SEND Green Paper: Why the DfE needs to win families’ trust

The families of pupils with SEND will be wondering why it has taken so long to get to this point – but at least the Green Paper offers hope of positive change, says Rob Webster
29th March 2022, 2:26pm


SEND Green Paper: Why the DfE needs to win families’ trust
SEND, trust

In the thick of the global pandemic, a meme did the rounds on social media that neatly captured people’s frustrations with the government’s handling of Covid.

The meme (watch it here - warning: it contains some profanity) came at a time when politicians were apparently caught off-guard by the effects of imposing restrictions and then lifting them prematurely - both at a moment’s notice. The man in the hot dog suit who refuses to take the blame for crashing his hot dog-shaped car into a crowded shop became an instant shorthand to describe the way the architects of problems tend to react to those problems.

This viral image came to mind on reading the government’s new Green Paper on special educational needs and disability (SEND).

Having diagnosed the central problems with the SEND system as “a vicious cycle of late intervention, low confidence and inefficient resource allocation”, the government seems reluctant to consider its own contribution to the situation.

This unwillingness to own past mistakes and missteps is perhaps a sign that the current administration wants to be seen as an entirely different proposition to the Conservation-Lib Dem coalition that introduced the 2014 SEND reforms.

The SEND review Green Paper: Parents’ patience is wearing thin

But taking responsibility matters if, as education secretary Nadhim Zahawi and health secretary Sajid Javid claim in their joint ministerial foreword, the government is serious about restoring confidence and creating a “sustainable, less bureaucratic system” than the one the earlier reforms did much to help create.

After all, trust is a commodity in short supply in the SEND sector.

After eight years of being “frustrated with the difficulties and delays they face in securing support for their child”, and having experienced a tougher and more stressful pandemic than most, SEND families are again being asked to have faith in a government that says it will fix systemic problems it has promised and failed to address once already.

On reading its findings, summarised in chapter one of the Green Paper, parents will be justified in asking why they have been asked to wait two years while the Department for Education conducted its own review of SEND before issuing fresh proposals for improvement.

The DfE’s review adds virtually nothing to the two brutal assessments by the Commons Education Select Committee and the National Audit Office, both published in 2019, which told ministers and policymakers everything they needed to know about the catalogue of widespread dysfunction and dissatisfaction with the system.

The government, then, ought to consider itself on notice from everyone who has lived with the fallout of the 2014 reforms and will now have to wait many more months for consultation and policy process to complete before the prospect of change.

What’s being delivered?

So, now that it’s finally here, does the Green Paper match up to its promise of achieving “an effective and sustainable SEND system that delivers great outcomes for children and young people”? Here’s my take on some of the key proposals.

The proposals don’t have the same status as the plans outlined in the Schools White Paper, published earlier in the week. The Green Paper lays out a direction of travel, not a fixed policy blueprint. And while, encouragingly, it upstages the White Paper in terms of ambition, it remains light on some important detail.

Banalities like “world-class support” jar, while a commitment to setting out “a well-designed delivery programme with a clear roadmap for improvement that stabilises the system in the immediate term and delivers the necessary culture change to build an inclusive system in the longer term” implies there’s an understanding that structural reform is essential if the government is serious about delivering on its aims - even if the “how” isn’t yet fully formed.

There’s a notable sense that the DfE is making a play to centralise key processes and funding decisions in the name of efficiency. There’s a proposal to legislate for new national SEND standards - reflected in a revised SEND Code of Practice - to mitigate the effects of “too much local discretion” and ensure “fairness and consistency in decision-making”.

Similarly, there’s a suggestion to standardise the way education, health and care plans (EHCPs) are written and to introduce digital EHCPs. Centrally held data would underpin ambitious proposals to introduce “new local and national inclusion dashboards, setting out clear performance data and metrics across education, health and care”.

However, there doesn’t appear to be any meaningful way to measure inclusion either within an individual school or - because inclusion is a relative concept - between schools.

Financial sinkholes 

While these digital plans are potentially good for accountability and transparency, the government will need to ensure they don’t succumb to the kind of financial incontinence that seems to be the death sentence for many a marquee IT project.

The government can ill afford to open up new funding sinkholes in the SEND landscape. Despite Mr Zahawi’s certainty about the adequacy of school funding, and the already-announced £2.6 billion of capital investment to build and revamp infrastructure, it is far from clear where the specialist staff and equipment is going to come from to fill these settings.

There are other indicators that pulling more decision-making about funding into Sanctuary Buildings will prompt a review of expenditure.

Mainstream schools, the Green Paper proposes, will have their budget allocations determined “via a single, national formula” administered by the DfE, not local authorities. The DfE will also “consider” whether the £6,000 per pupil, per year notional budget “remains the right threshold beyond which schools can expect to draw down additional high-needs funding”.

Likewise, news of “a new national framework of banding and price tariffs for high-needs funding” may trouble parents who fear a thin-end-of-the-wedge approach to resource allocation.

As might the “requirement to discuss and record whether a step down to targeted support, and cessation of an EHCP’ would be appropriate, as part of the annual review process.

Despite this, there’s room for ideas to ensure local-level implementation and oversight. With the Schools White Paper agitating for a fully trust-led system, the Green Paper reimagines the role of local authorities as “a champion for the best interests of every child and young person in their area”. Given the recent history, there will be families who will have as much faith in this idea as they would an alligator-led nursery.

There’s also talk of local SEND partnerships, convened by local authorities and composed of representatives from early years, schools, FE, alternative and specialist provision, plus other partners including those from health, care and youth justice, to “ensure effective local delivery”.

There specifics are light, but one purpose of these partnerships is to “work with parents and carers to produce a local inclusion plan”, which, in turn, would inform the process for selecting an “appropriate” school place.

Parents and carers would be provided with “a tailored list of settings” (including mainstream, specialist and independent schools), then the “local authority will allocate the first available place in order of [their] preference and this school will be named in the child’s EHCP”.

Teacher training - a bit ‘blah’

Again, this would all need considerable fleshing out, as there is an awful lot that can go wrong with a process that could be used to narrow parental choice. In other news, the Green Paper proposes that mediation between families and local authorities will be a mandatory requirement prior to registering a tribunal appeal.

Finally, on the school workforce, there is an encouraging proposal (also contained in the White Paper) to replace the national SENCO award with a National Professional Qualification within the leadership suite.

It’s a signal that Sendcos should be part of a school’s senior management team, and a firm commitment to this ought to be included in the final policy.

However, there’s something of a lack of imagination when it comes to development for the rest of the workforce.

There’s the familiar “blah” about improving teacher training recycled from the White Paper, which does little to convince that the DfE is serious about addressing teachers’ plummeting levels of confidence in supporting children with SEND.

Meanwhile, teaching assistants are covered in one 50-word paragraph, which commits to doing something that’s already been done: setting out clear guidance on their effective deployment. Neglected in the White Paper, too, the scandal of inexplicably sidelining 28 per cent of the school workforce in national policymaking continues.

Even if there are some key details missing, it’s difficult to knock the ambition set out in the Green Paper to overhaul the SEND system in England.

None of this is set in stone, and the very least the government now owes families and the SEND sector is its full engagement in both a meaningful consultation and a genuinely collaborative process to agree workable and fully-resourced proposals that lead to permanent improvement.  

Rob Webster is a reader in education and director of the Education Research, Innovation and Consultancy Unit at the University of Portsmouth

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