Why SEND department targets mean ‘culture change’ reform may never happen

Today's guest post, from father of two deaf sons, Matt Keer, may shock you. It may, as it did to me, bring you to the edge of angry tears. It's like the plot of a Kafka novel, surreal and senseless. But this is not fiction. These are the very real reasons behind the fight parents are still facing as they try to get the right SEND support for their children.

Matt Keer did his research after he was told something very troubling about why culture change in some local authorities, as envisaged by the Children and Families' Act really does seem like a fairy tale. Read on to find out more and leave your comments below the blog post itself (not just on Facebook) so Matt, and everyone else, can read them.

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“A change in the law isn’t enough. It must go hand in hand with a change in culture to make a real difference.”

Edward Timpson, addressing the Local Government Association SEN Conference, December 2013

The Keer boys
Matt's two sons

 I’m a parent of two deaf boys. They’re brighter than I am. They’re more determined than I am. They work harder every single day than I work in a calendar month. They are the dictionary definition of the “strivers” that all political parties say they stand up for.

But like many children with special needs or disabilities, thus far they’ve had just a fraction of the life chances that I did. Not because of the SEND – at least, not directly. They’re fortunate enough to have a straightforward diagnosis of need, in a field where talented professionals can and do make a difference – when the professionals are allowed to.

What’s held my boys back boils down to something very simple. Until recently, they haven’t had all the support they needed, in the quantity and quality they needed it, at the time they needed it most. And this has happened for one reason, and one reason only: the local authorities legally responsible for meeting their needs have fought us every step of the way. Not because of austerity – our bitterest battles have been fought when resources were plentiful – but because the local authorities we’ve lived in have all had dysfunctional organisational cultures.

The boys are now at a wonderful, life changing special school for the deaf. Like many parents, we went to Tribunal to secure their provision. It was a bruising struggle against LA SEN officers who clearly had a lot invested in winning. I couldn’t for the life of me tell why at the time. It’s just their day job, right?

But one of the most arresting moments I remember from that day was the walk back from the tribunal building to the station. I was chatting to an education professional who had worked for this LA before, and who attended the hearing. She said something that completely stopped me in my tracks: 

“You do realise that if you win this case and get your special school, those LA staff won’t meet their targets, and so won’t be getting a bonus?”

I didn’t believe her. I knew that this LA SEN team had a rotten culture – not just from my own experience, but from talking to local parents, local charities and a few maverick professionals from within their tent. But no-one would be that base, would they?

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Local Authority Culture: Follow The Money, Follow The Targets & Objectives

Fast forward a year or two. I followed the progress of the Children & Families Bill with interest. But when Edward Timpson started talking about the need for culture change in LAs, I kept thinking about that conversation about bonuses after our Tribunal. If staff in LA SEN teams are given targets by their managers to achieve objectives that clash with meeting the needs of the individual child - objectives that are fundamentally incompatible with the principles of the new legislation - then how is this culture change going to happen?

So, once the Children & Families Act became law in September, I started researching SEN teams in 20 local authorities in England. I hoovered up data on LA business plans, staff objectives, budgets, and placement policies. And you know what? It turns out that the education professional I talked to after our Tribunal was on the money.

Staff in at least 8 of the 20 LA SEN teams that I researched – that’s 40% of these LAs – work to explicit objectives and targets that at best, clash with meeting the needs of the individual child. At worst, some of these objectives appear to be borderline unlawful.

What sort of objectives and targets am I talking about? Stuff like this:

  • Targets that limit the LA’s use of statements and / or EHCPs These aren’t always explicit, but they exist – usually by setting a team target to arrange more SEN provision through non-statutory means. And a target to limit the supply of statements and EHCPs will usually also act as a brake on spending resources on specialist SEN provision – because a child normally needs a statement or EHCP to secure a specialist school place. Which brings us on to…
  • Targets to cap or lower LA expenditure on special school placements – This was the most common explicit objective of concern. In some LAs, these targets are explicitly given to individual staff members; in others, teams are incentivised to place more children with statements or EHCPs in mainstream settings.
  • Targets limiting LA spending on out-of-county or residential school placements – These objectives, again, were mostly at individual SEN team staff member level, but were very common.
  • Ensuring that LA expenditure on high-needs SEN placements meets declared budget targets – Each year, every LA submits a Section 251 declaration to the DfE, showing its intended expenditure on schools - including expenditure on SEN.

In theory, this isn’t a target of concern – provided that the Section 251 declaration is a realistic estimate of the finances that the LA actually needs to meet its legal obligations to children with SEN. In practice though, these estimates are rarely realistic. One LA that I used to live in has a rapidly growing pre-school and primary age population, and an unusually high percentage of children with complex SEN. This LA has slashed its Section 251 declaration for high-needs SEN spending by £1m this year. It cannot meet its legal obligations with this budget, and it almost certainly knows it.

These are targets that incentivise LA SEN teams and staff members to play down, minimise or even deny a child’s actual special educational needs. A large number of LAs use these targets explicitly – and from the experience of parents, it is very likely that an even larger number of LAs operate on the same principles, just less explicitly. Three of the 20 LAs I looked at refused to provide the data I asked for.

Who is affected by these targets?

The impact on children with SEN and parents is pretty clear. For most of us, getting the provision our children need is an uphill struggle. These targets make it harder.

If you think your child needs an assessment for an EHCP - and if you live in an LA that incentivises its SEN staff to limit the amount of provision it arranges via EHCPs - it’s going to be even more of an uphill battle.  If your child is struggling in mainstream and needs a special school placement – and if you’re in an LA that gives its SEN staff specific targets to limit special school expenditure – then it’s going to be even more of an uphill battle.

If your child has a particular type of special educational need that can’t be met in schools in your LA, they’ll probably need an out-of-county placement. If your LA gives its SEN teams objectives to clamp down on out-of-county spending, then it’s going to be even more of an uphill battle to secure this provision.

Some of these targets also affect schools as well. Some LAs are clamping down on the number of statements and EHCPs. As well as making it much hard to access specialist SEN provision, this also relieves LAs of some of the direct financial burden of meeting their legal obligations to children with SEN in mainstream. That places this burden much more squarely on individual mainstream schools, whose budgets are coming under acute strain, and who often struggle to meet the child's needs from their own resources. It's placing unsustainable pressure on the ability and willingness of many mainstream schools to be genuinely inclusive places.

Spare a tear as well – if you can – for LA SEN staff. Those working at the front line in SEN assessment teams are unlikely to have any choice in the targets and objectives that their management give them. And there’s no doubt about it, times are financially tough, and their senior managers can and do play hardball.   A lot of parents I’m in touch with can’t get their heads around how personal some of their confrontations with LA SEN staff become.

Remember the bonus that the education professional said our LA SEN staff would lose if we won our Tribunal case? Those days are almost certainly gone. These days, I suspect that LA SEN staff need to meet these targets simply to keep their jobs. If things are getting more personal, it’s probably because LA staff now have a lot more at stake than some extra holiday spending money. It’s their rent, mortgages, and careers that are probably on the line now.

What does this all tell us?

I don’t expect this news will come as much of a shock to those of us who have been in and around the SEN front-line for a while. But there’s still an important message here.

The data I’ve collected is live, not historical. It has all been acquired recently, many months after the 2014 Children & Families Act came into being. Things were supposed to change. They haven’t.

I don’t know whether LAs have told Edward Timpson that they are willing and able to meet his challenge to change their culture. What I do know is that for many of the LAs I’ve looked at, there’s no sign of this change coming – and it won’t come at all, if LAs continue to use targets like these.

The Department for Education is developing a new SEN accountability framework. It needs to look at issues like this. And it needs to do so very, very soon.

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Matt Keer

Matt Keer is the parent of two deaf children. He had to take his LA to the SEND Tribunal, to get the educational provision his children needed. It was a bruising time. In an blog on the NDCS campaign site, he said, "We got there in the end, as a family. We went through Tribunal, some of us broke briefly, but we mended ourselves and the boys finally – finally – now have a full shot at life. It was worth it – but it should have been allowed to be this way."
Matt has dug deep to highlight taxpayer funds paid by local authorities to the law firm in the BS Twitter Storm. He's great at finding and analysing obscure data SEND departments would rather you didn't know about.
Matt Keer
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Becky Whinnerah

wondered why the professionals working with our daughter, though seemingly supportive, have always massively downplayed our daughter’s needs, and steered us away from diagnosis. They also breezily told the school they didn’t need any extra help and wouldn’t get any additional funding. This despite the fact my daughter (gdd and spd amongst other things) can’t run, can’t jump, falls over, has speech and cognitive delay (she is 4 but speech and cognition at 24 – 36 months, bottom 1st centile), struggles with toileting, can’t dress herself, has difficulties with social interactions…………………

josfromglos

Dear Becky I cannot help replying to YOUR reaction with regard to the situation with these 2 boys. The reason is that you mentioned GDD – Global Developmental Delay – in relation to your daughter’s health. We have a now 17 year old daughter (has and has always had special education) who was also ‘diagnosed’ with ‘GDD’ (I have always considered this as a ‘rest group’ because it does not completely fit any other condition). I cannot remember anyone ever describing their child’s health TOTALLY matching that of my daughter’s at that age, and I just wonder if you would… Read more »

Becky Whinnerah

thanks for that! We’ve only just started exploring further diagnosis (I wasn’t ready until recently) and she had some genetic blood tests just over a week ago, so her diagnosis as gdd may change. Or it may stay the same! How’s it been for you?

josfromglos

Where to start Becky! How to fit in 17 years in one book! As I said, the term ‘GDD’ set off the alarm bells. I just remember how we have struggled with all the ‘vagueness’ surrounding my daughter’s birth, which was an extremely painful and confusing one, especially for my wife (of course, can you tell a male is talking…). For your information, she had a brain haemorrhage 6 months after (of which she has more or less recovered btw), which I always blamed the difficulties surrounding my daughter’s birth for. The locum consultant at the time, a Mr Azaday,… Read more »

Susan Young

What a sad sad state we are all in with this, I am just beginning this process and this does not give me any confidence in getting what my son deserves, what he is entitled to, an Education that meets his needs!!

Don’t give up hope yet Susan; parent power can win the day!!

Susan Young

Well Steph, I think parent power is winning the day!! The LA are now going into school to do an independent audit on provisions for my son!!

Diane Kay

This has been going on, like Matt says, since long before ‘austerity measures’ became the buzz word to excuse any service failure or lack of provision. Matt’s work to support this with evidence surely must now be taken seriously by the DfE? But then again, have any of the reforms been implemented on the back of any real research or evidence??? Not that I’m aware of. I know Wigan Council, my LA, had an objective of reducing statements years ago, but the data from this LA is very hard to obtain, so I’d be interested to know if Wigan are… Read more »

Ken Upton

I should be shocked; but I’m not! I’ve been in the field of SEND for almost two decades. Firstly as an SEND ‘professional’ (advising parents of children with SEND (PPS/IPSEA/Talking SENse!)) and more recently as a parent of children with SEND. As a parent I can relate to much of what Matt has written with the exception of the target culture (although I have for many years had my suspicions). We have been battling our LA for years and even with significant evidence that our preferred independent special school was more suitable and cost effective than the LAs preferred maintained… Read more »

Great article but I wonder what prevents you naming and shaming the particular authorities using these incentives/ disincentives? Wouldn’t it empower parents to know specifically what they are up against in each area?

Pish

What’s the best way to find out what targets they’re working to in our local areas? FOI request? If so, any suggestions as to how to word the question/s?

Richard Dunstan

Wow, spot on, well done to Matt for putting in the hours on the research. Our family have faced very similar challenges over the past 14 years – my 16yo son attends the same residential deaf school – and I feel certain our LA is one of the 20 – indeed, we are just in the middle of transition to sixth form, and the EHCP process is if anything less transparent than the SEN process we endured through two tribunal appeals (one to force the LA to issue a SEN, and one for primary school placement). In contrast to the… Read more »

Jane stockman

Would you be willing to script a template letter that parents can send to LA and make a FOI request? Would be good to create a national picture. These practices may be considered as blanket policies and could be challenged en masse .

terrymiles

You really, really should name these LAs and stop conflating these totally different targets . Personally the only target I know of is to somehow keep within the guidance and the budget if at all possible. The same rules that apply to any council department. Under-staffed SEN depts are really doing their best with a new and very complex system that rightly raises expectations without providing the funding to match them. The sooner we all stop blaming front line case managers and completely over stressed departmental managers and start blaming the politicians that too many of us voted for the… Read more »

Matt, you write that you “hoovered up data”. Is it possible that Freedom of Information requests might more precisely generate the data? Does anyone know?

Anthony Davies

If this is the case then the sooner a Council is made to face a Legal Case to account for this the better. I can certainly believe every assertion made in this article as it could explain why at every turn there has been misinformation, delay for every possible reason and timescales that totally disregard any published workflow. Frankly I have no problem believing this, because it would be impossible for anyone to make the system so dysfunctional without it.

Vague

This is not surprising and the fact that they cannot change the culture is something I have said all along. In certain cases they cannot change the culture without changing some of the staff, generally senior level staff (managers etc), but targets are an area I hadn’t really considered properly, although it makes a great deal of sense. Everything is about targets these days. Why not SEN, too? It was estimated originally that around 2% of children would need a statement, and that became the first target for many LAs, I suspect – including in their criteria that children had… Read more »

aspieinthefamily

This doesn’t surprise me. When I fought for my sons statement his SENCO refused to apply for an assessment. I later found out that not only did she sit on the SEN panel in the LA (conflict of interest?) but that the authority appeared to have to llimit the number of statements. Our first application was refused on dubious grounds but we applied again and got an assessment and then a statement. My son then got a place in an out of borough ASD school. We were lucky. I’ve recently read an LA document that said it was ending out… Read more »

It’s all sooooo short sighted, frustratingly so. If they spent more money on a) acquiring data and keeping up a database of the real needs of children and then b) making sure there will be suitable provision for these children over the coming years rather than assuming mainstream can handle them all, they would end up saving thousands, nay millions of lawyers fees when they fight these parents because there is no suitable local provision. Of course that’s just one side of it – think of all the money they are saving by not having the correct educational set-ups, when… Read more »

That’s a really good idea, Steph. Do you know if LAs routinely keep an up to date database of the needs of each SEND child and where they are based?

Sadly, it appears they don’t. Not in our county anyway. We have been requesting this for some time and it seems so basic to me, this should have been done all along. Our daughter received a statement 4 years ago aged 4, and around 2 years ago I posed the question to our Head of SEN as to what secondary school in county they feel she will be able to attend. It’s clear to all that mainstream will not be possible, and they don’t deny that, but they also don’t offer any alternative. Simply because there isn’t one. Is that… Read more »

auntieh

Having worked for fifteen years in three different LAs as a senior SEN officer and casework manager until I retired last year I have to say I don’t recognise much of what has been said. Has the data been interpreted within the context of any first hand experience of working within an SEN Team? Most jobs involve working to targets these days, public or private sector. My experience is that targets were generally concerned with meeting statutory deadlines and reducing tribunals, which naturally involves working cooperatively with parents. Other than that they would mainly focus on personal development and training.… Read more »

auntieh

Thanks for your reply. I’ve been discussing this with various ex colleagues who are also surprised. It would be interesting to know exactly what questions were asked and what the concerning replies were. Did you ask how many if the targets were met? With regard to SENCOs I’ve worked with many in my time and a recurring problem is that they are often not told by senior school management exactly how much is allocated to their school for SEN. I’ve come across this time and time again. I used to point them to the Section 52 budget as it was… Read more »

Buffy

I have emailed you as I would like to know the questions asked as well to ask my la – 25 children lost all thier statemented provision last year on transfer to ECHP….. they are trying to do it to my child now too 🙁