Sharon was asked to contribute to a session on the upcoming Children and Families Bill as part of a conference looking at all the Bills announced in this year's Queen's Speech.
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This will be the first time that I have discussed the Children and Families Bill in a public forum, but certainly not the first time I have discussed the government’s plans to reform the SEN system.
As I have been saying since the call for evidence preceding the Green Paper went out in September 2010 – before Ed had even asked me to take on the role of Labour’s spokesperson on these issues – this is a real opportunity to make the lives of children living with the whole spectrum of special educational needs and disabilities, as well as their families, better.
The system we have works well in some local areas, but frighteningly badly in others.
The case for change did not need making, and at every point up to now, and at every point along the passage of this Bill and beyond, I and the Labour Party have supported and will support the Government where we think that their ideas and how they intend to implement them will have a positive impact on the outcomes of young people.
This is particularly true of the ambition to streamline the assessment process and for the co-production between parents and multi-disciplinary teams of a single Education, Health and Care Plan for those children and young people up to the age of 25 who are deemed to require one.
We have also offered qualified support for personal budgets. As a parent of a son who had a statement for severe dyslexia, I would have welcomed the opportunity to be funded to go out and find specialist support for him and have that funded, which I actually did but out of my own pocket to help him through his GCSEs, and I think there are many other parents who will like that idea too.
What we need to make sure, however, is that this Bill doesn’t seek to hammer the idea home before it has been properly tested, because the primary concerns have to be that the quality of provision is high, and in these times of huge cuts to local authorities, that it represents value for money for the taxpayer compared to the present system.
The Department are piloting this in a number of local areas, but unless there have been some very recent developments, I don’t think any of them are up and running yet, and probably won’t be running properly until the Autumn. I actually had a parent email me the other week saying that her local SEN team had told her they had no idea what they were going to be doing.
This therefore means that when the time comes we could be asked to vote on rolling something out for which there is no evidence at all that it will deliver what we hope it will.
Given that this is a key plank of the SEN part of the Bill, I hope that the government will put in the spadework required to ensure that Parliament has the fullest picture possible before it is asked to approve it.
If it doesn’t, then we will have to look at what Parliamentary mechanisms we can try to insert into the Bill to separate out that provision for final approval at a later date.
So although we will support the government on some bits of what they want to do, we will be a critical friend, and we will suggest our own ideas where we think we need to.
Partly through frustration at the length of time it took the government to analyse and publish the results of their consultation on the Support and Aspiration Green Paper, but mainly through our own desire to learn the lessons of the last 13 years and come up with new ideas for the future, the Labour Party set up our own official review of SEN policy at the beginning of the year.
I have been chairing that review, aided by party colleagues in Parliament and local government, but also by a young person with SEN who has gone through the current system, as well as the Head of a well-respected special school in the North East, to give us a broader perspective of the challenges which need to be overcome on both sides.
We’re in the latter stages of that review now, so we do have a set of ideas which will tie in to how we approach the draft bill and actual bill when they’re published, as well as what we will talk about beyond that as we head towards the next election.
We haven’t finalised that process quite yet, though, so I wouldn’t want to go into too much detail here about what it will contain, but suffice to say there was a good deal of consensus around certain principles at the four evidence sessions that we had as part of the review – one of which I’m pleased to say that Lorraine brought her significant expertise and good ideas to.
The session that Lorraine spoke at was focussed on the skills of the education workforce, and this is an area I think that big strides can be made.
The simple fact is that every educator, whether they’re early years professionals, teachers, or FE lecturers, will be educating children and young people with special educational needs.
I think it therefore defies logic that there is nothing which says that teachers aren’t required to know about high incidence needs and how best to adapt their teaching to cater for them. That’s as true of initial training as it is of continuous professional development.
I’m not saying that teachers should be experts, but they should have sufficient knowledge to know when someone is struggling and why that might be, and when to discuss the child’s needs with those who do have better knowledge – whether that’s SENCOs or EdPsychs, or specialist dyslexia teachers and the like.
And better equipping teachers means that you will be able to keep more children in mainstream classrooms, and focus more resources on helping those with more complex needs.
This leads me on to another of the strong themes from our policy review, which was around inclusion.
I think it’s fair to say that the majority of people who contributed, as well as who I have met and talked to outside of that process, expressed deep concerns with a line that was in the Green Paper and even the Coalition Agreement before it, which spoke about “removing the bias towards inclusion”.
I know that this line actually came from the Prime Minister himself, but when challenged the government haven’t been able to provide any evidence that there is such a bias, and it’s not something that most people recognise.
I think where there clearly is a bias it is from local authorities choosing what they deem to be the most cost-effective school placement for a particular child’s needs, which most of the time will be mainstream schools.
I think everyone would agree that cost-effectiveness has to be a priority for local authorities as commissioners of services, but the problem arises when by ‘most cost-effective’ they simply mean ‘cheapest in the short term’, and not what is best for the young person in the long term.
We’ve got to encourage commissioners to look beyond their annual budget to how investing a little more now can save them much more over the course of that child’s life, through reduced dependency on social care and better preparing young people for independent living and participation in the labour market.
I was pleased, therefore, to see that the phrase did not appear in the next steps document, and I’ll be watching to see if and where it manifests itself in the legislation when it is published.
Accountability will also be a key theme for us in considering the wider raft of changes this Bill will make – which, let’s remember, need to be looked at in the light of the drastically different education system which Michael Gove has created through the Academies and Education Acts.
His vision seems to be an education landscape whereby the majority of schools are answerable directly to him, but we do not think that this is good enough.
Local co-ordination of SEND provision is a great example of where you need a local point of accountability for parents to be able to go to when problems occur.
Instead, if they believe that an academy or free school has acted unfairly in excluding their child, they have to take it to the Secretary of State, or rather his officials.
The local authority, which has a democratic mandate, is powerless to do anything, and if the recent ruling over Mossbourne Academy’s refusal to be named on a child’s statement is anything to go by, so is the tribunal service.
This cannot be right – all parents need to know what they can expect in terms of who is ultimately accountable for the provision of their child’s needs, and that is the case we will be making.
Finally, I want to talk about another key area we will be talking about around the Bill, which is support for the wider family, for whom the present system can present huge challenges which are insurmountable to many.
I had a meeting just yesterday with people who have been delivering a programme called Early Support, which has been very effectively guiding families of disabled children through the challenges they face since 2003.
We also have parent partnerships across the country, which look to support families through the process of assessment and statementing.
Where they work well, they work very well – we heard a great example of one such partnership in Rotherham which brought parents and the local authority much closer together in designing and commissioning local services, reducing conflict and therefore the costly tribunal processes which can happen where there is a breakdown of relationships.
But on the flipside, we also heard from a parent who had never even been made aware that their local parent partnership existed, so I think that there is a great deal to be gained by making sure that every council is as good as Rotherham.
Whether or not this needs to be in legislation, it certainly needs to be considered alongside it.
So to wrap up, I certainly see this Bill as an opportunity to work in a constructive way with my opposite number (who sadly could not be here today) to bring about real change which will improve the lives and outcomes of SEND children for years to come.
We won’t agree on everything, but at least we agree on the principles, and that hasn’t been a particularly common scenario over the last couple of years!
And as this is the Children and Families Bill, I’ll certainly be looking to make sure that the views of children and their families are central to how we deliberate on it.