Education Committee SEND report

Dr Armineh Soorenian reports on the House of Commons Education Committee’s first report into SEND for 2019-20

Since September 2019, a series of publications have highlighted the Government’s failings in providing support for Disabled children and young people.  Firstly, The National Audit Office (NAO) report Support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities in England found that even though the Department for Education (DfE) has increased school funding, it has not kept up with increasing pupil numbers.  The NAO report was followed by a study carried out by the National Deaf Children’s Society, which found that more than half of local councils and health authorities in England had failed Ofsted and Care Quality Commission (CQC) inspections of their joint services for children labelled with SEND.  In October, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman published Not going to plan? Education, Health and Care plans two years on, outlining concerns that included severe delays when issuing Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs), and difficulties in communication and meeting preparation.  Included in the set of reports is the Ofsted publication Exploring moving to home education in secondary schools, published in October, which identified that children moving from school to home education often have complex needs.  The findings of these reports are consistent with much of the evidence that we collected for our piece of work on the effectiveness of Accessibility Plans in English secondary schools, to be published in January 2020.

Another helpful publication that complements our project is the report by the House of Commons Education Committee on special educational needs and disabilities, published this week.  This damning report describes Government failures directly impacting upon Disabled children and their families, focusing specifically on the lack of proper implementation of the 2014 reforms, which resulted in ‘confusion and at times unlawful practice, bureaucratic nightmares, buck-passing and a lack of accountability, strained resources and adversarial experiences, and ultimately dashed the hopes of many.’ (p.3).

According to the report, local authorities (LAs) were overly focused on meeting the deadline of 1 April 2018, to have all SEND Statements transitioned to EHCPs, often with little regard to quality.  Despite this, not all LAs met the deadline, and even in cases where they did, quality was poor.  Some were copied and pasted, or not based on needs assessments.  Others did not have health or social care input, and many resulted in parents taking the LA to court.  The process proved to be so complicated that Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators (SENCOs) and other staff were forced to take time out from supporting Disabled children and advising teachers in order to focus on the EHCP transfer process.  The report states that the reforms brought an increase in students, assessments, paperwork, bureaucracy and in the level of need to be met.  The intense focus on EHCPs and the transition date has led to children on SEN support being unable to access appropriate assistance, which has led to a lack of early intervention and an increase in parents applying for EHCPs ‘because they appear to be the only way to open doors for access to support that has become rationed and difficult to access’ (p.15).  This has led to an increase in the number of applications, which has further strained a system already under pressure from the introduction of EHCPs and a transition process that was much more complex than expected.  Unlawful and exclusionary practices such as rationing, gatekeeping and failing to identify and meet the needs of Disabled children and young people are in direct breach of the Children and Families Act (2014).

According to the publication, within a system that regards an EHCP as ‘no more than a Statement by another name’ (p.4), ‘a child’s access to support should not be determined by a parent’s education, their social capital or the advice and support of people with whom they happen to come into contact.’ (p.19).  The report goes as far as saying that in some cases, parental empowerment has not materialised.  It also documents that many young people are ineligible for help because they do not have an EHCP in the first place.  The report suggests that due to significant funding shortfalls, poor implementation and the inability to access the right support at the right time, there is too much tension between the needs of the child and the support available.

The House of Commons report did not reveal any new information.  However, it reminded us how utterly unforgiving the education system can be for many of our Disabled children and young people, and of the endless battle for their parents to secure their right to inclusive education.  Families require a high level of knowledge and social capital to navigate the system, and even then they are often left exhausted by the experience.  Those with fewer resources, in terms of personal or social capital, are confronted with yet further disadvantages.  The report also revealed that there had been instances where parents were forced to take a case to tribunal in order to get appropriate support, and to navigate and exhaust an LA complaints system before being able to take their complaint further.  The LAs often failed to meet their statutory duties, and schools, deliberately or otherwise, practised ‘off-rolling’, which means the exclusion of pupils and even the  active  discouragement of parents enrolling their children.

The report recommended that CQC and Ofsted work more closely together.  This will only be effective if there are clear guidelines for reviewing performance that are based on principles of inclusive education to measure good practice.  The report recognises the need for professional development of SENCOs, but it does not go far enough in terms of looking at a whole school approach to inclusive education.  Importantly, the report recognised that Departments ‘avoid accountability and pass the buck’ (p.13) and shirk their responsibility in supporting Disabled children and young people.  Therefore, they ‘should develop mutually beneficial options for cost- and burden-sharing with the health and social care sector.’ (p.13).  It is inappropriate, however, to refer to support needs as a ‘burden’, perpetuating the notion that Disabled children and young people are a financial strain to society.  With this in mind, it is not surprising that instead of advocating for inclusive mainstream schools, the report recommends DfE should enable LAs to create segregated provisions.  It considers this a fair approach.

Finally, the report argued that lack of support for Disabled young people in education, denying them meaningful and independent living opportunities, is letting down an entire generation of young people, putting greater pressure on the benefits and adult social care system, and creating long-term costs that are unsustainable and unpalatable.  ALLFIE support the co-production of EHCPs with Disabled children and their parents.  However, to ensure families are supported to do so, the Government needs to invest in Disabled People’s Organisations.  The House of Commons report, along with the previous publications, contributes to an ever-growing evidence base that gives a clear message to the Government that it must act.  We hope our forthcoming publication provides further fuel for the fire of action.

Dr Armineh Soorenian