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The SEND Review: Too much what and very little how

My first thoughts as I read the description of the broken SEND system in the SEND Review: Right support, right place, right time was a sense of relief. Others recognised that the system was broken, unworkable and failing children. However, the people who commissioned the review were the same people who had been responsible for the system and its funding for the last twelve years. During this time, rather than try and improve the system they had cut the funding, undermined teachers and increased the focus on academic targets which led to further exclusion.

So can the Review offer any hope? There are lots of grand sounding statements and some promises of new money. But there is little on how the ideas will be put into practice and no indication of where the money will come from. The previous day’s White paper announced 90% targets for reading, writing and maths in primary schools which does not marry up with the Review’s talk of a culture of inclusion and support. As a result, I am deeply cynical about the hopeful notes included in the review.

According to the Review we need to improve mainstream education so that it is more inclusive and fewer children have EHCPs. This will be done through ‘early and accurate identification of needs, high-quality teaching of a knowledge-rich curriculum, and prompt access to targeted support where it is needed’. My feeling is that this is what most schools are doing, or least attempting to do with the limited resources available to them, already. I think that the reality is that early identification, increased survival rates at birth and growing austerity have led to increased numbers of children with SEN within the system who need EHCPs so that they can be supported in mainstream schools. Merely deciding that they are too many ECHPs will not remove the need for them.

I find the recognition of the need for a strong specialist sector, including alternative provision hopeful. I had feared that there would be a drive to push all children into mainstream, regardless of their needs or the school’s capacity. However, I am deeply concerned that the whole concept of SEN Support (K Code) seems to be lost in the Review. There is discussion of a revised Code of Practice and new national standards including how and when a child should be identified as requiring SEN Support. But the lack of detail is worrying. I feel that there is a lack of recognition or understanding of children who require additional SEN support and funding in the mainstream classroom, but do not require an EHCP.

The focus on EHCP and specialist provision, particularly AP, reflects the current problems of the SEND system: even though approximately two-thirds of the children within the SEN system are at SEN support, they and their needs are too often lost and disregarded within the system. This in part drives the push to EHCP as parents are not certain that their children will be supported in schools unless they or the school can secure additional funding and the legal requirement to provide the support needed.

Despite the talk of inclusive classrooms, most of the Review’s focus is on children with EHCPs within specialist provision or AP. I fear that this alongside the growing focus on 90% targets will be part of a drive to push children with EHCP outside mainstream schools. While I welcome the focus on Alternative Provision, I am still unclear how the Review sees AP fitting into the SEND system. I fear the focus will inadvertently lead to it being seen as a magic answer to the current placement problems and see increasing numbers of children who are struggling to behave in school or to access it being pushed out to Alternative Provision when better financed and thought out support could and should keep them within mainstream provision.

The Review includes lots of small step elements, but both much of the big picture information and explanation of how they will be implemented is missing. This lack of clarity in many of the proposals means that they could be part of a movement in almost any direction. This lack of clarity means that many of the immediate responses have focused on the few key issues that feel measurable.

· The introduction of national digital EHCP paperwork: At first thought this can only be a good thing, but it needs to be the right paperwork, fit for purpose and above all accessible. However, I fear that complex logins and formats that are not easily read on a phone may in reality further exclude many parents and children. Recent government IT projects with their backhanders to minister’s associates only increases my concerns about this element of the Review.

· Parents being offered a restricted list of possible placements drawn up by the local authority: Given that after the fight to get an EHCP, the chief point of conflict between parents and the LA is about appropriate provision and placement, this seems to touch exactly on the area where parents trust LAs least and give all the power to the LA. Given the quality of some of the EHCPs I receive, I doubt that those people who struggle to identify appropriate provision to meet children’s needs are best placed to produce a tailored list of appropriate placements, particularly without any additional training.

· The New SENCo Qualification and its timing: There is a general acceptance recognised in the Review that the current SENCo qualification is not fit for purpose. It is a mish mash of academic qualifications and vague ideas about SEN and seems to provide little that is directly useful to someone trying to be an effective SENCo. I fear that the new training will be more of the same as I am not sure that there is the commitment or finance to provide something better. And I am absolutely certain that changing the timing, so that a SENCo must start the award before taking up their post is pointless window dressing that will add little to SENCos’ knowledge and skill base while making their recruitment more difficult. After all most SENCos will know little more (or less) a few weeks into a course than they did before they started it, but by delaying may be able to apply their learning better building on their practical experience in the role.

Throughout the Review, a key missing element seems to be the role of the LA. There is a focus on increased training in Early Years and suggestions of increased training for the social care and health workforces. I am yet to be convinced how far this training will be directed at supporting those working within the SEN system to meet children’s needs. There is no real commitment to the training of the wider school staff, including TAs. Or more importantly to train the Local Authority staff who are going to be drawing up and overseeing the implementation of EHCPs. As any SENCo knows the work of this group is vital, but they are often untrained, overworked and on occasions completely without understanding of the needs of children with SEND or the difficulties faced by their families. Unless there are unannounced plans in the revised Code of Practice to change or remove their role, LAs will continue to have a statutory role in the SEND system. So we need action to look at the LA systems and the issues of staff retention and training. There is nothing in this review to tackle this even at some unspecified time in the future.

One of the areas where there is most to hope and most to fear is the introduction of national standards for SEN. As with the introduction of national paperwork for EHCP, anything that makes SEN provision clearer and less of a postcode lottery is to be welcomed. As is the promised inclusion of information on the role of TAs. However, I am concerned what the standards will actually contain and how long they will take to produce. As with the promised changes to the Code of Practice and SENCo qualification, these are not going to happen quickly. In the meantime, the system will continue to fail children, their families and make life increasingly difficult for schools.

Please take part in the Consultation of SEND Review which closes on July 1st 2022

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