Sharon was asked to speak to the SEN Policy Options Group, comprising academics and practitioners in education and disability.
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I’m very pleased to be able to come and speak to you all today – although being amongst the experts means that I’m more looking forward to the discussion afterwards and hearing your ideas than I am to giving this talk.
As most of you will probably know, Peter came to present to the fourth session of the Labour Party Special Educational Needs Policy Review, which focussed on how to make the current system, and indeed the one that is rapidly developing at the moment, more accountable to children and young people with SEN and disabilities and their parents.
He gave a very insightful contribution on accountability within the education system, so I was more than happy to return the favour by joining the panel at your seminar today.
It’s also a real pleasure to share a platform with Philippa once again – I think the last one we shared was at a debate hosted by Channel 4 just over a year ago?
Philippa was a great help to me when I was taking my SEN Information Private Members Bill through Parliament, as she has been in my current role.
Perspectives on government reforms
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 – we have a real opportunity here to make the lives of children living with the whole spectrum of special educational needs and disabilities, as well as their families, better.
I know from both personal experience and from the responses that I’ve had to the consultation we issued back in February, the system we have works well in some local areas, but frighteningly badly in others.
I have therefore been clear that the case for change was already well-rehearsed, 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 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, which will include parents as well as multi-disciplinary teams in establishing what support that child needs.
These are the really crucial issues for parents, and so are the ones you’ll probably hear the most about from politicians over the coming year or so.
How they can be achieved, however, is another thing – I know in particular we’ve been trying to get health to play nicely and share their budgets with others for years, and I’m certainly not confident that in this new world of health and wellbeing boards and clinical commissioning groups that this is necessarily going to change.
I therefore look forward to seeing the lessons learned from the pathfinders set up last year – hopefully before we are asked to vote on the legislation.
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 go out and find specialist support for him and have that funded, which I actually did 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 again, however, is that the Children and Families Bill doesn’t seek to hammer the idea home before it has been properly tested.
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.
I know a lot of the responses to the green paper consultation were also concerned that provision for those children whose parents don’t want to manage their own budgets should not be adversely affected, and that there is sufficient independent and good quality advice out there for all parents – reassurances I sought and was given by the Minister when we discussed the pilot schemes.
Building on that, I also think that during the passage of the Bill we need to talk seriously about who is springing up here and there to try and cash in on this reform, and whether the services they are offering have any actual value.
The last thing we want to create is a new breed of ambulance chaser.
Again, 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 those pilots 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 actually deliver what we hope it will.
Given that this is a key plank of the government’s reforms, and the concerns that surround it, I hope that they will put in the effort required to ensure that Parliament has the fullest picture possible before it is asked to approve it.
Key themes from Labour’s policy review
So those are my perspectives on the government’s main reforms, but as you know, we in the Labour Party set up our own official review of SEN policy at the beginning of the year.
This was partly through frustration at the length of time it took the government to analyse and publish the results of their consultation on the 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.
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 met last week to discuss the first draft of the recommendations and principals that will come out of that process.
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 well as the hundreds of written responses we received.
One of the biggest themes was the education workforce and the skills they have in this regard, 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 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 up-skilling 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 and instead 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 – and this is the topic on which Peter gave evidence.
In this respect, the provisions of the Bill need to be looked at in the light of the drastically different education system which Michael Gove has created through the Academies Act and the Education Act.
His vision seems to be an education landscape whereby the majority of schools are answerable directly to him, but we don’t think that this is anywhere near 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.
However, if parents 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 during the passage of the Bill.
And as Peter said in his evidence to the fourth session of our review, the variability of attitudes to SEN and disability amongst schools remains a major source of frustration for parents, and this is being compounded by the government’s focus on the Ebacc as a gold standard of qualifications, and by revisions they have made to the Ofsted framework.
These changes are increasing the perverse incentive for schools to be seen as being ‘bad at SEN’, because some head teachers are concerned that ‘being good at SEND’ will mean that their intake will be skewed away from ‘high achieving pupils’, with the consequence of a reduction in their overall academic results and Ofsted scores.
One of the areas we are looking at is therefore how to ensure that we recognise SEN as something that all schools must strive to be good at.
For example, we are considering whether it would be appropriate to say that schools, and local authority children’s services departments as well for that matter, must be found to be ‘outstanding at SEN’ if they are to achieve an ‘Outstanding’ score overall.
I think this would put SEN and inclusive practices at the heart of policies, and I would welcome feedback on that.
Further to that, lots of parents – and particularly those who have had a bad experience at the hands of their local authority – see an inherent unfairness in balance of power between them and councils.
This particularly comes to the fore when we talk about the tribunal process.
I do support measures to beef up mediation services, which should be used now anyway, but it certainly appears that there are councils which have the corporate culture which says that: “if we drag our feet, the majority of people won’t have the knowledge or the energy to fight us, so we’ll save money”.
This inevitably means that parents will have to go down the legal route – but information on which local authorities are spending how much money on this isn’t available.
I therefore think that as a first instance we need to look at increasing transparency so that people can hold their elected representatives to account, and if that doesn’t change cultures, then stronger sanctions against bad practice should be considered.
Finally, I want to talk about another key area I am keen to talk 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 last week with Dr Kim Bevan, who since 2003 has been delivering a programme called Early Support, which has been very effectively guiding families of disabled children through the challenges they face.
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 – at the evidence session that Peter presented to, we heard a great example of one such partnership in Rotherham.
There they have been successfully bringing parents, carers and the local authority much closer together in designing and commissioning local services, reducing conflict and therefore the costly tribunal process I just mentioned, which happens where there is a breakdown of relationships.
But on the other hand, we also heard from a parent who had never even been made aware that their local parent partnership existed, and who had therefore been left to fight her corner all by herself.
I think that there is a great deal to be gained by making sure that every council is as good as Rotherham when it comes to involving parents at every stage of the process.
Whether or not this needs to be on the face of the Bill, which it probably doesn’t, it certainly needs to be considered alongside it.
On a more formal basis, I hope that the fact Education Health and Care Plans will be co-produced means that they take full account of wider family needs, including what a child’s parents are capable of doing themselves – both in terms of their responsibilities for other siblings and in terms of whether they themselves have disabilities or special educational needs.
Supporting a family to be able to understand, cope with, and cater for their child is an extremely cost-effective thing to do.
But over-estimating their capabilities and heaping too much of a burden on them will only add to the stress levels in the household, which could aggravate certain special educational needs, and lead to wider family problems and possibly breakdown.
Allowing that to happen is likely to impact how well that child can develop, cost us all a lot more money in the long run, and in the worst case scenario lead to the tragedy of care proceedings or worse.
It’s therefore crucial that EHCPs should reflect wider family issues and abilities, and I will be seeking assurances that that will be the case.
So to wrap up, I certainly see the whole process that the government are going through as an opportunity to work in a constructive way with my opposite number, as well as with families, local government and experts across the sector 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 all agree on the principles, and that hasn’t been a particularly common scenario over the last couple of years between myself and the Minister.
I’m looking forward to saying more about the specific ideas to come out of our policy review as well – much of which will be in response to or suggesting amendments to the Children and Families Bill, but some of which will probably be held back for our manifesto.
But even though we’ve had the hearings and have drawn up recommendations that we’re currently discussing within the party, the policy review is an ongoing process, and I will always be open to new and good ideas, as well as feedback on what I am saying.
So please don’t hold back during this discussion – I’ve got people here taking notes - and if you do have anything beyond today that you want to raise with me, please just drop me an email.