SEN reform: still missing the point

The government will shortly publish their SEN code of practice, putting into place the last piece of what they continue to trumpet as the most radical shake-up in 30 years. To me, though, they just look like a massive wasted opportunity. Belatedly, the disability charities have joined in, but even they have been side-tracked by fringe issues.

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. A few of these children have vocal, eloquent parents (good for them), but the majority come from relatively poor, vulnerable backgrounds, and have no advocacy voice to speak of.

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.

1) 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 has been stagnant. A similar situation in the NHS has produced huge anxiety about efficiency savings and viability. In SEN, nothing.

2) 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.

3) There is a stark distinction at the heart 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.

4) 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 the authority ought to have done to follow regulations: however, they do this without regard to the resources available to the authority, so it’s hardly a surprise that the Local Authorities, who of course must take resources into account in their decisions, 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.

5) 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.

6) 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.

7) The system abruptly runs out at 19.

The government proposals address the last problem; which is good, don’t get me wrong.  Extending SEN provision is unequivocally a good thing, although quite how it can be done without any more money is beyond me.

They would claim that the process of assessment (6) will be slicker. I’m unconvinced; local authorities will be forced to present a more human face to families, which is great, but there has been no investment in systems to make the sharing of information between health and education quicker. Locally, we have tried to get something going, but one local authority does not have the resources to get over the enormous organisational barriers to sharing and collaboration that exist.

And these reforms do precisely nothing at all for the first five problems, and that is the scandal.

The solution to who does what remains elusive: in a last-minute wheeze, the government have decided that education do anything that involves teaching or training the child, and health or social care do anything else. So what about teaching the child to go to the toilet? What about training the TA to cope with behaviour? What about CBT? What about the care needs of profoundly disabled children? In one of those head in hand moments I often get when reading government documents, they want it sorted out at a local level. This means that there will be hundreds of unpleasant bunfights about this up and down the country, starting in September.

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, and how to enforce this duty is vague, to say the least. 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, was initially curiously muted, focusing on technical issues around commissioning, definitions and time limits, but they have now woken up to the fact that 1.2m children with SEN but no statement will have virtually no protection under this Bill. See for example the CDC’s work in this area.

What next? Well, once the code of practice is in place, and this 1.2m have little or no protection, 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….

Thanks to @stevebroach for putting me right about tribunals


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