#SENDCrisis: a “national scandal”?

This week Amanda Spielman launched her second annual report as Ofsted Chief Inspector, with mainstream media picking up on her description of SEND provision as ‘a bleak picture’ and ‘national scandal’ (BBC News, 4 December).  The report highlighted a catalogue of failures including disjointed and inconsistent SEND provision between Local Authorities and a widening gap in outcomes for children identified as having SEND between the best and worst performing areas.  However, this will not come as news to anyone working in the field and certainly not to the many families who feel they must do battle with the Local Authority within the system created by the new 2014 SEND framework to secure adequate (or any) provision for their children. In this brief blog post I look back four years to the sweeping promises of the 2014 SEND reforms and consider how and why such promises have failed to materialise for so many children and young people.

The Children & Families Act 2014 and associated revised SEND Code of Practice constituted a significant overhaul of the existing legislative framework. Children in England who held a ‘Statement of SEN’ (statutory document detailing their educational needs and subsequent required provision) would have their Statement replaced by an ‘Education, Health and Care Plan’ (EHCP). This, it was argued, would encourage joined-up thinking and multi-agency collaboration by documenting required provision from education, health and social care together in one document.  The Act emphasised that EHCPs must be ‘needs-led’ rather than ‘resource-driven’: that is, a child’s identified needs must determine the subsequent provision from the Local Authority rather than the financial implications of such provision. Crucially, old-style Statements had covered the age range 2-19 whereas the new EHCP would cover children and young people aged 0-25: whilst the recognition that young adults with disabilities might take longer to complete their education was welcome, little thought was given to the funding implications of such a move.  The Act stressed the centrality of the views of children and young people and their parents at the levels of both individual co-production (of the EHCP document) and strategic co-production (of the process of enacting SEND reforms in their area).  Families would be kept informed of SEND provision in their area via a ‘Local Offer Website’ and could actively participate in Parent Carer Forums. Parents were told they would be able to request from their Local Authority a ‘Personal Budget’ in order to directly commission a service addressing an aspect of their child’s education, health or social care (for example, a preferred Speech & Language Therapist).

From the above, it could be argued that in principle there was much to be welcomed in the new SEN framework: joined-up thinking, extension of provision into young adulthood, a child- and family-centred process of co-production with flexible funding of provision on a needs-led basis. Regrettably, however, the implementation of the new framework in the period 2014-2018 has been deeply problematic.  For instance, Local SEND Area Inspections carried out jointly by Ofsted and the CQC since 2016 have found serious failings in the implementation of the new framework in almost half of the areas inspected, with identified problems including poor strategic planning; defective joint commissioning between education, health and social care; poor collaboration with families; overstretched and underfunded specialist therapy services resulting in restricted access; zero or low use of Personal Budgets in some areas due to LA concerns about affordability; wide variations in the quality and timeliness of EHCP production; and Local Offer websites which were difficult to find and subsequently navigate (CQC/Ofsted, 2017). It would appear that a potent combination of increased parental expectation engendered by the promises of the 2014 reforms on the one hand with relentless cuts to school and Local Authority budgets as well as health and social care on the other has created a ‘perfect storm’ and a system which does not deliver on its legislative obligations.

One of the consequences of what is now known on the Twittersphere as #SENDCrisis has been a sharp rise in parents having recourse to the SEND Tribunal to appeal against Local Authority decisions relating to their child’s EHCP or school placement: the number of cases heard by the SEND Tribunal has doubled since the 2014 reforms, with the Tribunal currently finding in favour of parents in 89% of cases heard despite LA expenditure of £70 million over three years on defending Tribunal cases (The Guardian, 22 Oct 2018). Recently, parents in Bristol crowdfunded their legal costs and subsequently won their judicial review against Bristol Council, forcing them to back down on planned cuts to SEND funding, whilst in a separate case which is currently underway parents have successfully crowdfunded legal action against Damian Hinds in order to challenge SEND funding cuts at national level. Simultaneously, the House of Commons Education Select Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into the implementation of the 2014 SEND reforms (see #SENDInquiry on Twitter) with findings due to be published in 2019.

So what is to be done?  Many will point to the political backdrop of austerity and the decimation of school and Local Authority budgets as the fundamental problem which has stymied well-intentioned SEND reform. Whilst Amanda Spielman has recently claimed that she sees no evidence of tightened budgets affecting educational standards, it appears that the 34,000 signatories of the petition against SEND funding cuts delivered to Damian Hinds on 23 October would disagree (The Guardian, 23 Oct 2018). And whilst debates, inquiries and consultations continue, as the BBC2 edu-documentary School illustrated so poignantly in the SEND-focused episode (aired 27 November), abstract discussions about SEND funding play out with real implications in the everyday lives of children, young people, parents, and the school staff who support them.

Lauran Doak



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