Voices: The government’s SEND review proposals risk making a bad situation worse

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SEND families are faced with a system that is adversarial, bureaucratic, and brutal (Getty Images)
SEND families are faced with a system that is adversarial, bureaucratic, and brutal (Getty Images)

Outside the carnival freak show of the Tory leadership contest, the government is still sort of doing things.

Take the SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) review. That opening quote pretty much sums up the way parents at the sharp end, and the organisations representing them, feel about this document and other aspects of current education policy (the execrable schools bill being a prime example).

The education committee has recognised this. That quote was actually contained in a zinger fired at the Department for Education (DfE) by Robert Halfon, its Tory chair, earlier this week.

“We are concerned that, if key stakeholders believe the review to be a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’, the likelihood of realising its ambitions will be low,” he said in his letter.

It notes that when an expert witness panel was asked to provide a score out of 10 for the review, the responses ranged between two and five.

The top of that range would seem generous based upon my reading of it.

SEND families are confronted with a system that is adversarial, bureaucratic, and brutal. It pitches stressed-out parents into unequal battles with local authorities, which are possessed of vastly better resources. Don’t even get me started on the truly miserable performance of the NHS’s childhood mental health services, which also plays into this.

Both operate on the Orwellian principle of smashing a boot into a human face again and again, in the hopes that parents will give up the ghost. Many do. I don’t blame them. The process is exhausting, stressful and quite capable of inflicting bloody mental wounds.

It is failing us. Horribly.

The problem with the review is that it offers little hope of improvement. To the contrary.

It is woolly. It is vague. It has a disturbing emphasis on mediation, which simply doesn’t work (I’ve been there). Its concrete proposals threaten to make a bad situation worse, which helps to explains the experts’ scoring.

To my mind, it was born of some deep cultural problems at the DfE, which appears to be addicted to a top-down approach, has an instinct to bully and blame parents, has a deplorable fondness for coercion, and is possessed of a wilful blindness to the pain it is causing.

Mr Halfon deserves credit for putting forward some ideas with some potential for easing that pain. They include the proposal that schools should not be rated “good” or “outstanding” by Ofsted unless their special needs provision is also at that level.

Special needs kids are challenging. Some schools, particularly academies, prefer to address this by managing them out, which is easy enough to do if you ignore their needs and leave them and their parents in an intolerable situation. The proposal might help to nip that problem in the bud.

The letter also highlights what appears to be a move away from parental choice and personalisation, which is essential when dealing with children with very particular problems, in favour of ponying up pre-tailored lists of educational settings for parents to choose from.

Ali Fiddy, from the Independent Provider of Special Education Advice (IPSEA), told Mr Halfon’s committee at a one-off hearing it held on the review: “The current position is to work out what an individual child’s needs are and put in place the support that meets those needs. What the reforms appear to be saying is, work out what the standard provision is for this level of need and give the child that.”

Mr Halfon’s letter raises questions about this and demands answers from the DfE. I would like to hear them too.

He further zeroes on the near total absence of accountability in the system. Will Quince – the minister responsible for the review who was part of the Johnson-inspired mass resignation but is back in the DfE with a better job having un-resigned – had promised to address this. Yet there is scant sign of it in the review.

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One suggestion that may address that is to give more power to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO), including conferring on it the ability to proactively investigate where it deems it necessary.

Ding, ding, ding. Another good idea from Mr Halfon. What’s going on here?

Crucially, Mr Halfon’s missive addresses the gorilla in the room. You’ve guessed it: funding. It is the core problem. Isn’t it always?

The current law as it pertains to special needs is actually rather good. The problems in the system have been created by it not being followed or effectively enforced – which goes back to the point about accountability.

Local authorities know that they can save money by dragging their feet, obfuscating and putting up barriers in the way of Educational Health and Care (EHC) plans, and the assistance which is crucial for special needs families.

While they incur costs through fighting those who keep at them, whom they slander as “pushy parents”, they win overall through keeping the overall numbers down.

This is the sad legacy of the more than a decade of austerity imposed by Mr Quince and Mr Halfon’s party.

Mr Halfon concluded a recent article for Conservative Home by saying: “There has been much talk about protecting the NHS. I hope politicians of all parties will spend as much time protecting children’s futures as well.”

Hear hear. But you need money to do that. The special needs system is on its knees because of a lack of it. Yet none of the Tory leadership contenders have shown any interest in investing in public services during a campaign dominated by a gruesome competition to offer ever more fanciful and unfunded tax cuts.

Will Mr Halfon speak out when the desperately needed investment in special needs fails to appear? Or will he sit back and allow that wolf to join Mr Quince’s rotten review in beating down parents’ doors? We shall see.

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