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Biggest reforms in a generation or the nail in the coffin for a...

Having recently had our Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) provision inspected by the Care Quality Commission and Ofsted, and received a report to be proud of, I thought I would reflect on whether the “biggest education reforms in a generation for young people with special educational needs” have really met the aspirations of children and young people or whether, in reality, they are falling considerably short.

I recall, a few years ago, talking to parents who were optimistic about the future. They were excited by the prospect of a system which provides them and their child with a stronger voice, a focus on long-term outcomes, closer co-operation between education, health and social care, the option of a personal budget and a clear description of services in the local area – exactly what was needed!

Schools, local authorities and health providers also shared this optimism. They were delighted to see an emphasis on greater collaboration, a Local Offer setting out all multi-agency and community services available for families and the opportunity for more parental control. However, the reality is far from the rhetoric.

A report by SQW on the impact of the reforms concluded that, although a reduction in the level of dissatisfaction has been sustained, this has not been accompanied by an increase in overall parental satisfaction, which is where I am most disappointed.

So, what has been the impact? Unsurprisingly, we have seen a significant rise in demand pressures:

  • The number of children and young people with education, health and care plans has increased by at least 35 per cent in five years
  • The number of children and young people educated in special schools and specialist colleges has risen by at least 24 per cent during the same period
  • Rather shockingly, children with SEND account for half of all permanent exclusions despite representing only 14 per cent of the school population. Further, of the children in pupil referral units, over three quarters have SEND
  • The number of pupils identified as needing SEN Support (formerly School Action and School Action Plus) has steadily fallen – this may be because school staff are getting better at intervening early to help pupils ‘catch up’ with their peers, but it is possible that there is an underestimation of needs and that some pupils are not benefiting from SEN Support early with needs escalating and pupils disengaging from education.

So why haven’t the reforms delivered? Was the context understood? Were the solutions impractical? I suppose when you extend the age limit for statutory support from 0 to 25, and when medical advances mean that more children with complex needs are thriving, the reforms and the financial impact assessment appear to have missed the bigger picture. I fear that the changes to a system which was considered by government to be too “bureaucratic, bewildering and adversarial” have not met its expectations and I argue strongly that this is not due to local leadership or lack of local ambition, but due to a chronic lack of investment, a focus on the wrong things and a naivety about the bigger context.

The financial position is close to ‘imploding’ according to evidence given by Dave Hill (Director of Children’s Services at Surrey County Council) to the Education Select Committee and I couldn’t agree more. Recent reports indicate that more than half of local authorities are reporting a deficit in their SEND budget which could translate to a national deficit of £536 million, compared to the projected national deficit of £267 million in 2017/18. This reinforces to me that it is not a local leadership challenge and instead requires urgent national action. However, this is not just a challenge for the Department for Education (DfE); the Department of Health (DoH) must appreciate that its current Continuing Healthcare framework is woefully inadequate to drive forward integration.

The other area where progress appears to have been limited is the use of the Local Offer. Many inspections of SEND provision are critical of local areas for not doing enough to promote this, but I don’t believe that signposting is enough on its own and to even think that a local offer would be the only solution fails to comprehend the various and complex needs of families. The focus is on the wrong solution.

Finally, I challenge the concept that personal budgets would be the best mechanism to give parents a voice. The market of service and support provision has been slow to adapt to the shift from a supply-led to a demand-led model, and many parents tell me that they don’t want to be responsible for finding and overseeing services. It may work for some, but for others, their lives are complex and busy enough.

So, if I had three wishes, I would ask for a focus on the following issues:

  • Funding which meets the ambition of the reforms across health, care and education - this will need not only a response from DfE but a commitment from DoH to review the Continuing Healthcare assessment framework
  • Workforce development so the whole children’s workforce is sufficiently prepared to support children with SEND needs
  • An inclusive education system where the enhanced needs of children with SEND are cherished.

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