The new children’s minister has pledged to make parents a “key stakeholder” in government decisions, suggesting that his department has sidelined them in the past.
David Johnston has also sought to allay concerns about the merry go-round of ministers overseeing the special educational needs (SEND) reforms, adding that as a former head of the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF), he was not “coming in cold”.
Outlining proposed changes in March, Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, admitted that some families felt they had to battle to access specialist education, health or care services.
In his first interview since his appointment, Johnston said the DfE traditionally saw its stakeholders as teachers, headteachers… “broadly speaking, staff”.
“One of the things I want to see more of is us treating parents as one of our key stakeholders.
“Not just in this area [of SEND]… but across the board. The department should do much more communication with parents because a huge proportion of what happens to us, our outcomes as adults, is a result of what happens at home, not at school.”
He said he would talk to parents regularly ”because I think they’ve got a lot to teach us about what we could do better for their children and to support them in how they support their children”.
‘Not coming to this area cold’
Johnston replaced Claire Coutinho in August after her promotion to energy secretary, becoming the seventh children’s minister since the SEND review was first launched in 2019, and the fifth in the past two years.
One special school leader said it showed “utter ambivalence towards children with SEND. How are things supposed to improve if we continue to have short-term leadership?”
Asked what impression that gave to the sector, Johnston said “where ministers can remain in their positions … as long as possible that is in general better”.
But he said it was not possible to do that with every position. “The changes, if they concern people… they’ve not had someone coming to their area cold. I feel that I’ve been able to hit the ground running.”
Johnston was chief executive of the SMF for more than a decade. He also served on the education committee, was a parliamentary private secretary at the DfE and school governor.
“I hope that parents and the sector more broadly will feel that I’m on their side and that the decisions I make are in the best interests of children,” he added.
Johnston also pledged not to allow any “slack” on the timetables for the SEND and alternative provision implementation plan, although national rollout could be two years away.
‘No artificial targets’
However, he has already had to deal with a stinging letter from the education committee that demanded answers on why his predecessor assured MPs the government had no targets to slash SEND provision.
The Observer revealed earlier this month that a contract to run the “delivering better value (DBV) in SEND” scheme – to help councils with huge high-needs deficits – included “targeting at least 20 per cent reduction in new education, health and care plans [EHCPs] issued”.
Johnston said contractor Newton Europe “didn’t recognise this is any of what they are doing… And I think they gave me all the reassurance I needed that there’s no such figure.”
The DfE described the figure as “indicators” on EHCP numbers that were “not formalised or agreed”, pointing out they were not key performance indicators.
Johnston told the education committee on Friday the figure “simply reflects an impact we might expect” if the scheme delivered on its promise for more early intervention.
He said the government guaranteed every parent and family’s existing legal right to an EHCP when one was needed.
The scheme has been criticised as a cost-cutting exercise. But Johnston pointed to the 60 per cent increase to the high-needs budget since 2019.
“You find me many areas of government expenditure that have been given 60 per cent more money in the course of this parliament – there aren’t any, which tells you what a priority this government has in this area.”
The MP for Wantage has also asked his team to provide data on the disadvantage gap – the widest on record – as part of every policy submission they make.
“That was the whole theme of my pre-politics career. I think it’s so important for government to try and close that gap.”