Families seeking SEND support left exhausted by 'adversarial and bureaucratic' system

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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Poor implementation of the government’s SEND reforms has resulted in “confusion, at times unlawful practice, bureaucratic nightmares, buck-passing, no accountability, strained resources, and adversarial experiences”, a damning MPs’ report has concluded.

An inquiry by the cross-party Education Select Committee into the overhaul of the SEND system has found that while the reforms are the right ones, families still face a “titanic struggle” to get the right support for their children.

MPs report that poor administration and a “challenging funding environment” means that schools are struggling to cope and local authorities are under pressure.
The committee published its findings on Wednesday (October 23) after its inquiry heard evidence from more than 70 witnesses and received 700 written submissions. The report concludes that there is “too much of a tension between the child’s needs and the provision available” and also highlights the tension caused by the fact that local authorities are both assessors of need and commissioners of services.

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 report says that at school level, children on SEN Support in particular are 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.

The report states: “Many parents told us that they had been refused an EHCP, advised not to apply for an EHCP, been refused a needs assessment by the local authority or told that their child would not meet the threshold.”

Indeed, the report highlights that appeals to the SEN Tribunal have increased to 6,374 in 2018/19, up from 5,039 in the previous year. Around nine in every 10 cases in 2017/18 was determined in favour of the appellant.

MPs slammed the huge bureaucracy of the system, saying that “parents felt alone in negotiating the system” and that for families seeking support it proved a “complex, awful and often unnecessarily antagonistic experience”.

They said that often only educated parents with a certain level of social capital were able to navigate the process and understand their legal entitlements.

The report states: “In some cases, parental empowerment has not happened. Children and parents are not ‘in the know’ and for some the law may not even appear to exist. Parents currently need a combination of special knowledge and social capital to navigate the system, and even then, are left exhausted by the experience. Those without significant personal or social capital therefore face significant disadvantage. For some, Parliament might as well not have bothered to legislate.”

As such, the report calls for a new role to be created: “Parents and carers have to wade through a treacle of bureaucracy, full of conflict, missed appointments and despair. We want to see a neutral role introduced, the purpose of which would be to arrange meetings, co-ordinate paperwork and be a source of impartial advice to parents.

“We believe that this would help reduce conflict in the system and remove much of the responsibility that seems to fall on parents.”

Among the other recommendations in the report is a call for greater focus on SEND in school and local authority inspections, including on unlawful practices. The report also recommends that a direct line of appeal to the Department for Education (DfE) be created for parents to use when local authorities fail to follow the processes set out in statute and guidance.

A key thread running throughout the inquiry has been funding. The report says that a “significant shortfall in funding” and the fact that the implementation funding for local authorities was not ring-fenced has prevented the “systematic change” required by the reforms. Instead the money was spent merely on “business as usual and maintaining the status quo”.

Funding is certainly under huge pressure in the SEN sector. Earlier this year, the Local Government Association (LGA) said that in the five-year period since the SEND reforms came in, councils have overseen an increase of nearly 50 per cent in children with EHCPs or SEN Statements. In 2014, there were 237,100 with Statements but as of January 2019, there are 354,000 with EHCPs.

At the same time, a report by think-tank IPPR North in April found that the funding available for the high needs block has reduced by 17 per cent across England since 2015. Its analysis of DfE data found that while high needs funding has increased by 11 per cent from 2015/16 to 2018/19, demand has increased by 35 per cent. It means that the amount available through high needs funding for each pupil fell from around £23,000 to around £19,000 during this period.

As part of the government’s recent pledge to raise school funding levels by £7.1 billion by 2023 (compared to 2019/20 levels) it was confirmed that an additional £780 million would be going to high needs funding from 2020/21.

However, the general feeling in the sector is that this will not be enough. A report by the ISOS Partnership for the LGA identified an anticipated deficit in local authority high needs budgets totalling between £889 million and £1.2 billion in 2020 (Parish et al, 2018).

The MPs on the select committee say that a funding uplift for the high needs block is “essential”. However, the report adds that unless there is a “culture change” within schools, local authorities and the government, any additional money “will be wasted”.

The report also criticises the state of the Local Offer, which local authorities are required to publish detailing the services available. It raises concerns that Local Offers are not being produced in conjunction with parents and schools and that not all services listed within it are accessible.

The report states: “The Local Offer’s aims and intentions appear to have moved away from the initial intentions, and in some cases have become unusable and useless. We call on the government to review local authorities’ Local Offers in collaboration with children, young people and their parents and carers.”

Chair of the Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon MP, said: “Despite the good intentions of the reforms, many children with SEND are being let down day after day. Many parents face a titanic struggle just to try and ensure their child gets access to the right support.

“Families are often forced to wade through a treacle of bureaucracy, in a system which breeds conflict and despair as parents try to navigate a postcode lottery of provision.

“A lack of accountability plagues the system as local authorities, social care and health providers too frequently seek to pass the buck rather than take responsibility for providing support.

“There needs to be a radical change to inspection, support for parents, and clear consequences for failure to ensure the 2014 Act delivers as the government intended.”
Commenting on the report, the LGA said that councils supported the 2014 SEND reforms but added that “the cost of implementing them had been underestimated by the government” and that “funding has simply not kept up with the increased demand”.

Steve Haines, director of the National Deaf Children’s Society, said the report was “the most damning” he had ever read and said that the government’s review of SEND funding arrangements, which was launched earlier this year (DfE, May 2019), must lead to change.

He added: “Line after line, it shows that the education system for disabled children is completely broken. Parents are forced to become protestors, lawyers and bureaucrats to stand any sort of chance of getting the support their child is legally entitled to. The government’s root and branch review of the system must end the toxic culture and wanton law-breaking running riot throughout the SEND system.”

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, also blamed a lack of adequate funding for the problems.

She explained: “As a result we have underfunded schools and colleges desperately trying to secure EHCPs for vulnerable pupils with variable levels of help from local authorities and health services, while under the cosh of performance tables which effectively penalise them for having vulnerable intakes.

“It is hard to imagine a more muddled system. The government’s recent announcement of an extra £780 million for high needs funding is a step in the right direction but it is only about half of what is needed.”

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