The government recently published its long-awaited SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan, setting out how it will implement the green paper.
Since the Education Act 1981 first envisioned the inclusion of most children with SEND in mainstream schools, its history has been a long tale of obstacles and frustrations for families. The failure of the 2014 reforms to deliver tangible progress was the latest of many disappointments whilst families continued to struggle to access the support needed for their children to flourish in school.
So the improvement plan was keenly awaited, but met with understandable trepidation given this weak track record by successive governments.
Deaf children show up SEND problems
Today, EPI publishes research examining the attainment of deaf children, in partnership with the National Deaf Children’s Society. The headline finding is that deaf children’s attainment in GCSE English and maths is substantially lower than that of hearing children. Concerningly, the 17-month gap facing deaf children is similar in size to that experienced by economically disadvantaged children.
It’s clear more must be done to support deaf children. In particular, the high needs budget must better reflect current needs rather than historical spending. It should also be based on the actual cost of providing support, such as specialist teachers of the deaf in schools.
Good moves on raising SEND awareness
It’s encouraging therefore that the improvement plan includes funding for the training of specialist teachers for children with sensory impairment. On wider training for non-specialist teachers, the plan includes a review of the core content for initial teacher training and the early career framework. If done well, this could create a foundation for better awareness of condition-specific needs, which is required to increase early identification and appropriate support in schools.
It would be unrealistic to expect teachers to become experts in every type of need; we hope that the regional expert partnerships outlined in the improvement plan will provide ongoing support to schools on specific needs. But while specialist training is planned for sensory impairments and basic training is funded for autistic spectrum disorder, we’d like to see awareness training rolled out for every type of need.
But what about national SEND standards?
Introducing national standards setting out what support families can expect and who will provide it could bring exactly the kind of certainty and consistency families need. So far so good then? Well, no.
The prospect of a potential change of government means that if the current government wants to claim any credit, it will need to make specific commitments before the next election. There needs to be a full working draft of the national standards (even if not legislation-ready) before the election is called. Otherwise, how can families weigh up what’s promised against other manifestos?
This isn’t a new government that can ask for more time to finish its homework. And yet the improvement plan only promises some national standards by the end of 2025 – those seen as low-hanging fruit. We must do better than this for children with SEND. Co-production is vital, but it’s no excuse to kick reform into the long grass.
Other issues that require firmer commitments include specifying when the promised additional special schools will be ready to admit pupils, plus a plan for how many more schools, of which types, and in what locations, will still be required.
Meanwhile, the lack of a commitment to roll out mental health support teams to all parts of the country is also a gaping hole. There’s also no commitment to fund post-16 alternative provision, nor to consider how pupil-teacher ratios influence the number of children pushed out of mainstream schools.
The commitments on early years and further education as well as on NHS services are weakened because there isn’t any plan for delivering consistent standards in a mixed market that includes private providers.
So while the plans for SEND and AP offer some progress from the current system, they cannot be considered transformative given these limitations of scope and timing.