive or inflexible – for example, putting parents off from applying to the school in the first place; taking the same approach to behavioural issues for all children (i.e., not making allowances for any SEN); and over-use of informal exclusions." Lee Scott
Mr Scott said he felt it was important that the government and other leadership agencies, continued to send out strong messages about the importance of good communication with families.
- The right level of support: While some families felt their children were getting the right support, many others did not know what was available to them (which means also presumably they'd never heard of the Local Offer). The level of SEND expertise in schools was variable with some SENCos being "bolt on" roles and others not being given the support of senior management [although the CoP recommends that they are actually PART of the senior leadership team]. Also a general lack of knowledge that teaching staff, including SENCos, have of child development and the impact of trauma, loss and separation.
- Funding: Inconsistent approaches to funding EHCPs, [Btw, the DfE says a school should use their notional SEN budget to fund up to £6,000 worth of special educational provision for a pupil with SEN.] He also discovered that LAs are holding large reserves, in one case £150 million when some of this money could perhaps be used to improve SEND (and other) services.
- Legislation: As well as the quote below this list regarding the legislation itself, Mr Scott cited examples of cutting and pasting from the old statement into the EHC plan (SNJ note: We know this is fairly widespread, often with no new assessments taking place). He also heard from others how the EHC needs assessment process had been very empowering and families felt they were being listened to and taken seriously. But there was also a lack of transparency about the monitoring of those on SEN Support, one of the key changes to a system of "Assess, Plan, Do, Review", and this was leading to inconsistent approaches being taken.
- The voluntary and community sector: He said these organisations offer valuable expertise and experience to families and to statutory agencies, but are hard pressed because LAs and schools are failing to both communicate properly with parents or to stick to the law.
- The link between education and health: Many with health needs in special provision have their needs well met but in mainstream, schools and colleges need more health support. Mr Scott remarked, "It seems to me that staff in schools and colleges tackle 'non-education' things in other areas - e.g., behaviour, physical access, emotional support, - so why should basic medical needs be different? "
- Age 19 upwards: Spotty examples of good management but on the whole a poor picture of support into employment and training
"I rarely heard any criticism made of the way the system is designed or of the role that central government is playing – although some did say that it could do more to ensure the law was being applied consistently. It seems clear to me that the legislation in place gives agencies a lot of latitude to take flexible and innovative approaches to deliver a more person-centred approach. Based on what I heard, this is happening in some areas. But it’s happening less well in others. Interpretation of the law is variable and some areas are implementing the law more fully than others." Lee Scott
The ideas Lee Scott puts forward are very much based on his key themes. Although I have abbreviated them considerably, in the report they are written more as thoughts and suggestions.
- Improving Communication. Improvement, across all agencies and in every area, would go a long way to making a reality of the ‘person-centred’ approach the SEND system is trying to achieve.
- .More training for all staff working with children and young people, for example on identifying SEND, and understanding the particular needs of adoptive children.
- More transparency over funding. Are there ways we could encourage local authorities, schools and colleges to make it clearer to families how the money they receive is being spent? And are there ways we could challenge local authorities to look hard at their contingency funds and consider ways of releasing at last part of it to help meet the shortfall in SEND spending?
- Encourage all local areas to interpret and apply the legislation, and the SEND Code of Practice, in a way that demonstrably leads to culture change, and which helps to ensure that families don’t have vastly different experiences depending on where they live.
- Encourage staff in schools and colleges to do more to support children and young people with medical needs. A child or young person’s educational development can be potentially significantly disrupted if they have to have it punctuated by periods unnecessarily spent at home or in hospital for something health-related that is quite basic.
- Do more to encourage local areas to develop better expertise, brokering discussions and developing strategies for bringing employers, local authorities and colleges together, to ensure more young adults with SEND have access to training and employment opportunities.
I may be wrong, but my spidey sense tells me that after hearing all these poor experiences, Mr Scott felt very gloomy and depressed at the state of play and I feel it's reflected in his report. I do feel he has captured many of the themes of the main issues well. However, I confess to feeling a little flat myself, having hoped for something that had some strong recommendations, but perhaps this was a misundertanding of Mr Scott's remit. But it's good that he has made a big effort to gather unvarnished views and present them to the new Education Secretary.
The question is, what will she do them?
What's your view of the report? Tell us in the comments. You can find the report in full here