Poor choices for parents and pupils; funding cuts; academisation; dwindling local authority budgets: dark clouds are hanging over SEND reform, says Barney Angliss

David Cameron teased up last autumn’s spending review, thus: “…with a smarter state, we can spend less and deliver more.”

Reform of special education needs and disabililities (SEND) has not been particularly smart, as it turns out: delivery has fallen way behind schedule and cost nearly £0.5 billion. When, in a recent piece for specialneedsjungle.com, I analysed local authorities’ turnaround of the new education, health and care plans (EHCPs) that replace statements, there was dismay but little surprise. Parents complained the assessments were out-of-date and short on commitments, reminding me of Woody Allen’s joke about the two elderly women at a resort:

“Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.”

“Yeah, I know, and such… small portions.”

Nine leading charities have just highlighted huge disparities in parents’ and professionals’ views of where, why and what the problems are. Almost half the parents surveyed said they could not work because they did not get enough support to help look after their disabled child (on average, child disability trebles the cost of care and support).

A brilliant study of SEND funding, conducted for the Department for Education by ISOS LLP, went to public consultation earlier this year. The responses are in but they’re likely to languish in Nicky Morgan’s tray; the secretary of state ordered a review of SEND, less than two years after the reforms were legislated, to be chaired by former Conservative MP Lee Scott. Morgan has reasons to be concerned:

– parents continue to find solid support from the SEND tribunal, fuelling fears that the new system — as litigious as the old — is exposing a poor range of educational choices available to parents in many areas;

academisation raises complex questions about rights and responsibilities within the school sector: local authorities (LAs) retain responsibility for the costs of SEND but are losing their traditional power to orchestrate provision. As a result, multi-academy trust policies are coming under scrutiny, only three months after the white paper;

– funding for the majority of pupils with SEND (those who don’t have an EHC Plan) is not ring-fenced, at a time when schools are reeling from the ‘flat-cash’ squeeze; if their concerns are not resolved, parents have no power other than to request an EHCP, shifting the pressure back on to the LA in a spiral of ‘demand failure’;

– in any case, competing demands for labels, diagnoses and interventions don’t sit easily with the type of pedagogy implicit in Nicky Morgan’s “Educational Excellence Everywhere”, such as ‘quality-first teaching’, ‘learning without limits’, evidence-based practice and ‘no-excuses’ scepticism about categories of need;

– LAs’ dwindling resources mean they are unlikely ever to be able to deliver on some of the promises contained in the Children & Families Act (notably, the much-hyped Personal Budgets for children with disabilities).

So a dark shadow of uncertainty hangs over SEND reform, before it’s fully rolled out. Another report by ISOS, on 16-19 funding for students with additional needs, underscores a trend that is increasingly true across sectors:

“…it was difficult to differentiate the support given to students with additional needs from provision that was offered to all students.”

Many school leaders and even SEND staff see this as a positive; it certainly offers a lifeline to the Secretary of State. If all pupils can access effective teaching matched to their needs, runs the logic, very few will need something “additional to, or different from, that made generally for others of the same age” (the legal definition of special educational provision).

A recent NCB/Catch 22 report, not about SEND but about social work, concludes:

“local authorities face a range of resource and capacity issues in meeting the statutory duties”.

The Children & Social Work Bill will allow both high-performing and struggling councils to apply for ‘academy-style freedoms’ for up to 6 years to test different ways of working”, to achieve better outcomes or the “same outcomes more efficiently…”

It’s a template I fully expect Nicky Morgan to draw upon at the end of her deliberations on the failure of SEND reform, with the eventual aim of removing the requirement to classify pupils as having special needs while those needs can be met in mainstream schools. Contentious? You bet.

Barney Angliss (@aspiedelazouch) blogs for Special Needs Jungle

More on the SEND reforms


Past: Key points of the reforms

Present: Where are we now with special needs?