SEND review

Sluggish SEND review risks leaving kids ‘stuck in vicious cycle’, says de Souza

'We have two more years of children being fed into this cycle with commensurate poor outcomes that has necessitated the review in the first place', says children's commissioner

'We have two more years of children being fed into this cycle with commensurate poor outcomes that has necessitated the review in the first place', says children's commissioner

The government’s own children’s commissioner has warned ministers their reforms to fix the broken SEND system risk “more years of children being fed” into a “vicious cycle” of poor outcomes.

The Department for Education published its delayed special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) improvement plan this morning. The review was launched in September 2019, 1,274 days ago.

But many of the major reforms won’t actually be rolled out nationwide until potentially 2026.

The green paper, published in March last year, proposed legislation for new national SEND standards and funding tariffs, as there has been “too much local discretion”.

It also promised digital education, health and care plans (EHCPs), to roll out “tailored lists” of schools for parents of SEND children to choose from and mandatory mediation when parents dispute a council’s decision.

But all these policies will now be piloted for two to three years under the £70 million “change programme”.

Nine regional expert partnerships, made up of three to four local authorities, will take part in the trial, reaching around 30 areas at first. It could increase to 50 to 60 areas during the programme.

The Department for Education will then decide whether to go ahead with legislation to roll the changes out nationally.

‘Serious gaps’

Finalised plans would be delivered by the end of 2025, meaning national roll out might not happen until 2026.

It means finishing off many of the reforms has been punted beyond the next election – with no new legislation this parliament. 

Dame Rachel de Souza said she was “concerned that the plan does not go far enough swiftly enough.

The children’s commissioner added: “The DfE identify in the plan a vicious cycle of late intervention, low confidence and inefficient resource allocation that drives the challenges plaguing the system.

“With much of the plan being delivered by the end of 2025, we have two more years of children being fed into this cycle with the commensurate poor outcomes that has necessitated this review in the first place.”

It is understood DfE wants to trial changes to avoid repeating implementation mistakes of its 2014 SEND reforms.

But with a general election expected in 2024, it means finishing off the reforms could be down to a new government.

Labour declined to comment on whether it would implement the plans.

“Whilst it is right to be evidence led and provide time for co-design of major reforms, such as the national standards, with the children they will impact, we must also consider the needs of children now,” de Souza added.

‘We need time to get it right’

Since Gavin Williamson launched the review three years ago, the number of EHCPs issued has risen by 33 per cent to 473,255. Requests for new plans rose 13 per cent between 2019 and 2021, with only three in five plans issued on time.  

Parents challenging councils over their failure to provide support linked to EHCPs are now having to wait up to a year for a tribunal hearing. When they do reach court, nine in ten cases are found in favour of parents. 

As of August last year, 55 per cent of councils were judged to have significant weaknesses in their area’s SEND provision.

Confederation of School Trusts chief executive Leora Cruddas welcomed many of the proposals, adding: “We do need to take the time to get these important reforms right, but we must also better support children and families in need today.”

The government said its new national standards would improve inclusivity among mainstream schools, meaning fewer children will need EHCPs.


Children’s minister Claire Coutinho said the plan “sets out systemic reforms” so that “every child gets the help they need”.

But a SEND pupil that started year 7 in 2019, when the review was launched, will have left school by the time proposals are actually rolled out nationally.

Annamarie Hassall, chief executive of the National Association for SEND, said they feel “encouraged” by the plan but added there will be “many children for whom this transformational change to the system will arrive too late”. 

However Brian Lamb, whose 2009 inquiry informed the 2014 reforms, said a trial was “very helpful” as “ensuring that the new standards and systems are developed with parents could help prevent some of the weaknesses from the 2014 implementation”.

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