On 23 October this year the UK Education Select Committee published its long-awaited report on Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. The report was the culmination of an 18 month inquiry into the implementation of the ambitious SEND reforms contained in the Children & Families Act 2014 which I wrote about in an earlier blog post. In the course of its inquiry, the Committee heard from more than 70 witnesses and received more than 700 submissions of written evidence.
Unsurprisingly, the report was a damning indictment of where we have ended up almost five years after the reform Act. As I identified in my previous blog post, the 2014 SEND reforms promised much: joined-up thinking, extension of SEND provision into young adulthood, a child- and family-centred process of co-production with flexible funding of provision on a needs-led basis.
Unfortunately, the reforms have not delivered on their promises. Paragraph 51 of the Select Committee report describes a
‘complex, awful and often unnecessarily antagonistic experience for parents [which] can prevent them from accessing their entitlements’.
The report explains how ‘creating a system with such promise has meant that parents know that their children are entitled to something, but they have to work too hard to access this entitlement and are left exhausted in the pursuit of it’ (Paragraph 53). The SEND system is aptly described by Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP, Committee Chair, as a ‘treacle of bureaucracy’.
The words of Paragraph 54 in particular resonated strongly with me:
Parents currently need a combination of special knowledge and social capital to navigate the system, and even then are left exhausted by the experience. Those without significant personal or social capital therefore face significant disadvantage. For some, Parliament might as well not have bothered to legislate.
This acknowledgement of the untenable burden placed on parents of disabled children resonates because I know it from my own personal experience to be true. I might be described as a parent with ‘special knowledge and social capital’: giving lectures on the 2014 Children & Families Act is my day job after all! Even with this privilege, being a ‘SEND parent’ remains exhausting as the report acknowledges. For me, ‘project managing’ the multitude of SEND-related meetings, appointments, appeals and complaints which fill my inbox and my filing cabinet, as well as recruiting and managing payroll for a team of carers, often feels more onerous than my career and normal parenting responsibilities combined!
However, my main concern is not for the parents like myself who can continue to wade (or stumble) through the treacle of bureaucracy, but for those who cannot. I know personally of many SEND parents for whom, as the report says, ‘Parliament might as well not have bothered to legislate [in 2014]’. Due to a potent combination of sleep deprivation, mental health problems, poverty, and chronically inadequate respite/social care provision, leading to caregiver burnout, many simply no longer have the energy to fight. They may (or may not) know that their children are receiving inadequate classroom staffing, Speech & Language Therapy, Occupational Therapy, equipment, respite care and much else; they may (or may not) know the extent of the disparity between their child’s legal entitlement and what they actually receive. But even if they do know, the treacle has simply become too thick and impenetrable for many.
For the sake of the families, children and young people affected by these systemic failures, it is my hope that political parties can make time to address the findings of this damning report in their manifestos for the now-imminent General Election.