Sharon Hodgson MP

Working hard for Washington and Sunderland West.

NASS conference 05.10.12

Sharon spoke to the National Association of Independent and Non-maintained Special Schools conference at the Royal York Hotel, in York.



Thank you

It’s been great to join you here both last night and this morning.

It’s always a pleasure to be invited to speak at conferences and gatherings like this – but it’s even nicer when you’re invited for two years in a row! I hope that means I did a good job last year. 

Only problem now though is that if I’m not invited next year I’ll fear the reverse and be most upset!

When I was here last year I’d had a little bit of time to recover from Labour conference. 

This time I’ve come straight here – so I am still feeling the effects of a hectic week, but it was nice at least to have a relaxing and relatively early night last night with no singing!

Before I come to my comments about the two reports before us today, I want to take this opportunity to thank NASS for the contribution they made to the Labour Party’s Special Educational Needs Policy Review, which I chaired, and which I’d like to make a few comments about this morning.

It was quite an effort to pull together all of the evidence that we received in both verbal and written form, and then teasing out the recommendations that are going to come from it, but I think we’ve done a pretty good job.

And I was actually assisted in that policy review by the excellent Lynn Watson, Head Teacher of Percy Hedley School in Newcastle, who sat on the panel to give a provider and practitioner’s angle. Thank you Lynn for all our help and insight and for the ongoing help I know you’ll give me in the years to come. 

One of the key themes of the review, and probably the one which is most relevant to NASS and the reports you have launched this morning, was inclusion.

I think it is 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 the majority of contributors to my review did not recognise this in practise. As they fought to get their child the right support – they would sometimes start off wanting a mainstream place but would find the support lacking and then have to fight for a place in one of your schools. 

Now, I have a great deal of sympathy with the inclusion lobby’s point of view…

I think all educational settings – from early years to tertiary - should be better at identifying and providing for children with SEN and disabilities.

I think all teachers could and should be given more training on how to do that, and SENCOs should be a more prominent part of school life and be a senior member of staff – able to affect change throughout the school and ensure that children are getting the support they need.

I think where there clearly is a ‘bias towards inclusion’, it is from some local authorities fighting against placements in independent special schools because they believe that the most cost-effective school placement to meet a particular child’s needs is in a local maintained school. 

I think everyone would agree that cost-effectiveness has to be a priority for local authorities as commissioners of services.

And in times like this: 

…when local authorities have lost huge amounts of grant funding;

…are having to make redundancies across the board; 

…and are probably planning for a future when all of their schools are directly funded from Whitehall as well… 

…it’s not hard to see why officers might look at the headline cost of a placement at a non-maintained or independent school and push for an alternative placement instead.

As the first piece of research we have heard about today shows, if they were to look beyond those headline figures, then it might not be the case at all that the yearly cost of a placement is significantly higher in a non-maintained or independent school.

It might even be the case that that placement would end up costing less per year than trying to meet all of a child’s needs in an unsuitable maintained setting.

But the real issue for me is what the second report highlighted.

The problem with some local authorities is that 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.

What many don’t realise, or don’t factor in to commissioning and decision making, is that what is best for the young person in the long term is also likely to mean that their bottom line will be better in the long term as well.

As your second report talked about, we’ve got to encourage commissioners to look beyond their annual budget, and instead to what a child needs to reach their potential, and what that child not having the right support will cost them.

They need to look at what it will cost in social care over that child’s lifetime if they never develop the skills they need to live independently.

They need to look at what it will cost the welfare system if that child never has the capacity to hold down employment.

They need to look at what it will cost the police and criminal justice system if that child has the kind of condition which leads them to violent or aggressive behaviour.

And they need to look at what it will cost the National Health Service if a child is never given the skills to look after their health, or suffers from acute mental health problems later in life.

All of those considerations completely echo the kinds of things I talk about when I speak about early intervention programmes - those which seek to help what the government would describe as troubled families.

As with the area of early intervention, spotting problems and getting children the right support at the right time – and the right time is almost always as early as possible - can mean a huge pay-off over the long term.

The figure in your report of over a quarter of a million over 25 years is huge but as you’ve said in some cases its over half a million, but if you think about it you can absolutely see where that payback would come from.

All of those considerations all represent a financial cost or an opportunity cost, but even more importantly than that they are a human cost. 

A child who could have grown into an adult capable of enjoying independence and work, but who doesn’t realise that potential because they didn’t get the right support, is not just a child that costs the public purse more over their lifetime – they are a child that has been failed.

Failed by the government, and failed by those who had the means to set their life on a different trajectory, but who didn’t.

Just as I said in a speech on early intervention and prevention on Wednesday at Labour conference, the moral and economic imperatives to getting children the right support are actually one and the same, and so I welcome the contribution that this report makes to the debate. 

I also welcome the focus on the wider family.

As a policy maker in this area, you hear a lot from the professionals and practitioners about their priorities and ideas – as is absolutely correct and is very welcome by me. 

You hear slightly less, but still a fair amount, from parents about their experiences – and unfortunately, but not surprisingly, you tend to only hear from those who have had bad experiences.

After parents, you hear less still from people who have gone through the SEN system themselves. 

There have been a few who have come forward as part of the review; though we were actually very lucky to have a young man with Asperger’s who had just graduated from Oxford on the review panel, who was able to provide an excellent insight.

I was actually so impressed with him that I gave him two weeks’ work experience in my office after he had finished his studies, which he thoroughly enjoyed – as we did also and he was a huge help with the drafting of the review report too. Amazingly talented young man. 

Another of the highlights was hearing from a wonderful young woman called Nadia Clarke, who communicates via an augmentative communication device. She has since work shadowed me for a whole day in Parliament which we both thoroughly enjoyed. She was exhausted by end of day– as were her PA’s - but she wouldn’t give up. This also highlighted how inaccessible Parliament still is – historical building etc. 

Nadia has a wicked sense of humour and is after my researcher’s job - so that’s helping to keep him on his toes!  

But after the voices of professionals, parents and young people themselves, you very rarely – if ever – hear from siblings about their experiences, and the support that they would have liked to enable them to be a good brother or sister to their sibling, but also to thrive in their own right.

And the sad fact is, this hierarchy in voice on the national policy-making stage is exactly the same when it comes to deciding what support a young person receives.

In too many cases, the professionals have the biggest say, with parents and the young person themselves playing smaller parts. 

Siblings  - and even other family members who may have a significant stake in the provision that young person receives, such as grandparents or aunts and uncles who may be called upon to provide care – are often not in the equation at all, and if they are they are on the fringes.

This needs to change, and the findings of this report back that up.

One of the recommendations of my policy review is that the needs and competencies of the wider family should be central to the process of deciding on the package of support a child or young person needs in order to achieve what they are capable of achieving.

All of us here knew before this report that having a child with an SEN or disability can be an extremely stressful for parents, siblings and other family members, for all the reasons that it listed: mental and physical health issues, problems being able to stay in or take up work, and so on. 

Supporting a child’s family to understand how to cope with and cater for a child’s SEN or disability is often the most cost-effective kind of intervention, and should be encouraged. 

But over-estimating the ability of a family to support a child with certain conditions can also be detrimental to all concerned. 

It can aggravate certain problems, negate efforts and resources spent elsewhere, contribute towards family breakdown, and increase the likelihood of the care system being involved at some stage. 

While all the professionals that we are promised will come together to draw up the new Education, Health and Care Plans are together, it would be an effective use of their time to consider the needs of the whole family, rather than just the child as an individual.

That would mean: 

…assessing their resilience and ability to cope… 

…providing or recommending support specifically for them – the family members - where appropriate… 

…and when it comes to siblings who are also in education, ensuring their school gives them support to overcome the unique challenges they face at home – whether that’s just that they don’t have anywhere quiet to do their homework, or that they are actually fulfilling a caring role, and don’t have the time or energy to do their homework. 

I think this report therefore provides an excellent point of reference when we’re talking about those challenges, and so again is very welcome.

The challenge as I see it now for providers in your sector is to ensure that both the government and decision-makers in local government read these reports.

I remember from last year that there was a great deal of concern that the government’s plans at that point did not seem to want parents to be able to name non-maintained and independent special schools in an EHCP, and that concern been borne out in draft clauses, although I understand you have secured movement for non-maintained special schools but not independent schools?

But there is still a way to go with the legislation, though, and there are plenty of opportunities to lobby and make your case at various stages of its progression, which I’m sure you’re on top of, and planning for, and no doubt doing so at the moment.

I’ll end my response to the reports there because I’m keen to hear from all of you experts in the room, but I’d just like to end by thanking you again for inviting me back, and congratulating NASS for commissioning this work as well as all the excellent lobbying you don on behalf of independent and non-maintained special schools, and the important contribution that these reports will make to the debate around the Children and Families Bill.

Thank you. 

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