Will the DfE learn lessons about supporting disabled learners before the next big crisis?

What would your concerns be if a teacher commented that a pupil was unprepared, failed to assess past actions, and was, “surprisingly resistant to learning lessons from failures”?

Would you think they had a bit of a haphazard approach? That they were rigid thinkers? Would you be considering asking for an assessment of needs? Especially if report after report had said much the same thing about their maths, organisational skills and decision-making abilities?

Well, it’s not a child we’re talking about, but an entire government department, namely the Department of Education. And the latest report comes from the Commons Public Accounts Committee of MPs, no less.

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Anything new in the report?

The report is important because of where it has come from. The Public Accounts Committee "...holds government officials to account for the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of public spending." Content-wise, nothing in the report hasn’t already been said on SNJ before, numerous times, such as:

  1. The damage wreaked by the removal of duties around Education, Health and Care needs assessments and EHC plans.
  2. Schools use of risk assessments as a way to prevent children with EHCPs from attending school when the DfE had said they should be able to keep going
  3. The difficulties of accessing online education many children with SEND
  4. How many children missed their specialist equipment that they used at home which made communication and education very difficult

The report also noted that:

  • Despite taking part in a 2016 exercise to see how it would cope with a pandemic flu outbreak, by the start of 2020, the DfE did not have a plan for managing mass disruption to schooling on the scale caused by COVID-19. 
  • The DfE’s response was “largely reactive” and it has not yet conducted “a systematic exercise to evaluate its response during the early stages of the pandemic and identify lessons for potential future disruption to schooling.
  • Despite the DfE claiming it exercised oversight of these issues through LAs, it later admitted it had not asked to be told of the outcomes of risk assessments so it didn’t know how many children had been told to stay at home whether or not their parents wanted them to have a school place. 

“ But the Department also conceded that there had been regional and school-to-school variation in attendance. It told us that schools’ levels of confidence in making judgements on which children were safe to attend school varied, and that in the future it might look at how to improve the advice and support available to help schools make these decisions.

Third Report - COVID-19: Support for children’s education

The recommendations and a bit of comment

“The Department seems surprisingly resistant to the idea of conducting a proper lessons-learned exercise on its early response to the pandemic”

  1. The Department should carry out a systematic lessons-learned exercise, to evaluate its response to the pandemic and identify departmental-specific lessons. It should then write to us, setting out its main findings.

So far, there has been no review but the DfE says it has learned its lessons “organically” and sees no point in reviewing its own performance independent of how other government departments did. It cited looking at how it had worked jointly with the Department of Health and Social Care—for example, on the identification of clinically extremely vulnerable children. As we know it’s already a year late with its SEND Review. But Ofsted found that the areas that do well generally, did well in the pandemic and vice versa – so surely you cannot look at SEND without also considering the state we are now in and why?   

  1. The Department should work with the Association of Directors of Children’s Services to understand why the number of referrals to children’s social care services remains below expected levels, and take action in light of the findings to make sure children are being effectively safeguarded.
  2. The Department should work with the Department of Health and Social Care to identify the specific actions needed to help children with SEND recover from the damage caused during the pandemic. 

Our comment: We most certainly need a plan to support the mental health of children. Our Mental Health Editor, Angela Kelly, says she is seeing a huge surge in children’s anxiety that needs to be supported by an expansion in easy-to-access children’s mental health services. 

Additionally, The delays because of the relaxation of duties also mean that children whose emerging needs may ordinarily have been spotted and supported will have been missed. How will this be addressed?

  1. The Department should set out a plan for how it will ensure that all vulnerable and disadvantaged children have access to IT equipment to support their learning at home. The plan should make clear the roles of the Department, local authorities and schools, and set out what funding will be available to maintain and replace equipment.
  2. The Department should write to the committee, setting out clear metrics that it will use to monitor the catch-up learning programme, and what level of performance would represent success.

Our comment: This is one to watch because monitoring impact has never been the DfE’s strong suit – if it had, perhaps the implementation of the Children and Families act might not have been such a bust from the start.

  1. National Tutoring Programme: The Department should set out how it intends to gain assurance on the quantity and quality of tutoring and mentoring provided under the National Tutoring Programme. Its response should cover in particular how it intends to ensure there is adequate tutoring and mentoring provision in areas of the country where educational attainment is lower.

The committee said it had heard concerns over whether the scheme is big enough to reach all those in need of support. Meanwhile, an academic mentors scheme led by Teach First, is still hundreds of mentors short of  those requested by schools. 

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What is also needed for disabled learners?

In our view, we should also be asking:

  • Were the reasons for the suspension of legal duties around EHCPs built on valid information? We believe that this was complete overkill and should never be repeated.
  • Why was it that the rights of the most vulnerable people -- both in the Childre and Families Act and The Care Act were singled out as being optional? 
  • Is the Department for Education preparing an ongoing action plan-- one that protects disabled learners first --for when another pandemic, major crisis, or a vaccine-resistant variant of COVID-19 resurges? In order to do this, it should conduct national education research of how all types of schools and colleges responded, where they did well and where they fell down, and use this to set out national guidelines for supporting children with SEND in such circumstances. This should include reviewing existing research, including our own, carried during the height of the pandemic. It should also include ensuring how specialist equipment is made available to disabled children who are unable to attend school. Such a plan must include the involvement of teaching unions/association, the SEND sector and parent groups. 
  • In light of the findings that some children learned much better at home, how should the DfE continue to support the development of Oak Academy, in particular, investigating how methods of differentiation can be included
  • Should Initial Teacher Training (ITT) not only be improved to include a major beefing up of SEND teaching, but also online teaching skills.

Find the report here and as a PDF here

Also read:


  • Books SNJ recommends
  • SNJ FLOW CHARTS
  • Neurodiversity Celebration Week
  • SEND Community Alliance Join us

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Tania Tirraoro
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