“It’s a journey.” That’s what SEND minister Nadhim Zahawi said, repeatedly, at the final hearing of the House of Commons Education Select Committee’s SEND inquiry. This time, he and school standards minister Nick Gibb were in the hot seats, along with the Department for Education’s professional adviser on SEND, Dr Andre Imich.
This was the culmination of the select committee’s detailed year-long inquiry, that has received more than 700 submissions of written evidence and heard from 70 witnesses at 12 oral evidence sessions.
"A big mess"
The committee chair, Conservative MP Robert Halfon, couldn’t have been clearer as he introduced the session and set the scene: no-one thinks the reformed SEND system is working. Although the intentions of the Children and Families Act 2014 are good, in practice it is all “a big mess”, he said, inviting ministers to agree with his assessment of the situation, asking if they are happy with the way things are.
The Department for Education was clear in its written evidence to the committee, on what the SEND reforms were for and what the Government wanted to happen – earlier and better identification of needs, an improved experience for families, effective inter-agency working. But the committee has heard from hundreds of parents (no doubt representing hundreds more) that their experiences couldn’t be further removed from what legislators had in mind.
Mr Halfon summarised the problems that had been presented to his committee “by every single witness” over the past year, starkly and succinctly: lack of accountability, a postcode lottery of provision, the rising cost of legal appeals, lack of training, poor post-19 support, “the treacle of bureaucracy”. He said that all evidence shows – and this is corroborated by MPs’ experience in their constituencies – that there are “fundamental flaws in the way the Act has been implemented”.
The main thing the Mr Zahawi had to offer the committee was a plea to consider specific areas where things are apparently going well for children with SEND. He and his adviser were at pains to stress that there are examples of good practice all over the country that the media and public don’t hear about. They scattered them about like confetti: Wigan! Wiltshire! Portsmouth! Shropshire!
Members of the committee were politely persistent, trying to move beyond anecdotes and get ministers to engage with the wider systemic picture. Nadhim Zahawi did set out his three-point formula for achieving “great outcomes” locally. One, strong leadership – knowing “which levers to pull”. Two, joint commissioning. And three, a strong assessment of needs.
Committee members pressed the trio on a wide range of subjects they've received evidence on, including how funds are spent by schools and local authorities, why so many local areas have been required by Ofsted and CQC to produce written statements of action, why there is so much buck-passing between schools and local authorities, how the Government plans to ensure that there are enough specialist teachers once the current ones retire, and whether the threshold for EHC assessment is in the right place.
Where did the money go
One particular theme they pursued was what had happened to the funds allocated to local authorities for the transition to the new SEND system. Labour committee member Thelma Walker MP, asked why councils were allowed to spend this funding on anything other than SEND. Robert Halfon observed that the fact that nearly half the local areas that have been inspected by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission have so far been required to produce a written statement of action is an indication that a lot has gone wrong in how the money was spent.
Conservative William Wragg MP, spent a good while pursuing answers on how the Department for Education measures the success of the reformed SEND system, and whether it is measuring progress against its own criteria set out in 2015. The answers were far from clear. The minister was emphatic that children and families have a much better experience of obtaining support under the current SEND system than the previous one (“We’re on a journey.”).
Threshold for assessment – too low?
Another Conservative committee member, Lucy Allan MP, asked ministers about the EHC assessment process. The committee has heard from a number of local authorities, most recently from the director of children’s services at East Sussex County Council, who gave evidence to the committee earlier this month, that the assessment threshold set out in the SEND Code of Practice is too low. Local authorities claim this results in too many resources being tied up in assessing the needs of children who do not qualify for an EHC plan.
On this, the witnesses were robust: there is no evidence that the current threshold for assessment is too low. Andre Imich pointed out that 96.4% of assessments result in a child receiving an EHC plan. If local authorities were right in their view that too many needless assessments are being carried out, the number of children receiving an EHC plan as a result would be far lower. This seems as clear as it could possibly be.
Labour MP, James Frith , then raised an issue that has been so powerfully outlined to the committee by previous witnesses: the restrictive criteria imposed by individual local authorities on who they will and won’t help, often in contravention of the Children and Families Act 2014 and the SEND Code of Practice.
He asked the question that many parents have also asked: how can councils assess a child without actually assessing them? In other words, how can a council state that a child’s needs are not severe enough for an EHCP without carrying out a proper assessment? James Frith observed that this is like a person going to a hospital accident and emergency department and being turned away by the receptionist without being allowed to see the triage nurse.
Mr Frith went on to say that it appears that ministers are presiding over a system where the Government has raised children’s entitlements and then walked away, without making sure that sufficient resources are in place to match the commitments that have been made. He told the ministers that confidence in the SEND system would rise if they were to intervene to ensure that children were getting what they were entitled to, and he asked when this would happen.
The best that Nadhim Zahawi could offer in response was that they are, "challenging themselves all the time to do better". He said, “This is difficult stuff to do on the ground.”
Rising number of appeals
Nadhim Zahawi was keen to address head-on the rising number of Tribunal appeals. He had to be restrained by the chair from making this the very first thing he talked about, suggesting that he had been well-briefed that this was something the committee had been told a lot about and would ask him questions on. His narrative was that the number of legal appeals might be rising, and the vast majority of cases are won by parents, but that only a tiny percentage – 1.5% – of SEND cases actually go to Tribunal.
Lucy Allan made the point that the SEND system has become highly adversarial, and asked the minister what caused this. She pressed him on whether it’s right that families who can afford legal representation can get their child’s needs met. The minister responded that the Tribunal system was designed to be accessible, and neither side should need legal representation.
Mr Halfon stepped in to observe that the 20% increase in Tribunal appeals in the last year is a good illustration of what’s going wrong in the SEND system, with £100 million spent by councils on legal appeals since 2014 that could have been spent on children and young people.
Quality of teaching – and training
For his part, the school standards minister Nick Gibb – who has a reputation for being firmly undistracted by children with special needs in his quest for uniformity of standards and behaviour in schools – emphasised that the new Ofsted inspection framework places greater emphasis on the progress made by children with SEND. He also said that high quality teaching is the biggest factor in determining how well children with SEN do at school.
While Nick Gibb said a lot less overall than Nadhim Zahawi, his most notable contribution was a suggestion to the committee that they include in their report a recommendation that trainee teachers should be able to specialise in special education, and take a specific qualification in it.
All three witnesses emphasised the Government’s current consultation on SEND funding. Nick Gibb offered the insight that the Department’s two key priorities in the upcoming spending review are post-16 provision and high needs funding.
Committee member Emma Hardy MP, tried doggedly to pin the SEND minister down on SEN Support in schools – as this is the thing that affects the greatest number of children with SEND. The committee has been presented with compelling evidence that children who need SEN Support are being failed, and that there is a lack of guidance from the Government on this.
She asked repeatedly what ministers will do to fix SEN Support, and Nadhim Zahawi floundered. Andre Imich stepped in to state that it is a “generalisation" that SEN Support isn’t working, and that local area SEND inspections show a “more balanced” picture. The volume of the discussion rose at this point, and the chair had to ask Imich not to talk over Ms Hardy.
Quality of EHC plans
The issue of the quality of EHCPs was also raised. EHC plans have been heavily criticised, and the committee has heard that, too often, provision is not related to need. Emma Hardy asked Nadhim Zahawi if he stood by the assertion he made on BBC Breakfast last year that he hadn’t seen an EHC plan that wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. He said that yes, he stood by it, but acknowledged that, according to the Department for Education’s own surveys, only two-thirds of parents are happy with their child’s EHC plan. It’s a journey.
The committee raised the extension of the SEND system to age 25, and asked whether it was a costly mistake to extend the system without extra funding. The chair, Robert Halfon, commented that post-19 provision does not appear to be a priority for ministers. There was a discussion about supported internships, and Nadhim Zahawi described these as “a success story”. Robert Halfon said that the evidence suggests otherwise.
As the two-hour session drew to an end, James Frith suggested to the ministers that they ask their civil servants to take them to places where SEND provision is failing – not just to places that tick the ‘good practice’ box. Ian Mearns MP, another Labour member, emphasised that individual good experiences don’t compensate for “swathes of failure” in large parts of the country.
The LGO finds areas where the SEND system isn’t working
It is worth noting that, while the Department for Education continues to downplay parents’ poor experiences, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has today criticised a London council for significant delays in completing education, health and care plans for children.
The Ombudsman identified significant faults in the London Borough of Hackney’s handling of two separate cases. In one case a boy on the autism spectrum only received his plan after 69 weeks. And in the second case, there was a 48-week delay in providing a plan for a boy with Down syndrome.
Fining the LA over £26,000 between the two cases, the Ombudsman notes that in both cases, the boys’ families have had to make significant efforts to ensure the council provides the services their children are entitled to. This reinforces the evidence that the Ombudsman, Michael King, gave to the committee last month, when he told MPs that he upholds 87% of the SEND investigations he carries out – compared with the usual proportion of 58% of complaints he upholds across all areas of local government.
The SEND journey is failing
The inquiry has concluded that the SEND system is failing. Everyone the committee has heard from says so. The chair concluded that the system does not help those families who do not have the knowledge or resources to navigate their way through it. But ministers don’t accept this. They say there are areas where children are being well supported. They say there are areas we don’t hear about. They say it’s a journey. That’s it – that’s what they say.
The onus is now on the select committee to spell out in their report what they have heard, and what they have concluded, and what they think the Government should do. All the indications are that it will be hard-hitting. It will be hard for ministers to ignore. We need them to publish it very soon.
To watch the whole thing on video, you can do so here
- Our posts about the Inquiry
- SEND National Crisis: Marching for our disabled children’s future
- Improving autism training in schools: A good practice example.
- Post 19: Education, health, care and training support for disabled young people
- We’re the country’s future. We demand our right to a properly funded education!
- Nine out of 10 parents fear for their deaf child’s education amid the SEND crisis
- SEND System ‘in crisis’ say Head Teachers
- Half a billion and counting: Tracking the SEND reforms spending
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When her younger daughter was diagnosed with Rett Syndrome in 2009 shortly before her second birthday, Catriona found herself dealing in practice with things she’d previously thought she understood in principle.
She juggles her work as policy officer for a national disability charity with caring and advocating for her daughter. She is passionate about improving the lives of disabled children and their families, and making the systems that should support them work more transparently and equitably.