Until ministers fix SEND, we’ll keep fighting for our rights

Ali Durban responds to controversial comments by Gillian Keegan about the special needs support system being 'lose, lose, lose'

Ali Durban responds to controversial comments by Gillian Keegan about the special needs support system being 'lose, lose, lose'

27 Oct 2023, 5:01

When Gillian Keegan admitted “we haven’t got the right service for SEND children”, we can only hope that “lose, lose, lose” turns into ‘win, win, win’ for teachers, schools, local authorities and most importantly, some of society’s most vulnerable children and young people.

A turnaround will inevitably take time, and, more ambitiously, any system transformation will take long-term planning and joined-up thinking.

Whilst we wait, and hope, for this to happen, thousands of children and young people are being damaged. We have no choice but to continue to challenge the system through its legal framework to access the rights and support to which SEND learners are entitled.

As Keegan recognises, SEND diagnoses don’t happen early enough. We know that getting an assessment, let alone the right diagnosis, can take up to two years.

At that point, it is just the beginning of a long and difficult journey for children and their families. Accessing the appropriate resources, expertise and support in school or the right educational provision can take many more years.

I know this first-hand as a parent of a child with SEND and because of the weekly calls I get from broken, desperate families who, alongside their children, are trying to navigate a system that isn’t designed to support their child even though it pretends that it is.

As Keegan notes, parents haven’t got the choice of schools they need and therefore aim for ‘expensive independent schools’. I agree; there is a scarcity of specialist provision across the UK and no joined-up thinking around SEND.

We have no choice but to continue to challenge the system through its legal framework to access the rights and support to which SEND learners are entitled

But suggesting families just want expensive, independent schools is a simplistic starting point to the complexity of the problem; the luxury of choice is not something SEND families have.

The independent sector is often the only place where specific needs can be met. Regular care, support and therapy are expensive, and many children and young people attending these schools have complex needs. They are not elite schools, which the tone of Keegan’s comments intimate. 

So, what happens when the current system thwarts families? Keegan makes the right statement, but seemingly misunderstands the context of the problem.

At present, tribunal is the only place where local authorities are held to account and where the law is enforced through the system’s legal framework.

For many, and increasingly so, this is the only place where decisions are overturned, but at a significant expense to the system. Many families give up before they get to this stage, but for those that reach tribunal, as Schools Week reports, 96 per cent are upheld, i.e., won by families.

Pro Bono Economics suggested these losses cost nearly £60m – the equivalent of 10,000 places in SEN units within mainstream schools.

Putting costs before care means that councils too frequently place children and young people in unsuitable settings, and more recent measures, such as the high-needs safety valve system and LA targets to reduce the number of EHCPs, have added further pressure to the system.

Children who should be in specialist provision are now being placed in mainstream schools. This puts an additional burden on teachers, schools and the children and families themselves, which can, in the long term, lead to children being off-rolled, excluded or missing from education.

And here’s Keegan’s final point – the process ends up a tale of two outcomes: those who succeed and those who don’t. Meeting the needs of vulnerable children and young people and changing their outcomes in life should be the only priority in decision-making. Accessing a meaningful education is a basic human right.

Our ambition is to change the tired, deeply depressing, cyclic narrative around this vulnerable group of children and young people. We’re working hard to lobby hard for system change, to deliver great provision, and to help parents, teachers, and schools navigate the best they can.

This means that until government is brave enough to reframe its thinking, it’s down to us to use the power in the system to ‘win, win, win’ – and so we will carry on fighting to ensure that legislation is adhered to, to overturn refusals to assess and to access the support and provision that our children and young people are legally entitled to.

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