SEND Review: What are we waiting for?

Written by: Margaret Mulholland | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

In 2019, the government promised a landmark review of the SEND sector in response to concerns that SEND provision has become a ‘postcode lottery’. Margaret Mulholland asks: Why is it taking so long?

For the third time in a row, the much-vaunted SEND review has been delayed (see APPG, 2021). While we can all appreciate that it has been a busy year, the Department for Education (DfE) has found time to announce a proposal for Latin teaching in state schools and a fast-tracked review of initial teacher training. I can’t help but wonder why the strategy for SEND continues to be missing in action.

Decisions about funding, school improvement and catch-up plans are being made now. In schools, there is no lack of will or commitment to support pupils with SEND. However, schools which seek genuine inclusivity often do so despite the education system, not because of it. A serious rethink of the entire approach to SEND is desperately needed.

This is why there are many voices clamouring for change, and for the SEND review process we have been promised to be speeded up. Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said the latest delay was “unbelievable” at a time when the sector “needs it more than ever”.

Why is the review critical?

There is no shortage of evidence to show that the whole system is dysfunctional. In 2019, the Education Select Committee’s inquiry (more than 70 witnesses and 700 written submissions) found the system to be seriously broken (Headteacher Update, 2019). Families face a “nightmare of bureaucracy” and schools are burdened with conflicting demands on budgets and provision capabilities.

To make matter worse, in 2020 the Education Policy Institute identified that progress in reducing gaps for pupils with SEND has slowed since 2015, particularly for pupils with greater needs (EPI, 2020). Ask any parent waiting today for assessments for an Education and Health Care Plan (EHCP) and they will tell you, from the heart, how difficult the process can be. My own conversations with headteachers reveal familiar challenges. Their responses are telling:

  • “The curriculum just isn’t flexible enough for some pupils.”
  • “Progress 8 has effectively led to discrimination of struggling learners.”
  • “The usual admissions debacle. I’ve been asked to take two year 7 pupils from out of area at the 11th hour and we haven’t got the expertise or resources to support them appropriately.”

Parents too are frustrated: “Our children are seen as a burden before they have even walked through the door – the best you can hope for is a kind school leader. It’s pot luck.”

From significant inconsistencies in how SEND is identified to weaknesses in joint commissioning and services working together across education, health and care; to a lack of clarity between organisations about who is responsible and accountable within a local area – the list of issues goes on.

The adversarial nature of the system is particularly harmful. Parents and local authorities have to engage in an often expensive legal tussle, focusing on the worst possible views of their children instead of their strengths and potential. Systemic change to structures, processes and mindset is needed, fast.

What will it cover?

The DfE is tasked with a root and branch review into how best to improve SEND provision across the system, making sure that money is being spent “fairly, efficiently and effectively” and that support plans are sustainable. Early feedback emphasised three key areas – integrated planning across education, health and care; how to better support the numbers of children with SEND in mainstream; how to make the EHCP process consistent.

Why the delay?

Covid has obviously taken its toll on the process but this is a poor excuse. There are also extremely gnarly problems. Instead of everyone singing from the same hymn sheet, it is not unusual for those involved in SEND to be using completely different notation, let alone melody. From basic things like having common processes and tools, such as the EHCP format or terminology, to the complexity of funding allocations, much of the delay is simply trying to work out where to start. Where the DfE has struggled is in aligning all the moving parts of siloed provision and the organisations involved. This is simply not good enough.

What do we hope for?

The good news is that there are plenty of well researched recommendations out there. The Education Select Committee, Ofsted (2021) and the EPI have highlighted next steps and support the work of the review team. Examples of the excellent EPI recommendations (Hutchinson, 2021) that schools have pioneered include:

  • Improving assessment of SEND within schools.
  • Providing specialist training for teachers and school leaders.
  • Designing a national framework of minimum standards of support for children with SEND in mainstream.
  • Rewarding early intervention in schools, prioritising children’s personal, social and emotional development.
  • Focusing on reaching highly vulnerable children who require specialised learning support and who are less visible in the system.

Funding is often seen as the intractable problem, but there are many positive models that make smarter use of funding. What is clear is that overall, the SEND funding system must be far more responsive to pupils’ needs.

I’d like to see a more transformative shift. Instead of defaulting to a segregation mindset, we should work toward special schools and mainstream working and learning together so children can be educated in/with their communities.

The SEND review has the opportunity to fundamentally rethink the system. It must insist on an inclusive culture throughout, where universal provision is seen as something fundamentally relevant to the purpose of education and to outcomes for all children. We really can’t wait any longer. 

  • Margaret Mulholland is SEND and inclusion policy specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders.

Further information & resources

  • APPG on SEND: Cross party group of MPs criticise “inexcusable delay” – as ministers push back special educational needs review, July 2021:
  • EPI: Preventing the disadvantage gap from increasing during and after the Covid-19 pandemic, May 2020:
  • Hutchinson: Identifying pupils with special educational needs and disabilities, EPI, March 2021:
  • Headteacher Update: Families seeking SEND support left exhausted by 'adversarial and bureaucratic' system, October 2019:
  • Ofsted: Research and analysis: Supporting SEND, last updated May 2021:

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