What’s new with the government’s SEND Change Programme?

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Four years ago, the Department for Education (DfE) began a review into the SEND system. Six months ago, the DfE announced what government’s SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan would look like. Last week, it announced some of the next steps in that plan.

These steps had been trailed in the March 2023 improvement plan, and they include the following:

  • A £70m Change Programme, “to deliver a ground-breaking new programme to test and refine the reforms to services for young people and families;”
  • Specific details about a new leadership-level professional qualification for Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators (SENCOs), to replace the current masters level qualification;
  • Further expansion of specialist provision: seven new free schools given the go-ahead, including several in local authorities with a Safety Valve financial bailout scheme.

In this post, we’ll concentrate on the Change Programme.

What is the Change Programme for?

The DfE have been told – repeatedly – that one of the main reasons that the 2014 SEND reforms failed was that they didn’t pay enough attention to implementation. They don’t want to repeat the same mistake. So this time round, they are spending more time and money to road-test the changes that they are thinking about making.

This is where the Change Programme comes in. According to the March 2023 Improvement Plan, this programme will “test and refine key reform proposals and support local SEND andAP systems across the country to manage local improvement.”

At this point, it’s important to state one important thing - the law has not changed, and children’s rights have not changed. The work that the Change Programme will do over the next two years is piloting and road-testing changes that might, or might not come down the line much later on. 

So if any LA in the CPP scheme tells you that ‘this is the way things are now,’ or ‘the law has changed,’ they are misleading you.

How will the Change Programme work?

The programme will run across England, split into the DfE’s nine regions, and carried out through a group of local authority Change Programme Partnerships (CPPs). These partnerships were originally going to be called Regional Expert Partnerships; we don’t know what’s prompted the name change, but you can insert your own gag about expertise at this point.

Each CPP is headed by at least one LA, with one or more other LAs usually along for the ride. These are the named LAs for each region:

  • North East: Hartlepool (lead); Durham; Gateshead; Stockton-on-Tees
  • North West: Manchester (lead); Oldham; Rochdale; Trafford
  • Yorkshire & Humber: Wakefield (lead); Bradford; Calderdale; Leeds
  • East Midlands: Leicester, Leicestershire, Rutland ( joint leads)
  • West Midlands: Telford & Wrekin (lead); Herefordshire; Shropshire
  • East of England: Bedford (lead), Central Bedfordshire, Luton
  • London: Barnet (lead), Camden, Enfield, Islington
  • South East: Portsmouth (lead), Brighton, East Sussex, West Sussex
  • South West: Gloucestershire, Swindon (joint leads)

How were they chosen?

The lead LAs had to meet a set of undemanding criteria, according to this response to a written parliamentary question.

We don’t know the basis for selecting the other LAs, but they include several with significant weaknesses identified during local area SEND inspections, and several who are currently subject to DfE financial intervention. 

That’s not necessarily a bad thing – the changes the DfE wants to make will have to work in less-than-stellar LAs too – but there is a strong ‘do they have a pulse?’ energy here. It looks like there was at least some hokey-cokey about LA participation, as there are some notable LA absences. For example, last month Hertfordshire were due to lead the East of England partnership. Now, by the looks of it, they’re not.

The DfE should be delivering strategic guidance to these Change Production Partnerships soon, including how they will work with others, including parents and carers. But the process looks like it’s a few months behind schedule already.

What will the CPPs be road-testing?

According to the March 2023 Improvement Plan, they’ll be testing out the following over the next two years:

  • Development of ‘national standards’ – a key part of the improvement plan that is (at least in part) aimed at reducing postcode lotteries and making the SEND system less varied and more predictable;
  • Development of ‘local inclusion partnerships’ and ‘local inclusion plans,’ aimed at getting everyone in different organisations (and those outside organisations) working better together, in more accountable ways;
  • Starting to explore design of a national system of funding bands and tariffs;
  • A controversial ‘tailored list’ of SEND placements, drawn up by a local body (almost certainly the LA) that parents would choose from when expressing a preference for placement;
  • Changes to mediation;
  • Changes to Alternative Provision funding and commissioning;
  • Inclusion dashboards, to help SEND system leaders understand their local areas better, and make better decisions; and
  • Working with NHS Integrated Care Boards, new ways of working to better identify and support children with speech, language and communication needs in early years and primary schools, through a pilot programme called Early Language and Support For Every Child.

You can expect the Change Programme to start exploring some of these proposals within the next few months. If you want more detail on them, check out some of our earlier posts on the Improvement Plan: here and here and here and here.

In the Improvement Plan, the DfE are careful to say that they want to use this programme to see not just whether the prototype changes work, but also to ensure that the changes do not create unintended consequences for families. It’s probably fair to say though that families are wary of the intended consequences as well as the unintended ones.

Bullsh*t bingo

The LAs in the CPP will not be acting alone. The DfE will be supervising them, and the LAs also have help from another quarter: a consortium of consultants, who are calling themselves Reaching Excellence and Ambition for all Children (REACh).

The REACh consortium is working to a £9.3 million contract. It includes PA Consulting, the Council for Disabled Children, a consultancy outfit called IMPOWER who have been involved with SEND for a few years now, and AP specialists Olive Academies.

REACh put out their first public communication last week. At least, I think they did. What they put out was pure, uncut consultantese: the public sector equivalent of echolalia. That doesn’t bode well for their ability to work well with others in the SEND system – particularly parents and carers, who tend to have very finely-honed bullshit detectors.

“The REACh consortium will deliver a three-phased programme which includes rapid cycle evaluations to test and analyse insights, allowing reforms to be assessed, refined & disseminated, in real time across the nine Change Programme Partnerships (CPPs).”

Right. What are the phases? What, in plain English, is a rapid cycle evaluation? How rapid is rapid? Who is involved in the evaluation? What does real time actually mean, when they say that they will be assessing and refining work? At what stage will they be gently separated from their PowerPoint crutches and put in contact with the real-life humans who bear the real risk of failure?

Accountability?

The Council for Disabled Children is one of the members of the consortium. The Director of CDC, Dame Christine Lenehan, also sits on the SEND & AP Implementation Board, and will presumably be holding herself to account for this work.

She expressed things slightly more clearly, saying here that she wants the programme

“...to be framed in the clear understanding of what a good system is. We know the elements of it, we know the challenges and we know what children and families deserve, as well as what practitioners want to be able to deliver. We know at the heart of it is partnership working, but we also know there are financial and legal challenges, at this stage we want to focus on what is working and why, and how we can build on this.”

Reading between the lines, it looks like The CDC also wants to guard against the possibility that some SEND system bigwigs are tempted to just give up on the whole thing:

“The heart of some of this is to change the narrative. If we are not careful, the needs of disabled children and young people and those with SEN becomes a crisis that cannot be solved, which gets lost in a myriad of problems and agendas… …success for the programme will be the level of engagement from all partners and the start of changing the narrative into believing in a system that works and delivers the very best outcomes for children, young people, and their families.”

What’s the £70 million for?

We don’t know yet. We don’t know what conditions will be attached to its use. It’s very unlikely that it’ll be spent on actual SEND provision. It’ll probably be used to provide quick and easy funding for the Change Programme’s pilot programmes. If that’s the case, then it’ll end up being mostly spent by local authorities and NHS ICBs, who are likely to then spend it on short-term contracts for managers and consultants.

Consultants have done very, very well so far out of the crisis in the SEND system. If things go well with the Change Programme – if £70 million spent over 2-3 years can sort the system out – then it’ll be money well spent. If it can raise standards and outcomes, if it can mean that the billions of pounds that are already in the SEND system are spent better, then it’ll be money well spent.

But until this professional cadre can show that they’re making a genuine positive difference – until they’re held to account for their past, present and future progress – it’s wise to be sceptical. And before they do any of that, they need to communicate in plain English with people who have already had years and decades of unproductive change meetings.

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Matt Keer
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