SEND Improvement Plan: DfE has not understood ‘gravity of the situation’

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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The “gravity” of the challenges facing the SEND system and the “urgency with which we need to act” has not been grasped by ministers in their long overdue SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan.

The plan sets out new national standards for SEND and alternative provision which will give families “confidence in what support they should receive and who will provide and pay for it, regardless of where they live”.

Also promised are digitised and standardised Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) in a bid to cut the bureaucracy that has plagued the system of SEND assessment in recent years.

And training for thousands of professionals, including 5,000 early years SENCOs and 400 educational psychologists, will aim to boost earlier identification and intervention for SEND.

The plan has finally been published by the Department for Education (DfE, 2023) following its review of SEND provision, which itself was launched well over three years ago.

It also includes new “guides” for education professionals to help schools “make adjustments to classrooms to help a child remain in mainstream education”.

However, professionals hoping for quick change have been left disappointed. The DfE confirmed that a £70m “change programme” will only work with selected local authorities in nine regions to begin with to “test and refiner longer term plans”.

This work will take place over the next “two to three years” and will include “new digital requirements for local authority EHCP processes and options for strengthening mediation” when parents dispute a council’s decision.

Also confirmed are 33 new special free schools in addition to 49 already in the pipeline – this is part of the DfE’s £2.6bn investment to increase special school and alternative provision capacity between now and 2025.

There remains deep frustration at yet further delays to full national roll-out of the plan given the time this process has already taken. The review was launched in September 2019 and published a year ago in March 2022.

What is more, many of the key problems identified in the review – especially those around strained resources and the bureaucratic and adversarial nature of the system that parents must navigate in order to get EHCP support – had already been identified by a cross-party inquiry by MPs back in 2019.

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

Responding to the DfE’s announcement today (Thursday, March 2), the Association of School and College Leaders voiced the frustration of many.

Its SEND and inclusion specialist Margaret Mulholland said that the current system of SEN support is “badly broken and critically underfunded”, leaving schools without the resources they need.

She continued: “Expanded training for staff and the standardisation of EHCPs are important steps but we are concerned about the length of time it is going to take to implement some of these policies. More special schools are desperately needed, but will take years to build.

“The promise of additional places in the future will be of no comfort to those missing out right now who have a special school named on their EHCP but who can’t get a place as the relevant school is oversubscribed. Nor will it help the mainstream schools currently struggling to meet the needs of these pupils.

“It has taken an awfully long time to get to this point. We look forward to reading the plan in detail and to an explanation of the level of funding available and the timeframe for when these policies will be implemented. We are yet to see anything to suggest the government understands the gravity of the situation and the urgency with which they need to act.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the system is currently “a dysfunctional mess”.

He added: “On the surface, plans to focus upon early intervention, increase the specialist workforce, improve the EHCP process, and boost special school capacity, appear positive. National standards setting out the support and funding children should receive could work in principle as a way of ending the current postcode lottery.

“However, it’s unclear whether enough money will be provided to transform the wider system and ensure it is truly led by pupils needs rather than the resources available.

“These plans have been years in the making and we need to see urgency from the government. Until the government commits to properly funding the system based on pupils’ needs, fundamental problems will remain.”

Other policies in the plan include:

  • A new leadership level SENCO National Professional Qualification and expanded training for staff, including early years SENCOs and educational psychologists. The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education will develop an apprenticeship for teachers of sensory impairments.
  • A new approach to alternative provision will “focus on preparing children to return to mainstream or prepare for adulthood”. The DfE says that “alternative provision will act as an intervention within mainstream education, as well as high-quality standalone provision, in an approach that meets children’s needs earlier and helps prevent escalation”.
  • An extension of AP Specialist Taskforces, which work directly with young people in alternative provision to offer intensive support from experts, including mental health professionals, family workers, and speech and language therapists. There will be an additional £4.8m for this.
  • A £30m fund for developing approaches for short breaks for children, young people, and their families, providing respite for families of children with complex needs.

Minister for children, families and wellbeing Claire Coutinho said: “For some parents of children with SEND, getting their child that superb education that everyone deserves can feel like a full-time job.

“The plan sets out systemic reforms to standards, teacher training and access to specialists as well as thousands of new places at specialist schools so that every child gets the help they need.”

Jo Hutchinson, director for SEND and additional needs at the Education Policy Institute, added: These plans include some important incremental improvements but they fall short of being transformational. The focus on early help and mainstream inclusion in the national standards is welcome, but we await sight of the draft standards in order to assess these.”

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