The Scott Report on SEND: are institutions toxic in the special needs process?
Lee Scott's report (SEND: experiences with Schools and Colleges), published this week, presents qualitative research into how parents, children and young people feel about provision for special needs. Scott's perspective gives an insight into the Department for Education's evolving strategy: keeping attention on the providers, rather than on central administration, is critical to the government. Across the entire piece from the ill-fated White Paper on academies to the Children & Social Work Bill, mental health and Cohesive Communities, current policy is all about 'building capacity' and 'creating resilience'. When the Secretary of State presents her review of SEND to Parliament next March (for which Scott's report is really a primer), Justine Greening's message will be that schools need to work more closely together; that Local Authorities need to find new ways to ensure a continuum of provision; and that the solution to the unholy mess of SEND lies with individuals rather than institutions. We will hear more from Ms Greening about advice and mediation for parents, more about whole school improvement (with a nod to the Rochford proposals on assessment), more about teacher training on SEND (although I expect her to stay silent about the SENCO Award) and more about equality of opportunity (pressing gently on the Grammar School button to underscore the belief that disadvantage is a contributor to special educational needs and not just a correlate).
The institutions which have oversight of a child's special needs are legion, starting with governing bodies. In the event of a school exclusion, the Governors' decision may be reviewed by an independent panel. As for assessment, a child's needs may be referred to the Local Authority for an Education, Health & Care assessment and the LA's response may be appealed to the First Tier Tribunal (SEND) whose decision may, in turn, be referred to the Upper Tribunal. The First Tier also hears appeals against disability discrimination.
Parents may also take a complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman. In some circumstances, the matter may be viewed by one of the Regional Schools Commissioners, each of whom has their own Headteacher Board. Increasingly, the Department for Communities and Local Government is involved with the organisation of education support services, working with companies like Mott Macdonald (the global service giant commissioned to provide the SEND Pathfinder research). For example, while Multi-Academy Trusts appear to challenge the traditional order, Slough Unitary Authority has joined with Cambridge Education (part of Mott Macdonald) to form its own Trust, creating unfamiliar and opaque relationships.
Each of these structures emerged in response to concerns about governance and accountability in vital public services; but this plague of systems achieves relatively little: most are only empowered to refer matters back down the line for re-consideration; sanctions are so rare that, as one commentator put it this week, LAs factor in the cost of going to Tribunal in every case. Why wouldn't they? An appeal delays commissioning a placement or shelling out for support.
Even teachers are endowed with a new organisation, a chartered professional College. In her vision of the College, CEO Designate Dame Alison Peacock makes an interesting allusion to what might presently be lacking, both for her members and for the parents and children in Lee Scott's report:
"With the enthusiasm and involvement of our members, we can create something truly unique- a unified and authoritative professional body that enables teachers to feel connected to, and a part of, what is happening in the education sector across both their own regions and the nation as a whole."
From his conversations with parents and professionals, Lee Scott details significant examples of disconnect and communication breakdown:
- between teachers and parents;
- between Local Authorities and families;
- between different Local Authorities;
- between Local Authorities and local schools and colleges;
- between Local Authorities and local health services;
- between schools and colleges (at 16+);
- between schools and other schools;
- within schools.
Scott echoes familiar concerns about the lack of transparency in funding arrangements at different levels of the system (fittingly, Scott himself seems unsure about the "place plus" rule by which schools are expected to fund a child's place plus the first £6,000 of support from their own budget). He returns to the theme of connection when commenting on problems where a school deals with several Authorities.
A glaring consequence of Scott's very limited time for research lies in his discussion of how the legislation is working:
"I rarely heard any criticism made of the way the system is designed or of the role that central government is playing – although some did say that it could do more to ensure the law was being applied consistently... "
Frankly, this is inadequate: but as he admits in his opening remarks, this was neither a representative sample of parents nor a scientific investigation. There are serious omissions, too: no discussion of the appalling number of exclusions applied to children and young people with SEND (Scott even appears to condone unlawful "informal" exclusions, as long as there isn't "over-use"); no analysis of the impact of mental health service waiting times; and, ironically, while many LAs refuse even to discuss Personal Budgets with parents, despite their prominent place among the list of reforms in the Children & Families Act, Scott himself fails to discuss them too.
What the report does, and quite well, is to illustrate some common themes from real conversations with parents and young people and, in particular, a sense that the system is fragmented and inconsistent, that there is no connectivity, that the primacy of "person-centered" approaches has been lost since 2014. Scott doesn't talk about the Tribunal any more than the DfE wanted to when Tania Tirraoro at Special Needs Jungle spotted that the increase in appeals from April to June 2016 was the fastest on record. He acknowledges some of the worst practices among the SEND reforms (especially that many LAs have employed cut'n'paste methods, tipping the contents of teachers' end-of-year reports straight into blank documents and calling them Education, Health & Care Plans). But then he draws us into the conversation and shifts the perspective, from process and protest to people and practice.
The right of appeal - and to seek Judicial Review - is a fundamental part of our system. Anyone who thinks that dialogue alone is now the way to resolve our problems should reconsider, in the same terms with which Oscar Wilde viewed marriage: if the Children & Families Act was the triumph of imagination over intelligence, the Code of Practice is the triumph of hope over experience. Scott's resolution, however, has potential:
"Communication works both ways – it’s not just about being nice to each other, it’s about being clear, honest, and assertive."
At some hazy point in the distant future, we may conclude that the only way to place individuals at the centre of our rotten system is to remove the rotten institutions.