Devil in the detail: Cautious reaction to SEND Green Paper

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Adversarial: One of the key problems in the SEND system has become its adversarial nature as families often have to fight to get support and recognition for their children (image: Adobe Stock)

There has been cautious welcome to ideas set out in the long-awaited SEND Green Paper but exasperation that it has taken so long to get to this point.

The SEND sector has been waiting years for government action to tackle the crisis in funding and red tape for special needs pupils.

A cross-party inquiry by MPs identified the key problems back in 2019. Three years on and the government’s SEND Review – Right support, right place, right time, which was published this week and runs to more than 100 pages, has reached similar conclusions.

A 13-week consultation has now been launched over proposed new reforms based on the recommendations of the review.

The review identifies “a vicious cycle of late intervention, low confidence and inefficient resource” and that “decisions are too often made based on where a child or young person lives or is educated, not on their needs”.

It finds that “settings are often ill-equipped to identify and support” pupils and adds: “It is not clear to families what they should reasonably expect from their local mainstream settings, and they lose confidence that these settings can meet their child’s needs. Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) and, in some cases, specialist provision, are seen as the only means of guaranteeing the right and appropriate support.

Increasing numbers of requests for EHCPs and specialist provision means that pupils “face significant delays in accessing support”.

It sets out three key problems:

  • Navigating the SEND system and alternative provision is not a positive experience for too many pupils and their families.
  • Outcomes for pupils with SEND or in alternative provision are consistently worse than their peers across every measure.
  • The system is not financially sustainable.

The fact that the government could have saved a lot of time and effort by listening more closely to MPs on the Education Select Committee in 2019 won’t be lost on professionals.

Ever since the now infamous Education Select Committee report in 2019, professionals have been demanding something be done to tackle the adversarial experiences faced by many families seeking support for their children via EHCPs.

The MPs’ landmark report said that poor implementation of the government’s 2014 SEND reforms has resulted in “confusion, at times unlawful practice, bureaucratic nightmares, buck-passing, no accountability, strained resources, and adversarial experiences”.

The cross-party inquiry into the overhaul of the SEND system found that while the reforms were the right ones, families still face a “titanic struggle” to get the right support for their children. The MPs reported that poor administration and a “challenging funding environment” means that schools are struggling to cope and local authorities are under pressure.

The MPs’ report said that at school level, children on SEN Support in particular were being let down and their needs going unmet. As such, desperate families are applying for EHCPs, leading to huge pressure on the system.

This in turn has led to unlawful practices by local authorities, such as rationing and gatekeeping, leaving many children’s needs unidentified and/or unmet. There are further problems with “misleading or unlawful advice” being passed from local authorities to schools and then to parents. You can find an overview of the findings in Headteacher Update (2019).

The SEND reforms entered into legislation in 2014, seeking to place children and families at the heart of decision-making. They saw the introduction of new 0-25 Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs), replacing the system of SEN Statements.

A SEND Code of Practice was introduced, parents were given more control of budgets and decision-making for their children, and local authorities were required to produce a Local Offer detailing the available support for SEND.

The new Green Paper now wants to achieve greater consistency in SEND support. It proposes:

  • “A new national SEND and alternative provision system setting nationally consistent standards for how needs are identified and met at every stage of a child’s journey across education.”
  • “New local SEND partnerships bringing together education, health and care partners with local government to produce a local inclusion plan.” This will set out how each area will meet the national standards, when specialist support is needed, and the provision that is available within the local area (including alternative provision service focused on early intervention).
  • Support for parents and carers to express “an informed preference for a suitable placement” by providing a tailored list of settings – mainstream, specialist and independent. Parents will continue to have the right to request a mainstream setting.
  • A “standardised and digitised EHCP process and template to minimise bureaucracy”.
  • A streamlined redress process to “make it easier to resolve disputes earlier, including through mandatory mediation, while retaining the tribunal for the most challenging cases”.

The government has pledged an “additional” £1bn in 2022/23 to support pupils with the most complex needs and an investment of £2.6bn over the next three years to expand and improve provision for pupils with SEND. It has also set out plans for a new SENCO national professional qualification (NPQ).

A “cautious welcome” is certainly the phrase to describe the profession’s reaction to the plans.

Jo Hutchinson, a director at the Education Policy Institute, said: "On paper, these reforms hold the potential to begin the task of building an inclusive system which intervenes early to prevent needs from escalating and provides similar services irrespective of which school a child attends or what postcode they live in.

"The devil will be in the detail and most crucially, the implementation. Families across the country will rightly only believe in better SEND provision when it arrives.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the system was “in crisis”.

He continued: “It is driven by a vicious cycle in which parents and schools are left desperately trying to access support and funding for children through EHCPs, often facing a postcode lottery of processes, delays, and bureaucracy.

“The Green Paper proposals of a system built on early and accurate identification of needs, with common standards on what support should be provided and when, and local partnerships to deliver that on the ground, seem right and sensible.

“The frustration is that the government’s SEND review began in September 2019, it has taken nearly three years to reach this point, and full implementation of the Green Paper is some way off.

“In the meantime, many thousands of children and young people will continue to pass through a broken system, with schools left to pick up the pieces without sufficient resources.

“We understand that the pandemic has delayed this review, but the government has not shown enough urgency.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of School Leaders, said that a “persistent lack of funding from central government" was at the heart of the problems.

He added: “We agree with government that early identification and intervention is essential and the key to improving pupil outcomes – schools know this instinctively, but we also know that waiting lists to see specialists, such as speech and language therapists, are currently far too long and we see little evidence at this stage that the government has ambitious enough plans to properly address this.

“The bottom line is that we need to make sure each part of the sector has the resources it needs to meet the varying needs of pupils with SEND and is able to access the specialists pupils need at the earliest possible opportunity. That is what will make the biggest difference."

Annemarie Hassall, CEO of special needs association Nasen said that the system has been “fragile” for some years now.

“The (Green Paper) clearly recognises that we must urgently resolve the postcode lottery around securing an EHCP. We need to simplify the process, making it more flexible, with less red tape and supporting parents and carers to make informed decisions without them feeling like they are regularly battling the system. By improving oversight and transparency, we will help drive better outcomes.

“We currently face a sad reality that despite there being lots of excellent practice for SEND in education, our system has been fragile for years.”

  • DfE: Open consultation: SEND review: right support, right place, right time, March 2022 (closes July 1, 2022):

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