SEN reform: missing the point

The government published their reforms to SEN (special educational needs) last week, trumpeting them as the most radical shake-up in 30 years. To me, though, they just look like a massive wasted opportunity, and I’m shocked by how muted and misdirected the criticism has been.

This is important stuff- at the last count there were 1,673,895 children in the school system with SEN, ranging from dyslexia through emotional problems to severe and profound disability.

To explain this I guess I should make it clear what the problems were, and what progress has been made. There were 7 main problems, in my view.

Firstly  the whole system is under-funded. Demand for.SEN provision had risen steadily for years (for instance by 4-5% per year in profound and multiple learning disabilities), and funding hasn’t kept pace.

Secondly .no one knows what ‘good enough’ provision means in SEN. Unlike in health, where  NICE guidance and national service frameworks have set minimum standards for care, no such a system exists in SEN, despite a lively literature.

Thirdly, there is a stark distinction in the middle of the system, between those with a statement of special educational needs, and those without. The latter (and vast majority) have their needs served by school directly, from delegated funding, and the safeguards for their SEN provision are minimal.

Fourthly, as a result of the first three factors, the SEN system is absurdly confrontational. Parents are routinely told by charities and advocates to ‘get a statement at all costs’, and not without reason. The problem is that only 13% of children with SEN get statements, so there is a growing population of families seeking a shrinking pot of gold, which is controlled by local authorities (LAs) who lack national standards and guidance to place their judgments on a sound footing. If  parents don’t agree with decisions, LAs are taken to tribunals by the more determined, often aided by solicitors (if they can afford them). The tribunal panel then decides what is in the best interests of the child. Given that it is in the best interests of most children with SEN to have a statement, it’s hardly a surprise that Local Authorities rarely win at tribunal. Hence the wealthy and eloquent get more of a scarce resource than the poor and possibly-not-that-great-at-English.

Fifthly, it’s unclear what the responsibilities of health and social care agencies are to children with SEN, leading to unpleasant bun-fights between education and health about who is responsible for a certain provision.

Sixthly (I hate that word, so ugly), the process of assessment leading to a statement is very time-consuming and involves the family traipsing around repeating themselves to agencies that don’t communicate with each other effectively.

Finally, the system abruptly runs out at 19.

The government proposals address the last two problems; which is good, don’t get me wrong. The new EHC plan assessment process may well be better (the Bill is short on detail), and extending SEN provision is unequivocally a good thing.
But they are doing nothing at all for the first five problems, and that is the scandal.

The solution to who does what is at least clear: education does it all in schools, under a system of joint commissioning with health. The trouble is that health budgets will simply disappear from schools into the chaos of Hunt’s NHS, leaving education to pick up the slack.

And the rest of the system has really only had a lick of paint on its rusty dysfunctional bodywork. Statements become EHC plans but the iniquitous division between the haves and have-nots continues. Those without EHC plans will rely on a vaguely worded exhortation for schools to use their ‘best endeavours’ to help these children (I’ll blog soon on why that is so disastrously insufficient), there is no attempt to set in motion national standards or bench-marks to which parents or LAs can both appeal, and of course there will be no more money.

From an NHS perspective, imagine that this was a reform of mental health services. No national guidance is issued or planned. Only 13% of patients get a legally enforceable right to intervention; the rest are left to their own devices because everyone is, after all, doing their best.  It is unimaginable that it would be permissible in any health arena, yet our most vulnerable young people are being treated in this shoddy way.

The response of the charities, whom you would expect to be at the forefront of advocating for improvement, has been curiously muted, focusing on technical issues around commissioning, definitions and time limits, rather than the fact that 1.2m children with SEN but no statement will have virtually no protection under this Bill. It’s not for me to speculate as to why, but it’s a disappointment, to say the least.

What next? well, the bill will pass with only superficial amendments, and then the government will issue an SEN code of practice, likely to be another masterpiece of vagueness, but I would make one prediction- there will be a concerted effort to reduce the number of children identified with SEN, not because there is no need, but because they are financially inconvenient. As always, I am delighted to be wrong….



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