The new government needs to make the education of young people with SEND a top priority throughout the next parliament, says Chris Rossiter
It doesn’t matter which politician occupies No.10 or takes the helm at Sanctuary Buildings, they need to get to grips with the entrenched problems with the SEND system and the dismal outcomes of this growing group of pupils.
The total number of young people identified with SEND has gone up in the last year and the number of children with an EHCP has gone over three per cent for the first time in a decade.
A damning report published in September by the Education Select Committee highlighted multiple failings in the system. Five years after major reforms were introduced with hundreds of millions of pounds spent, mainly on local authorities, there is precious little to be positive about. Young people face spiralling waiting times for assessment and a lack of availability of specialist provision, whilst cash-strapped schools struggle with unending bureaucracy.
In a pre-emptive step to head off any bad press, the DfE set up its own SEND review. Promising improved services and to put an end to a postcode lottery of support, the review will conclude with a revised code of practice in 2020/21.
One area the review needs to get to grips with is how the needs of children are assessed and identified. There have been high-profile debates about the validity of various labels, including dyslexia, ADD/ADHD, Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) and even depression across different disciplines and professions.
A third of teachers have doubts about the validity of dyslexia
These debates are not abstract. They have very real impacts on young people and their families. For example, recent polling carried out by Driver Youth Trust found that a third of teachers have doubts about the validity of dyslexia and nearly one in ten headteachers believe it is neither a useful nor valid term. Arguing about the validity of labels won’t improve outcomes for pupils or even help teachers figure out how to help.
The system needs to focus on grappling with the educational needs of pupils first and then consider what, if any, reasonable adjustments might be needed to overcome the impact of any impairment. Let’s be clear, many pupils with SEND are likely to experience a number of co-occurring difficulties throughout their education and currently the use of labels is insufficient to grasp this complexity or report it accurately in school data. There is no guarantee that a diagnosis of one label has not overlooked the impact of another.
Identification is just one aspect of a hugely complex system. Parents of children with SEND, and those of us who work with them regularly, are desperate for change. The time has come to radically rethink a system which successive governments have failed to substantially improve.
But, reading the manifestos of the three main parties provides little hope this is on the horizon. True, in different ways they all pledged more – money, teachers, school places and so on – but what are they offering that’s actually new and which might actually turn around the fortunes of over a million young people with SEND?
The next government should end the postcode lottery of SEND provision by appointing a National SEND Commissioner to report back to parliament on the effectiveness of funds used, availability of placements and provision, and set a single application and assessment criteria for accessing higher needs funding. The role must work across government departments, educational sectors and phases and local authority boundaries. Above all, this role must engender trust and promote transparency, relentlessly pursuing those in power to make and keep young people with SEND a priority.
The desperately needed transformation of the SEND system can be realised, but I’m unconvinced that promises of ‘more’ are the answer, except where accountability is concerned. If the new government truly wants to improve the education of young people with SEND, it should first ensure that every penny spent actually makes a difference to them.