For those who work in the special educational needs and disability (SEND) sector, there are few surprises in the findings of the Commons Education Select Committee – which published published its report on SEND today. The anxiety of young people and parents battling through the system is a consistent and heart-breaking theme for National Star staff.
Every year, there are young people who do not start their education programmes with us in September. Instead, they sit at home for months waiting for a tribunal to decide their fate. Some of the "lucky" ones will learn that their funding is secured just weeks before they start their education programmes. This uncertainty would be difficult for most of us. But for someone who struggles with transition and change, it is devastating and often leads to an increase in challenging behaviour.
FE podcast: A bespoke approach for students with SEND
Background: National Star College wins at Tes Fe Awards 2019
Doomed to fail
In 2014, we all welcomed the reforms under the Children and Families Act. It was aspirational and, for the first time, aimed for joined-up thinking in the best interests of the young person. National Star uses a multi-disciplinary approach with therapies, education and care teams working together to find the best solutions for each young person. education, health and care plans (EHCPs) were similar, with health, education and care coming together.
Sadly, as we also predicted, without appropriate funding and commitment, it was doomed to fail. What we didn’t predict was the scale of the failure and the long-term damage it has caused to young people with disabilities and learning difficulties and their families. We also didn’t anticipate the negative impact it would have on sustaining high-quality post-16 provision – provision that is needed to prepare these young people for adulthood.
As the select committee's report says, we are “letting down an entire generation, putting greater pressure on the benefits and adult social care and creating long-term costs that are unnecessary and unpalatable”.
There needs to be a cultural sea change to put this right. Let’s be clear, it is not the act that has failed but the implementation of the act. It has created an inefficient and confrontational system, not just between parents, young people and local authorities, but between education, social care and health teams. It has become a tussle of who pays for what, or more about who doesn’t pay for what.
Confrontation vs collaboration
So when the Commons Education Select Committee talks about a systemic culture change, it’s about changing confrontation to collaboration. One step towards that would be, as the committee recommends, a neutral role that supports every parent with a child when a request is made for a needs assessment.
That culture change needs to shift the focus from short-term budgets to long-term benefits, from savings off the bottom line to investing in the individual. Our goal should be to enable young people with disabilities to be active and equal members of society, rather than seeing them as a burden on the public purse.
That role as an active and equal citizen will be as diverse as the young people themselves. For some, it may mean securing paid work or taking a volunteer role, for others it may mean being able to control their own care or being able to make those simple choices that many of us take for granted.
The young people who have truly been let down by the system are those with complex disabilities and learning difficulties, those whose needs will prevent them from accessing mainstream further education. These are the young people who don’t fit the “preparing for work” mould because of their disabilities. They are written off at 16, even before they are given a chance.
On average, there will be only five or six of these high-needs post-16 young people in a local authority per year. Due to their disabilities and medical needs, they need specialist support that cannot be in every local offer. Localism and integration isn’t always the right answer. Economies of scale must be taken into consideration. For those high-needs learners, national centres of excellence are the best – and most cost-effective – options. Specialist providers have a vital role to play in supporting these high-needs learners.
What coincided with the 2014 reforms was the removal of central government funding for high-needs learners and its devolution to local authorities. Local authorities were facing a losing battle from the beginning. Without ring-fenced funds for high-needs learners and with a lack of experience in this area, local authorities were always going to struggle.
The first step to changing the culture is for central government to stop using the local authorities as its whipping boy and accept the responsibility for what has gone wrong. The select committee recommendations are challenging but not impossible. My fear is that this important report will be overshadowed by Brexit and we will continue to fail those most vulnerable members of our society.
David Ellis is chief executive of National Star, a national charity supporting young people with complex disabilities and learning difficulties. National Star was named specialist provider of the year at the Tes FE Awards 2019