When education secretary Gavin Williamson announced a deep dive into SEND last September, it was a crude way to mute the outcry, ahead of highly critical reports from the Commons Education Select Committee and the National Audit Office.
The reforms legislated for by the previous (coalition) government in 2014 had spectacularly disintegrated. The prize – a holistic wraparound assessment of children’s special needs in an education, health and care plan, potentially at any age from birth to 25 – had slipped through the DfE's fingers.
This happened for several reasons.
SEND: Young lives at risk
The DfE failed to persuade the Department of Health to make any service-level commitment to the project during the passage of the Children and Families Bill, meaning that provision for mental health and other services specified in an EHCP are added to education’s tab or else not delivered at all. This places young lives at risk.
The DfE failed to win any concession from HM Treasury to reflect the cost of extending entitlement (and therefore the liabilities of local authorities) from ages 18 to 25.
It failed to address the impact of academisation, which has reduced local authorities’ influence over the way schools manage their resources, especially for SEND.
It failed to guard the SEND system against the cumulative effect of cuts to school budgets. This simultaneously fuelled the need for EHCPs, created a huge surge in appeals to the SEND tribunal and resulted in a flurry of protests and court actions by parents.
The DfE failed to track a shift in parental confidence from the mainstream to the specialist school sector.
The latter now faces a shortage of both places and teachers, forcing LAs to make even greater use of the non-maintained sector, at a premium.
Irreversible overspends and irrecoverable backlogs
The net result is that LAs have racked up irreversible overspends and irrecoverable backlogs of young people’s annual reviews.
This will barely be dented by the army of consultants and “change agents” who stalk the corridors of county hall, alongside the solicitors and paralegals retained to defend appeals.
Thinktanks and research groups are not far behind, rustling sheaves of paper whose urgent recommendations are already jamming Gavin Williamson’s shredder.
The education secretary trumpeted his review by promising that he would be “breaking down the barriers to a good education”, helpfully repeating almost verbatim the phrase that New Labour chose in 2004 when it faced the same special-needs crisis. (Of course, in those days, the problem was only acute. Today, it’s a cataclysm.)
Two major responses
We've seen two major responses to the DfE's Review, both offering “solutions” to the SEND crisis.
One, from the Headteachers' Roundtable, is dramatic. However, it would require primary legislation and will face deep opposition from parents and disability groups.
This plan was revealed in November by Sabrina Hobbs, principal of the largest specialist academy in the country.
The plan involves replacing EHCPs with a statutory “assessment of best provision”. This would award additional funding to the school or college, rather than to the child.
It would involve a high-needs funding formula (sound familiar?) plugging every school and college into a kind of national grid of provision and places. It’s designed to shrink the miles and eliminate the current postcode lottery.
There’s just one problem: as illustrated above, the DfE has never yet learned how to forecast trends in need or accurately map the number of children with disabilities in each area. These are two reasons why there has been widespread discontent with the current high-needs funding formula.
The other response comes on the back of a survey of school SEN coordinators’ workload, conducted by Bath Spa University with NASEN, the National Association for Special Educational Needs.
Among a mass of recommendations in their report, some have cost implications:
- Sendcos should have statutory protected time in addition to PPA.
- Sendcos should have a statutory senior leadership role within school, on leadership pay scale (presumably paid pro-rata for the proportion of their week that the individual is working as a Sendco, rather than when they are teaching).
- Sendcos should have access to up to 12 sessions of professional supervision a year to enable them to reflect on decision making and to continue to develop good practice.
The proposals are intended to make the Sendco role more effective, and thus improve the response to children’s needs. But there’s no structural or systemic overhaul that might bring an end to the SEND crisis.
The commercial researchers and not-for-profit agencies who hang around Sanctuary Buildings for contracts and grant-funding should be leading the department out of its darkness. But they are themselves short on vision.
With a predicted funding shortfall in excess of £1 billion this year, and no end to bad headlines, the department needs to break the cycle and trigger reforms that offer more than just slogans and name badges.
Barney Angliss is a consultant in special educational needs and disabilities, currently training Sendcos and middle leaders for multi-academy trusts and FE colleges