SEND Reform is Dead. Long Live SEND Reform!
I remember exactly where I was when the reform of SEND passed.
I was in a store, looking for underpants. This is more difficult than it used to be. Reputable stores have been poorly advised. One in particular, whose underwear once encircled the globe, has reviewed its trade in Y-fronts and simply asked, “Why?”
I am neither of the Y-front persuasion nor do I wrestle with boxers. I am a mere slip of a man.
Finding something that appeared suitable in a supermarket, I paid and took my chances; but language is as open to manipulation in the clothing industry as anywhere else. I returned to the store:
“These are not as advertised so I’d like a refund, please.”
“You’ve opened them.”
“Yes. Thanks to your excessive packaging and misleading labelling, it’s the only way to discover if your smalls really are Small.”
“But there’s nothing wrong with the product.”
“They’re not faulty, they’re just not as described.”
“But you’ve handled them.”
“Indeed. It was either that or hire a medium to tell me they were Medium.”
“We can’t accept them because you’ve opened them. You haven’t returned them in a saleable condition.”
“Wait - you’re misrepresenting your products, taking my money and then making me feel guilty?”
“I’m not making you feel anything.”
“You don’t know what I’m feeling. That’s the point about feelings, isn’t it... when you think about it? They’re based on our own perceptions, they’re internalised experiences, and you’ve made me feel something which you can’t possibly know – unless it was practised and intentional?”
In brief, that was my most recent entry into briefs; and it was, well… pants. As is obvious from the above conversation, I want slightly less from the world than the world claims to give me. But I want the truth; and the truth is not elastic.
The mis-selling of the Children & Families Act, the so-called “SEND reform”, began with fundamental failures of political will that no amount of packaging can disguise:
- The concept of joined-up thinking, advocated by Sir Brian Lamb’s inquiry, was shoplifted by the Coalition without any attempt to regulate the involvement of Health or Social Care. That is why the First-Tier Tribunal is now piloting recommendations to cover those services: but these recommendations are not legally binding and will largely be forestalled or ignored.
- The reality of austerity was wrapped in the brightly-coloured garment of “co-production” between young people, parents, carers, practitioners and Local Authorities - a fashion accessory so flimsy that the government had to spend millions and millions handing grants and contracts to its allies just to keep it on the streets long enough for the ink of Royal Assent to dry on the Bill.
- The transition from Statements to Education, Health & Care Plans was horrendously misjudged. It relied on a relationship between LAs, schools, parents and young people which had never been properly tested and which, in most places, still doesn’t exist. The poor quality of so many Plans will make it even harder for that relationship to be sustained now that the transition is ‘complete’. Seamless, it was not.
- The legislation failed to take any account of the changing landscape of education, in which the ability of schools to deliver on the promises of the Code of Practice is compromised by the inability of the DfE to manage each sector and hold leaders to account, simultaneously espousing (as it does) evidence-based practice on the one hand and the mythical social value of Grammar schools on the other; ‘zero tolerance’ of behaviour that challenges, yet ‘inclusion’ of complex needs.
- The extension of the age range of statutory provision from 0 to 25 was fully justified but hopelessly under-researched. The FE sector operates so differently from the school sector – and almost completely outside the control of the DfE – that the SEND regulations held no power over the sector and post-16 SEND remains a complete lottery within general FE colleges, leading to further demand for non-maintained specialist provision.
So now, almost four years in, we have a day of reckoning:
- A backlog of Annual Reviews, botched transfers and unbudgeted commitments that equals the one over which Local Authorities have been sweating recently.
- Predictions that the number of appeals to the First-Tier Tribunal will rocket after April 3rd.
- The Local Government Ombudsman has upheld 80% of complaints over EHCPs.
- The failure rate in Local Area SEND Inspections has more than doubled from 30% last year to 63% this year.
- Meanwhile funding for schools and services is still on the way down but the cost of running a fragmented school system, on the way up.
- The former minister who was in charge of “SEND reform” is now in charge of a review exploring what happens to the children whom it failed.
It’s not a good fit.
PS. Since transparency is a theme of my work, here’s my declaration of interests:
- SEND Consultant in a mainstream secondary school, carrying out the duties of SENCO and some class teaching.
- SEN Leadership Consultant to a local authority.
- Training consultant to a Multi-Academy Trust.
- Advocate for children and young people with SEND, engaged by parents/carers
- Unpaid member of the advisory group to the Independent Supporters programme.
- Lead programmer for FestABLE, the upcoming first national festival of specialist learning