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.
“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
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?
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.