The government’s review of services for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) has “taken too long”, and communications with parents and professionals have been “regrettable”, a minister has admitted.
Will Quince, the children’s minister, told the Parliamentary education committee this morning that the review, launched in September 2019, had to be “started again” in March last year because of the Covid-pandemic.
Ministers have in recent weeks finally confirmed that the much-delayed review will be published in the first quarter of next year. The government has now missed three of its own deadlines to publish it.
Quince, who was appointed to his role in September and is now responsible for completing the review, said he agreed “that it has taken too long”.
The minister also accepted that communications and expectation management by the Department for Education with parents, the SEND community and other stakeholders “has been regrettable”.
“We should have done better at setting expectations as to where we were and the scale of the challenge that we face.”
Covid slowed work with health department
Covid has repeatedly been cited as a major factor in the delays to the review, but Quince explained today that part of the issue was the Department of Health and Social Care being “up to here, rightly, dealing with the pandemic”.
“We aren’t able to progress the SEND review at the pace we would have wanted to without DHSC being as involved as we are.”
The publication of the SEND review is expected to take the form of a government green paper, along with another consultation on the proposals put forward.
Quince defended this approach in front of MPs, following calls for concrete policies to simply be published and then enacted.
“Because of the scale of what we’re looking to do, it is a huge overhaul of the SEND system, and that’s why the green paper will have a full consultation.”
DfE ‘working’ with 49 councils to improve SEND
The many delays to the SEND review come in the context of a worsening picture for children with special educational needs. A Schools Week investigation in October found SEND support in seven of eight areas visited by Ofsted after inspections restarted this year had “significant areas of weakness”.
Ofsted reported earlier this year that over half of local authorities inspected since 2016 had serious weaknesses, forcing them to prepare written statements of action. The DfE also sent a commissioner to take over Birmingham council’s SEND services in October.
Speaking to MPs this morning, Indra Morris, the DfE’s deputy director for children’s services, said the department was currently working “really closely” with 49 local authorities to improve their SEND provision.
She added that there was “another 31, although there’s a bit of an overlap between those two categories, of local authorities where their timeliness is below par and again we’re engaging with them”.
‘Light touch’ AP registration considered
Quince also today defended delays to the implementation of recommendations made in the Timpson review of exclusions and alternative provision. Only six of the 30 recommendations have been fully implemented.
The minister said the government was still “looking at” the recommendations, but insisted AP was a “crucial part” of the SEND review.
He also revealed that he was exploring “light touch” registration requirements for all AP settings. It comes after Ofsted warned that children are being placed in unregulated provision.
Asked whether he would introduce mandatory registration for all settings, Quince said he was “looking at this very very closely”, but added there were “very good reasons why there is some provision that is not regulated at the moment”.
For example, a blanket registration could affect businesses that offer work experience to pupils in AP.
“I definitely don’t want the heavy hand of Ofsted to in effect mean that that really kind generous garage owner who’s giving his time freely to that young person to come and in effect work experience to say ‘this is too much for me, I’m backing out’.
‘We want as few exclusions as possible’
Quince also told MPs he was “absolutely” concerned about levels of exclusion in England. Although Covid has knocked exclusions to their lowest level since 2013, both the number and rate of exclusions had risen every year between 2012-13 and 2017-18.
“We want to see as few exclusions as possible,” said Quince. “It should be very much a last resort.”
But he also said he wanted to ensure that “being excluded from school is not being excluded from education”, adding that he wanted AP “to be a conveyer belt back into mainstream school wherever possible”.