The SEND Improvement Plan: Three key issues

Written by: Daniel Stavrou | Published:
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Will the government’s SEND Improvement Plan bring about real improvement and what might it mean for pupils with SEND, their teachers and their schools? Daniel Stavrou looks a three key issues

Last term, the Department for Education (DfE) published the SEND and alternative provision improvement plan (DfE, 2023; Headteacher Update, 2023), building on its earlier Green Paper (DfE, 2022a).

I was asked to offer some thoughts on the plan on behalf of the Special Educational Consortium – a group of organisations who promote the rights of children with SEND – at a meeting in Parliament of the Education Select Committee.

The DfE’s plan acknowledges the complexity and level of challenge that exists within the SEND system and the difficult experiences of some children and families that result. It also puts a welcome focus on early intervention and support which will be essential in ensuring needs are met effectively.

But the plan is a long document and some of its language is pretty opaque. The SEC condensed its response into three areas, which I will describe here.

1, Timelines

We are concerned that the way the plan is set out, most of the meaningful outcomes are pushed to the end of 2025 and yet, as you well know, schools and their staff are feeling the strain today.

In my evidence, I gave the hypothetical example of a child in reception who relies on school staff having the SEND-related expertise to identify and address emerging needs (anxiety, sensory challenges, delayed language – things schools see every day).

Yet DfE data shows that only 46% of early career teachers feel sufficiently prepared to teach SEND (Adams et al, 2023). We also know how little SEND knowledge and training is given in initial teacher training.

If our example child goes on to require specialist support, we know there are acute staff shortages in those specialist professions. What’s more, if schools and parents decide to apply for an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP), the data shows that 40% of applications take longer than the statutory 20 weeks (DfE, 2022b).

Faced with these challenges, the plan seems unlikely to improve things before our child is in year 3.

2, National standards

The creation of new national standards on the face of it appears a positive step – ensuring all pupils with SEND receive a high-quality, evidence-based level of support.

However, with new national standards there could be a risk that the principle of person-centred provision as set out in the current SEND system (namely, the SEND Code of Practice and related legislation) is undermined.

The national standards concept is tied to what the plan calls “bands and tariffs” – the idea that specific needs profiles will incur determined levels of funding for support. This seems to contradict a personalised approach to SEND. Indeed, the Code of Practice explicitly forbids local authorities taking a “blanket approach” to provision. We are concerned over the lack of detail at this stage on what these national standards will entail.

They are to be trialled over the next two years, so if you happen to be in one of the nine regions chosen for this you might see some movement and experimentation. But again, most teaching staff are unlikely to see any change before the end of 2025.

3, The AP question

The plan states its intention to “create a three-tier alternative provision system, focusing on targeted early support within mainstream school, time-limited intensive placements in an alternative provision setting, and longer-term placements to support return to mainstream”.

Under the plan, as a teacher you would be able to draw upon highly skilled alternative provision staff as a form of outreach to help support children with challenging behaviours to thrive in your school. But again, at this stage, there is not much detail on how this will be funded and (crucially) staffed with the right level of expertise.

More than 80% of alternative provision pupils have SEND and expanding alternative provision rather than supporting teachers in mainstream schools seems misguided. Alternative provision certainly has its place and we agree it should be better regulated, but it should not be used as a quick-fix, nor a substitution for high-quality SEND provision.

I was intrigued that none of the MPs on the committee asked any questions on this topic – despite it being one of the most radical sections in the plan.

Final thoughts

The plan isn’t all bad. We welcome – as did my colleagues on the panel – the intention to standardise EHCPs (so long as they keep the voice of children front and centre and deliver high-quality plans). I also like the plan’s language around inclusion: “An inclusive society where every child and young person is set up to thrive.”

I was also impressed by the committee itself: MPs seemed genuinely engaged with SEND and well-briefed. Call me naïve, but I maintain the belief that our policy-makers genuinely want to do good.

Although with a general election expected in autumn 2024, there is a possibility, of course, that nothing at all will come of this plan. Whatever happens, we will keep a close eye on developments and continue advocating for better training, adequate levels of funding for schools, and an uncompromising inclusive approach to teaching and learning.

  • Daniel Stavrou is policy vice-chair of the Special Educational Consortium, a group of 40 organisations in the SEND sector, including education unions such as NAHT, NEU and NASUWT, as well as charities, and parent/carer groups. Visit

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