SEND reforms: Still no real culture change

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

It is now more than two years since schools were required to implement the new SEND Code of Practice. Now the Scott Report and local authority inspections have thrown more light on current practice. Are the changes really delivering for our SEND children?

It was with great optimism, if some haste, that the SEND Code of Practice was launched in 2014. This was a government reform that placed collaboration between services and communication with pupils and parents at its core.

Children and young people with SEND and their parents would have more of a say than ever before in the shape that support should take. Schools would have more freedom to craft a system that worked for them.

Now Lee Scott – a former government SEN tsar – has written a report based on the reflections of more than 200 parents and young people about their experience of the new system. He is quite generous in his conclusions, but it is still clear that some of the main foundations and aspirations of the code of practice are not being realised, at least on a consistent basis.

Lee Scott’s Report

“It’s clear that some families are having positive experiences, but it’s equally clear that others remain frustrated or disappointed for a variety of reasons.”

The report was quite an undertaking for one person. It is described as a “short project” to represent “the experience that parents of children with SEND, and young people with SEND, have of schools and colleges”.

Mr Scott met parents and young people face-to-face across England. He visited five schools and three colleges and spoke to a number of headteachers and school staff. He also met representatives who provide services and support to families and three senior local authority staff and voluntary organisations.

Tania Tirraoro is the founder of Special Needs Jungle and met Mr Scott as part of the consultation process. She said: “I do wonder if he mentioned every single good example he found in the report. Whereas if he’d mentioned every example of poor practice and shoddy treatment the report would have been 10 times as long.”

Mr Scott himself points out that his is not a “long-term, scientific study of the national landscape”. However, it does raise some important points.

The report summary highlights problems with communication, a lack of support for or involvement of SENCOs in leadership teams, inconsistent approaches to funding, a lack of monitoring of those on SEND support, and a lack of knowledge among teaching staff.

In the report, Mr Scott summarises recurring themes. The first is communication, which he suggests “lies at the heart of things”. Although he provides examples of where it is working well, it is also deficient in many relationships: “It’s not really about funding – it’s about culture and systems,” the report adds.

Dr Rona Tutt is a former special school headteacher and past president of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT). She agrees with the concerns about communication.

She told Headteacher Update: “Communication is key and I’ve stressed in all my talks the need to involve parents in planning, for example SEN Support, rather than informing them about decisions that have already been made.”

The evidence suggests that schools have found it more difficult to bring the parent into the heart of the process than was originally imagined.

For Ms Tirraoro and parents of pupils with SEND, this is a great disappointment: “Parents must be involved with this because it’s only when those at the frontline hear parents’ stories of the way they have been treated that they start to understand what it would be like to walk in their shoes.”

Although Mr Scott expresses concerns about the way the code is being implemented in some schools, local authorities take a fair share of the blame.

He points out that it still seems to be a system that rewards those parents who push hardest and that when it comes to funding there is a lack of transparency, accountability and consistency.

Local authorities in the spotlight

SEND provision remains the responsibility of local authorities. Alongside the publication of the Scott Report, local authorities are now being inspected by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission for the extent to which they identify and meet the needs of children and young people with SEND.

Although local authorities are not officially graded, a letter is written following the inspection that includes strengths and areas for development. From these it is clear how patchy provision is across the country. There are also some common areas of difficulty that are emerging.

Many parents remain unaware of the Local Offer in some authorities and there continues to be an imbalance between health, social care and education in the preparation and content of the Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs).

Most local authorities would appear to be on track to deliver the change-over from Statements to EHCPs. The question is whether, on occasions, the quality of the EHCP has suffered as a result of trying to keep up with deadlines.

“Feedback from parents and carers suggests that where EHC needs assessments and plans are done well through person-centred planning, they feel more involved,” continued Ms Tutt.

“This leads to greater satisfaction with the process. Where local authorities treat EHCPs like Statements, or the transition from Statements to plans as a cut and paste job, there is dissatisfaction because expectations were high and haven’t been met.”

The SEND Code of Practice has been implemented during a period of significant structural change, with schools across the country juggling new alignments within emerging management clusters. This has sometimes left schools not knowing who to turn to.

Ms Tutt explained: “Communication with local authorities has become harder in many cases because they have become more fragmented, and sometimes even finding out who’s in charge of SEN can be problematic.

“There are fewer staff, less money and fewer support services. If the school is an academy, it will depend on whether it is part of a multi-academy trust (MAT) and, if so, how far the MAT supports its school. All this can make for difficulties both for schools and parents as systems and people change.”

Ms Tirraoro is quite disillusioned with some local authority practice: “Unfortunately, from what I’ve been hearing, there just isn’t the will within many local authorities and this has led to outsourcing of EHCP writing, unlawful practice added to the burden already carried by parents of disabled children.”

Key themes

Although Mr Scott’s report does not make formal recommendations, it does provide some key themes. These include the need for:

  • A strong message to be sent out from the government about improving communication.
  • More training for all staff.
  • More transparency over funding.
  • Culture change and consistency across local authorities.
  • More support for children with medical needs.

Ms Tirraoro believes that training is vital: “The only way things can be improved is by extensive training of local authority, health and social care staff, especially in culture change. It’s something I have been saying since before the reforms came in but the government just didn’t have a plan of how this was to be achieved and it’s the reason for the failure of the new system.”

However, throughout the reports we can see evidence of good practice and insightful implementation.

Mr Scott points out that the fact that some people are getting it right means that it’s possible for others too. Ms Tutt considers that, on balance, SENCOs believe the reforms have been an improvement. But there is still work to do.

The SEND Code of Practice required a significant cultural shift that would take time and determination to see it through. Expecting this to happen in the current educational climate was always going to be difficult to achieve.

We will now have to see if Lee Scott’s report will result in any tangible improvements for children with SEND.

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