How can we radically shift the way we 'do' SEN?

Written by: Daniel Sobel | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

In part three of his series focusing on the state of our SEN system, inclusion expert Daniel Sobel looks at the problems of silos of working, asks what would happen if we collaborated more effectively, and offers schools some ideas for making this happen

This is the third article I have written this year on the state of our SEND system. I began this series in my article SENCOs under siege (Sobel, 2021a) in which I laid out how well many of the big ticket issues had been captured in the 2019 Education Select Committee report into SEND.

The report highlighted a number of significant failures, all of which are common knowledge for most of us working in schools (for more, see Headteacher Update, 2019).

My second piece (Sobel, 2021b), then asked what would happen if we shifted our mindset and attitude from focusing on the barriers of SEN to instead considering the strengths and skills that SEN can give students.

In this article, I want to suggest further ideas for how we could radically shift the way we “do” SEN.

A huge amount to be proud of

Compared with the international scene, we are in many ways streets ahead in SEN. It is easy to forget that fact when you are feeling overwhelmed by workload or the latest frustration. Actually, we have a huge amount to be proud of.

I think herein lies a solution to some of the broken bits: take all the brilliant, knowledgeable staff from the different fields and knit them together neatly, thus solving issues such as funding, communication, training, early intervention, etc…

Easier said than done, of course. However, I have been working on this idea with the brilliant Dr Shirley Woods-Gallagher, who is the assistant director of Oldham Council with responsibility for SEN and education. We think we have come up with a simple, budget-free solution that could pave a radical new way forward.

This article outlines some of the key problems and how we could solve them. The benefit to you and your school? Well, read on…

Setting the behind-the-scene

A family today is supported by a number of different large-scale organisations, each with multiple overlapping professional responsibilities.

The Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) and the world of SEN requires input from many organisations, going much further than what most schools think of as the “local authority”.

When we bring them all together they are known as the Integrated Health and Care Partnership (ICP). The ICP does not include other potential stakeholders, such as the police, but we are all facing similar problems.

  • Over spending on High Needs Block (HNB)
  • Over application for EHCPs
  • Tracking and controlling county lines
  • CAMHS waiting lists
  • Avoidable hospital admissions
  • Speech and language therapy (SLT) waiting lists
  • Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) referrals and edge of care issues.
  • A growing population of older adults with co-morbidities
  • Costs in the care sector
  • Swollen numbers of young people who are NEET
  • Diminishing exclusions
  • Poor outcomes for care-experienced children

Here is a detail which complicates the budgeting process that most schools don’t realise: EHCPs are largely funded for delivery via the HNB. Meanwhile, local authorities are trying to manage budget pressures post-pandemic, and many continue to be in a deficit position for their HNBs – by, roughly, loadsamoney!

The HNB is intended to meet the educational costs of children with SEND or who require alternative provision. It may not be used to meet non-educational costs, except where specifically permitted.

However, most health provisions within EHCPs are universal service offers and not targeted and specialist services post-diagnosis. The costs of securing health provisions (Section G of an EHCP) should be met by either the Clinical Commissioning Group or NHS England.

The costs of securing social care provision (Sections H1 and H2 of an EHCP) should be met by the local authority from Children and Young People’s Social Care Budgets.

Confusing and, let’s face it, a bit bonkers. It is one of the reasons why the system is vulnerable to failure and cases fall between the cracks.

Next time you apply for funding for an EHCP, please note that your local authority is going to be saying to themselves: “Oh no, not another one”.

Five interrelated, intractable problems for schools

Budgets in silos: No-one has the money partly because financial planning is largely done in silos. Resources are tight everywhere and of course overlapping responsibilities in reality often mean that one agency pulls more weight than the others. The school is often on the frontline despite inadequate support and training to play this role.

No-one uses the same language: Yes, we all speak English, but other systems do not speak eduspeak and we certainly do not speak social care lingo and so on. The different languages actually represent differing cultures, priorities, approaches and attitudes. We think we understand what one another means when we haven’t a clue what they are going on about, why or how that even works, despite being allied professions.

No-one is knitting the elements together: Early years do not liaise with further education or virtual schools – but they are all related. Of course it makes sense to have the silos so that we can develop professional standards within each – it creates focus. But effective collaboration is more rare than common and can only really be found in individual examples.

Transient staff: In all sectors we have cases that are constantly getting passed on. We fail to communicate the nuances, and the relationships which need dedicated trust-building over time fail too. We have transient students shifting through official and unofficial exclusions between schools. Transient social workers and CAMHS meetings which are spread out and could involve multiple (changing) people. Is this a cause or effect of working with our most vulnerable families? Either way, it is a problem.

Pass the buck: I remember going to my first “around the child” meeting and being surprised at the “pass the buck of responsibility” game being played. I don’t think it was conscious. I remember the rep from the police saying: “I think at this stage, this is no longer a police matter and would probably be best dealt with by social services.” And then social services would say: “For now, we think the more significant issue might be with health and CAMHS.” They in turn felt that it was mainly to do with in-school support... This happens way too often. Again, is this a cause or a result of the above factors? Does anyone even know?

A special Covid problem

A further aspect is rising demand for a graduated response and EHCPs with no new additional funding. So there has to be a review of ways of working to create leaner systems in children’s community therapies such as SLT and Healthy Young Minds. This has not been factored into the government’s academic tutoring-based catch-up plan for pandemic recovery.

The pot of gold at the end of the regional government rainbow

Shirley and I are not so naïve to think that any solution here could be simple or easy, but we have been thinking about this from a “local systems” perspective.

We need to break the silo thinking as well as the assumptions of national planning by bringing five or so representatives together in each local authority, including health, education, care, police etc. This group would work through a post-graduate designed and focused on:

  • What is and isn’t working in their region
  • How they can pull training and resources together in their region to benefit each other.
  • Meaningful, sustained joined-up communication.
  • How to develop staff through the ranks of middle and senior leadership with inter-agency communication as part and parcel of their roles.

What could all that produce? Sustainable, localised solutions by local people for local problems.

So what for schools right now?

Well, out of this is born an idea that is worth developing in every corner when the heavy fog of Covid begins to lift:

  • Invite your GPs, social workers, police, MPs, and Early Help and so on to your school for a chat about your community.
  • Reshape your applications and communications for EHCPs and the like and invite the local authority in to chat about how we can find other ways of making this work.
  • Instead of the SENCOs bunching up together and the principals gathering together, and the social workers and the various others doing their own thing, let’s try mixing it up a bit – let’s go to each other’s meetings/forums just once and see what happens…
  • Grab three other heads and ask to meet with CAMHS and social workers together. Talk about waiting lists and how that is affecting your children and families and ask what we schools can do…

Okay, I admit that most heads are not going to do this. I mean, who has the time? But actually, it just takes a few colleagues in each local authority to get things moving.

At the moment, the intractable problems are not going anywhere and so this is a simple formula of chatting together, training together, working it out together, keeping things real, local and practical. If you do give this a go, let me know how it pans out.

  • Daniel Sobel is founder of Inclusion Expert which provides SEND, Pupil Premium and looked-after children reviews, training and support. You can find all his articles for SecEd on our website via

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