Will Quince has left the department for education to assume a new brief at the department for health and social care (DHSC), and it is as yet unclear who will take the helm to navigate the SEND green paper through the next leg of its journey. And for those of us who have been around the block for a bit, there is a certain familiarity in seeing a change of minister in the middle of a SEND reform programme.
Back in 2012, Sarah Teather – who had published the Support and Aspiration Green Paper – was replaced by Ed Timpson. just as she was about to put out the draft legislation that would eventually become part 3 of the Children and Families Act 2014.
As it turned out, that transition was a pretty smooth one. At least from my perspective as a civil servant at the time, both Sarah and Ed were excellent ministers to serve. But clearly change at the top in the middle of a significant reform programme is risky. Now on ‘the other side of the fence’, I worry about losing Quince.
There is much in the green paper that concerns us, from specific proposals such as local authorities providing families with ‘a pre-defined list of schools that are suitable for their child’ to an overall fear that the focus is too much on controlling costs and that existing rights and protections will be lost.
But notwithstanding that, Will Quince felt like someone we could work with. Parents who met him were impressed with his willingness to listen and to engage, and he took the very welcome step of apologising to children and families failed by the system. He certainly seemed to listen to concerns about the proposals, and on one of the big gaps – accountability – clearly said that he knew the government needed to go further.
A change means a new minister will have to wrap their head around the complex world of SEND, and more importantly come to truly understand what the reality on the ground is like for parents, children and young people. There is already great concern that the green paper is really about saving money. Without a strong ministerial advocate for disabled children – especially in the current climate – there is a significant danger that this becomes the only imperative.
On the other hand, this could be an opportunity. It may be easier for a new minister to drop controversial parts of the proposals – and maybe even focus on making the current system work as it should rather than starting again. And Will Quince himself could be an important ally in the DHSC in ensuring that the health service plays its part in delivering the support disabled children and their families need.
The SEND review requires is the kind of continuity we saw in 2012. These are perhaps more troubled times, but pupils with SEND and their families have already been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic; they can’t afford to be let down now.
And above all, whoever takes the helm now will need to show the same willingness to listen to parents, children and young people as Will Quince did.