SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan: Right Kind of Pupil, Right Place, Right Price.
By Sharon Smith, Parent and PhD researcher
“We believe the most vulnerable children deserve the very highest quality of care. We will improve diagnostic assessment for school children, prevent the unnecessary closure of special schools, and remove the bias towards inclusion.” (Cabinet Office, 2010)
In 2010, David Cameron set out an intention to ‘end the bias towards inclusive education’ in the Conservative Party manifesto for the forthcoming general election. Following the election, the coalition government adopted this aim, as seen in the quote above. Professor Katherine Runswick-Cole (Sheffield University) described at the time how this was an attempt to ‘re-narrate the special education agenda’ by implying that there had previously been a ‘bias towards inclusion’, which would be addressed ‘by putting forward a “reasonable and sensible” solution to what is seen by some to be the “problem of inclusion”’. She argued, in the British Journal of Special Education 2011, that:
“Although there may have been an inclusive education policy rhetoric, this rhetoric is rooted in conceptual incongruities which, rather than promoting inclusion, undermine an inclusive approach to education”. (Runswick-Cole, K. 2011: Time to end the bias towards inclusive education?)
In reality, there never had been a meaningful bias towards inclusion.
Fast toward to 2023, and inclusion is a hot topic within the government’s recently published SEND & Alternative Provision Improvement Plan: Right support, Right place, Right time. According to the introduction, this plan, alongside the Schools White Paper, sets out ‘bold proposals to deliver a generational change for a more inclusive system’ (page 3). Not only does it set out proposals for a more inclusive education system, but the aim is to use this system to create a more inclusive society too (page 7). At the heart of the government’s plan is new ‘National Standards’, which will ‘set out clear expectations for the types of support that should be ordinarily available in mainstream settings’ (page 5).
Alongside these National Standards, each local area will be required to ‘create evidence-based local inclusion plans that will set out how the needs of children and Young people in the local area will be met’ and which will be used to ‘provide a tailored list of suitable settings’ for children, Young people and their parents to choose from (page 10). They also plan to ‘publish a local and national inclusion dashboard’ which will give greater transparency of local performance, inform decision-making and apparently drive ‘self-improvement across the system with ongoing updates and iterations in response to user feedback’ (page 12). The role of alternative provision is clarified, to ensure it is seen as a temporary solution offering preventative work and reintegration back into mainstream schools (page 13). And finally, best practice from areas that have inclusive provision will be shared more widely (page 13). Does this mean that there is a renewed (or new?!) bias towards inclusion taking place here? Sadly, I do not think so. I think that the only thing we are seeing is an increase in education policy rhetoric, with no meaningful commitment to inclusion evident anywhere.
The SEND and Alternative Provision Implementation Plan is designed to have three main goals – fulfilling children’s potential, building parental trust, and providing financial stability. It appears that it is the latter that is the key driver of the newfound focus on ‘inclusion – the need to find cheaper ways to educate children and Young people who are identified as having Special Educational Needs. You see, the Implementation Plan does not discuss ‘inclusive schools’, but rather the hope is to develop an ‘inclusive system’. Instead of providing details about what an ‘inclusive school’ or ‘inclusive education’ might look like in practice, this plan sets out what it believes an ‘inclusive system’ looks like. And embedded within that inclusive system remains a strong commitment to specialist provision, including funding for new special free schools over and above the 49 new special free schools already in the pipeline.
“An inclusive system also depends upon improved access to timely, high-quality specialist provision, where this is appropriate for the child or young person, so that every child and young person has access to the resources, information and opportunities that enable them to thrive and feel a strong sense of belonging” (page 22-3).
The concern seems to be about ensuring that the ‘right kind of pupil’ is educated in the ‘right place’ at the ‘right price’. There continues to be some pupils who are deemed to have needs that can only be met through specialist settings; the new improved ‘inclusive system’ will ensure that they are the ones who get access to specialist places, rather than places – apparently – going to those children whose parents are armed with knowledge of the law and whose pockets are deep enough to pay for solicitors to support complex SEND Tribunal appeals. There is no desire to end the current segregated system, simply the intention is to provide greater financial stability by controlling which pupils are the ‘right’ ones to be educated separately. Everyone else will need to have their ‘needs’ met in mainstream settings, through ‘quality first teaching and evidence-based SEN Support’ – yet there is absolutely nothing in the improvement plan that suggests how mainstream schools will become more inclusive, or how these children’s experiences of education will be improved. There is no increase in investment for mainstream settings, instead it appears that the National Standards will be doing the heavy lifting here, along with three ‘practice guides’, which will provide advice to mainstream settings (page 9).
Instead of any sense of reform, this feels like a game of musical chairs. My concern is that the National Standards and the tailored list of settings will result in some children being pushed into specialist settings who do not necessarily want to be there. The National Standards and the local inclusion plans will be used to determine who belongs where, rather than being used as an opportunity to transform local schools to become places where all children and Young people have the resources, information and opportunities that enable them to thrive and feel a strong sense of belonging. It feels like a missed opportunity, and it most definitely is not an ideological shift away from specialist education playing a significant and fundamental role in the government’s vision for education.