'Dear Damian, we need to talk about SEND'

In a letter to the education secretary, experts warn that parents of children with SEND are denied choice over inclusion

Peter Gray and Brahm Norwich

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Dear Damian Hinds,

Since the Education Action 1981, which enacted some key recommendations of the Warnock Report 1978, there have been significant developments in policy and practice for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). Many mainstream schools now offer good quality education for children with a range of difficulties as well as their "ordinary" peers. There have been improvements in the quality of special schools, too, with better practice, accommodation and higher expectations of progress.

We write with some concern, therefore, about the current trends that threaten to jeopardise what has been achieved by parents, professionals and policymakers over the past few decades.

The SEN Policy Research Forum is a key group of academics, educational professionals and representatives from voluntary organisations that meets to analyse current policy on SEND, identify issues and consider positive ways forward. At a recent policy seminar, we considered the national rise in the proportion of children attending special schools and the reasons for this happening. The evidence suggested that this is not simply a matter of "parental choice".

There are many factors making it more difficult for mainstream schools to meet individual needs. These include staffing reductions/budget cuts, increased pressure to deliver expected results and the lack of a clear balancing framework for evaluating mainstream SEND quality.

The coalition government’s policy was to "remove the bias towards inclusion" in 2010, which it attributed to the Labour government and many local authorities. There was little evidence, however, at that time that this bias in practice existed. The proportion of children attending special schools had already started to rise three years earlier. The much-vaunted "special school closures" were typically about rationalising existing provision and making it more cost-effective. And numbers placed in pupil-referral units and other alternative provision had also risen sharply.

The government’s approach to the SEN reforms 2011-2014 was built on the primacy of parental choice. Preference for mainstream or special school was seen as of equal value, cost-neutral and equally available. However, there is evidence that some parents who want a mainstream education for their child are being forced into the special school "choice" through negative experience (barriers to admission in some mainstream schools; threats of exclusion; or just a failure to recognise and properly address children’s needs).

Budget squeeze hits special schools

There is also some evidence, as shown in the latest SEN Policy Research Forum’s policy paper, that rising numbers in special schools and pressures on local area high-needs budgets are leading to a diminution of what special schools are able to provide.

We are calling on the government to have a clearer and more positive policy on inclusion and entitlement for children with SEND. This goes well beyond the recently announced allocation of £50 million extra for SEND school places and facilities, which is largely about capital improvements.

There is a need for stronger strategic leadership in this area from the national government and from regional schools commissioners (where schools are no longer maintained by a local authority). We also urge Ofsted to ensure that its new school inspection framework gives proper priority to meeting children’s individual needs and communicating effectively with parents. There also needs to be clearer recognition of pupils’ relative progress and their achievements in personal/social areas as well as narrower educational attainments.

A clearer and more positive policy on inclusion and entitlement for children with SEND also requires more consultation with parents, not just individually but collectively through parent/carer fora. There is a place for more scrutiny about admissions to ordinary schools and the quality and availability of SEND support. The SEND reforms required all local areas to set out their "mainstream offer".  As the SEND Code of Practice explains, the local offer has two key purposes. It is not only about providing information about what is available but also "to make provision more responsive to local needs and aspirations" by involving children and young people with SEND and their parents in its development and review.  A clearer national policy and strategy about inclusion and appropriate accountability are required to enable more parents and their children to find a positive, welcoming and effective provision in a local educational setting that they choose.

Yours sincerely, 

Peter Gray and Brahm Norwich, co-coordinators of the SEN Policy Research Forum

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