Why the DfE’s SEND Adviser,, Tony McArdle, is wrong, wrong, wrong: Matt’s Director’s Cut

Earlier this week Schools Week ran an article from us responding to their earlier interview about the SEND system with Tony McArdle, a Department for Education SEND adviser. His wasn’t a pleasant read - but it was an important one, because Mr McArdle offered important glimpses into the future of the SEND system.

Our response has been praised by many in the SEND sector for putting into words what they couldn’t: the pure rage that this man with his oft-debunked narrative that ‘demanding parents want a “golden ticket” for…’ For what? For securing the same educational opportunities that non-disabled children get without a fight. They’re also furious that he perhaps has more impact on the future of SEND than the 7000 responses to the SEND Review consultation, a large number of which were from parents and organisations that support disabled children

Our response was succinct but necessarily short. Today, I’m going to expand on it to detail in more depth exactly why he’s wrong

Who is Tony McArdle anyway?

Tony McArdle previously chaired the government’s SEND System Leadership Board – an organisation that was quietly dissolved recently, with no public record of proceedings. He also previously sat on the SEND Review Steering Group – another organisation that was quietly dissolved recently, without trace. Mr McArdle’s professional background is in local government: he’s led local authorities, and he’s come in to fix them when they’ve failed.

Right now though, Tony McArdle is acting as a consultant to the DfE, brokering the ‘safety valve’ financial agreements between Whitehall and LAs that are intended to rescue parts of the SEND system from financial meltdown. Mr McArdle has been closely and quietly involved with the SEND Review for the last few years. The DfE doesn’t often let him loose in public. So while we might not like what he has to say, it’s worth listening to what he is saying.

We’d strongly recommend reading the McArdle Schools Week article in full. Mr McArdle is actually right about some things. He’s right that the SEND system “manifestly doesn’t work any more.” He’s right that funding gets wasted. He’s right that earlier intervention will be key to sorting things out long-term. And he’s right that leadership and relationships aren’t working well.

But that’s about as far as it goes on the positive side of the ledger. In the Schools Week article, he sets out what he sees as the problems with SEND. He’s wrong in his diagnosis, he’s wrong in his framing of risk, he appears worryingly ignorant about SEND operational practice and the frontline, and his proposed solutions, if implemented, will have serious negative consequences for all of us.

Demand out of control – or high on their own supply?

It’s no secret that SNJ and many of our contributors are deeply concerned about the SEND Review’s direction of travel. It’s largely been carried out behind closed doors, by the same cadre of leaders and advisers who blithely drove the SEND system over a cliff pre-pandemic. Many of these leaders have concluded that we – families and schools - are the main problem with the SEND system. Not them. Us.

Like many of the SEND Brahmins in the public sector, third sector and coin-operated consultancies, Mr McArdle sees the SEND crisis as a ‘demand’ problem. According to them, too many children and young people now have EHCPs. Also, according to them, too many of these children and young people don’t really need those EHCPs – and far too many of them are consuming expensive specialist provision.

Mr McArdle’s job – primarily – is to help stop the SEND system haemorrhaging money. His recipe for a healthy SEND system means families and schools have to stop sucking greedily and noisily at the sensitive teats of the state. And that means fewer EHCPs. In his words:

“I fear we've got children who don't actually need EHCPs having to go to schools they wouldn't necessarily need to be in, further away from their social life and home, because that is seen as the game you need to [play].”

Tony McArdle in Schools Week

EHCPs everywhere…(apparently)

What specific evidence does Tony offer for this alleged EHCP excess? How many children and young people have an EHCP who don’t really need one? And who’s playing a game here? We’ll get back to the last point later, but the simple answer is that Mr McArdle doesn’t provide any evidence. Just a hot take.

This is surprising, given we’re over 1,270 days into the SEND Review, and they say they’re so swimming in data they’ve had to bring in external analysts to help. If kids with SEND and schools were stuffing their faces, Mr Creosote-style, with provision they didn’t actually need, there’d surely be evidence of that?

Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission have now inspected SEND services in every single local area in England. The inspectors found that most local areas have significant weaknesses – they found 440 of them, in total. So what did the inspectors find? A whole series of problems with supply, not demand. Dysfunctional leadership? In spades. Defective joint working? Widespread. Tortuous, Kafkaesque EHCP processes? Rampant.

How many times did Ofsted and CQC identify excess EHCPs or provision as a significant weakness? None. Zero. Not once.

The only people who believe it’s too easy to get an EHCP are those who’ve never tried to apply for one. The sort of people who tend to have phalanxes of little people in their lives to handle the bureaucracy.

There’s a reasonable argument to be made that a well-functioning SEND system, powered by early identification, rapid intervention and genuinely inclusive cultures at school and LA level, could eventually lead to fewer EHCPs. But in the current financial and professional climate, we’re light years away from that. And in any case, that’s not the argument being made here. They’re not really saying that this many EHCPs are a symptom of big problems, they’re saying that the EHCPs themselves are the problem. It’s arse-about-face.

A cheap, dependable trope also turned up in this interview – the EHCP as a ‘golden ticket.’ Again, nobody who’s spent serious time applying for, negotiating, appealing or enforcing an EHCP at ground level finds the ‘golden ticket’ shtick remotely credible.

At this point, you might be wondering whether SEND system leaders’ hostility to clearly-written needs, provision and outcomes in a legally-binding document applies across the board. Well, it doesn’t, and one example that demonstrates this is Tony McArdle’s current contract with the Department for Education, worth up to £50,000.

The contract? You can find it here – 28 densely-typed pages, a model of well-specified and quantified drafting, and light years better than any EHCP I have ever seen that’s not had the crap beaten out of it by a SENDIST panel. Some people deserve this level of legal protection. Others, it seems, do not.

Leadership & Relationships: Old Swill in New Bottles

In the Schools Week interview, Mr McArdle emphasises the importance of restoring relationships within the SEND system, and the importance of senior leadership in fixing that problem. When looking at what’s gone wrong in the past, he says that:

“Relationships have failed because people like me – chief execs, council leaders – were absent when things were going wrong. In many places, the chief got caught by surprise by a ‘sudden problem running in their books’.”

That’s true. For example, when Mr McArdle was chief executive of Lincolnshire County Council, some of his staff took a hefty chunk of the grant that the Department for Education gave the council to implement the SEND reforms, and used it to offset legal costs instead. I’m sure Mr McArdle knew nothing about it, for the reasons he gives above.

And he’s definitely right, in a broad sense: education, health, and social care sectors still don’t play nicely together, and things won’t work sustainably better until they do.

Mr McArdle’s optimistic about what the SEND Review will add to the party here:

“..we're going to give more to mainstream schools, earlier intervention, better working relationships with parents and across local systems.”

Sounds great. Not a lot of substance as yet, but who could argue with that? A lot depends on your view of what a better working relationship looks like. Elsewhere in the interview, Mr McArdle gives us an insight into his vision for this. It’s not pretty, it’s not currently lawful, and it’s nothing new.

When discussing how to manage demand in the SEND system, McArdle says that:

“It's about saying to parents: ‘your child goes to your local school’. If it needs adaptations or special training, we’ll do that. Only then, if it doesn’t work, do they go to a special school.”

McArdle goes on to add that being educated in mainstream schools without an EHCP is

“better for the environment, society, and the child's own wellbeing.”

That’s not an approach that’s going to generate better relationships with parents.

Once again, we’re in an evidence-free zone. We’re also in a zone beyond what the 2014 Children and Families Act and the Equality Act 2010 stipulates. But also, this isn’t really that different to how the SEND system often already works in practice.

An operating model where you have to evidence repeated failure over years before specialist provision is grudgingly provided on a statutory footing? That’s not bold, blue-sky thinking: it’s precisely how the SEND system already often “works”, right here, right now. It’s just something that doesn’t show up on PowerPoint or data dashboards. And to find that out, you have to go and get your Birkenstocks dirty.

Saving children with SEND from the system, or saving the system from SEND?

How leaders frame risk tells us a lot. In his interview with Schools Week, Mr McArdle made his views clear: he primarily wants to stop the financial dysfunction in the SEND system from damaging more important things:

“I like to see local authorities succeed because they shape their areas. So many places are being prevented from doing that, because they're hobbled by SEND problems.”

And he’s not an outlier in this. If you dig into the back of the Department for Education’s latest annual report, you’ll find their corporate risk register.

The DfE has six ‘key risks’ on its register. One of those is ‘overspending’ on high-needs SEND, which “results in the SEND and AP system becoming unsustainable and threatening the overall financial stability of LAs.”

This might look like buried bureaucratese, but it tells you a lot about priorities. Think about it another way: what in the wide world of SEND didn’t make the grade as a critical risk for the DfE?

Well, there’s the risk that children and young people with SEND’s life chances are being permanently, repeatedly and sometimes irreparably harmed by system failure. That’s not a key risk, in their eyes.

The SEND sector cannot recruit and retain enough specialist staff to keep going – it’s a supply-side crisis visible from space. They don’t see that as a key risk either.

The risk that really matters to these people is that Things That Matter More are being jeopardised by the financial crisis in high-needs SEND. These leaders are not acting to save children with SEND from the system - they're acting to save the wider system from SEND.

Safety Valves – for whom?

Mr McArdle’s main role, right now, is to broker the financial ‘safety valve’ agreements between Whitehall and local authorities. He denies that these agreements are “driven by finance” – but their detail is a perfect example of what really matters to decision-makers.

We’ve dug into the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that councils have to meet under the ‘safety valve’ agreements. They’re financial, psychotically precise, and come with swift consequences if LAs fail to meet them. Without meaningful accountability elsewhere in the system, they’re an open invitation to more unlawful behaviour from LAs.

We have not seen a single Safety Valve KPI that tracks outcomes for disabled children. Over three years into the SEND Review, we still don’t know how the DfE measures value for money in SEND. We asked them. They’re not telling.

Getting parents and schools to do more with less might work for system leaders. But you’d have to be absolutely detached from front-line reality to believe that it’ll work for children with SEND, particularly given the financial and professional pressures that school and further education sectors are under right now.

It’s not a game, Tony

So are they detached from reality? Ask Mr McArdle, who thinks parents and school staff make decisions the way we do…

“…because that is seen as the game you need to [play].”

You’re wrong here too; it’s not a game to us, Tony. It's not a game to the deaf pupil we recently supported, whose LA tried removing him from his special school while his mother was dying from cancer.

It's not a game to special school leaders, with ravaged budgets and staff shortages, desperately trying to work out how to operate safely.

It's not a game to mainstream teaching assistants who are losing their jobs, because their LA won't increase top-up banding, as their safety valve agreement forbids it.

And it's not a game to families who lose their jobs, savings, houses and mental health to get something that most families can take for granted - an adequate education for their kids with SEND.

It’s not a game, Tony. It’s our lives and our children’s futures. We don’t get to choose if we play.

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Matt Keer

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