Whilst there is always a degree of understandable scepticism when any new green paper is published, it does feel important to both mark the occasion and finally welcome the publication of the SEND Green Paper, after what has felt like a very long wait. Whilst no new approach will please everyone, it is clear both from the dissatisfaction often voiced by those who experience the SEND system and the lack of a strong voice of what practically needs to happen to improve it, that this is a hugely complex policy area – indeed for many years this seems to have become a ‘Gordian Knot’ for government.
The series of quotes carefully published alongside the proposals signal that key elements of the sector have been engaged – and there are certainly some strong and bold statements in the paper that appear to have been welcomed. Indeed, the concepts of driving an inclusive system, focused on supporting children to thrive in mainstream schools, whilst having more effective ways to track and measure longer term outcomes (particularly around transition) should be lauded. Equally, in any complex system there are always challenges with the quality of assessments and plans, so streamlining the education health and care plan (EHCP) process in a meaningful way and dragging it into the 21st century through a digital platform, if delivered correctly, could be hugely beneficial. Needs and outcomes could be better tracked and aggregated across local and regional areas, generating insights that could be used to drive proactive commissioning around improved provision and early support.
The critical point here though is ‘delivery’. The biggest question still outstanding is what exactly actions and activities will take place to meet these bold proposals and how are they going to be achieved? The reforms of 2014, as the SEND Review itself points out, ‘were widely supported at the time and continue to be broadly supported now’. This demonstrates that the principles around driving early support, in a more integrated system, built on co-production, have always been right. The problem to date has been that the delivery and implementation have not matched the ambition.
One unfortunate nagging and consistent concern from much of the rhetoric in the proposals seems to be a core idea that greater ‘central controls’ (for example, through such things as ‘national standards’), are the primary vehicles for delivering effective and consistent local support, as evidenced in paragraph 34: ‘consistent standards will facilitate a more inclusive system’.
Whilst such standards can be helpful (particularly if measurable) it is in their application that real change is achieved. A great example of this is in the application of the Care Act, which focused rightly on maximising independence for older people driving strength-based personal care – but years later in a number of areas this wasn’t translating into changes in practice on the ground.
Recognising the issues is important, but how you deliver these changes is key. The review rightly recognises three key current challenges in the system:
- Outcomes for those with SEND are poor
- Navigation of the system is challenging and not positive
- Value is not being achieved
Whilst these three challenges are, of course, true, these are symptoms not causes. If the causes are not fully recognised or responded to in the delivery of these proposals, the implementation will fail. Whilst there may be many causes, three in particular stand out:
- A consistent lack of early intervention – or understanding of what is available, partly driven by cuts to the Early Intervention Grant, results in parents and professionals being unclear of how to access support when needs arise. This leads to delay, lack of trust and escalation of needs.
- A lack of understanding of holistic needs for children with SEND – with no national needs codification framework sometimes leading to a lack of understanding of disabilities and conditions. Without this, how do you match appropriate provision and support, track improvements in needs and outcomes and understand value? The answer is: you cannot.
- And crucially, effective provision – which, whilst touched on, needs much further detail through the delivery plan that will follow.
To give parents confidence in mainstream provision and to drive effective inclusion, there needs to be much greater clarity regarding what effective provision should actually look like to meet need at every level. Particularly in mainstream and early years, which is rightly a big focus of the review.
Key questions must be answered here around:
- How do schools more effectively understand and allocate their broader SEND funding (both notional and additional through EHCPs) to meet need?
- What does ‘effective provision’ in mainstream really look like and how do we know?
- Rather than a stock response of ‘support’ for a child with an EHCP equalling a one-to-one Teaching Assistant, how does a school use its wider SEND funding to provide a holistic package of support across the school to meet the needs of the whole SEND population it is serving? For example, additional speech and language support or specific specialist autism training – dependent on the broader needs of children in their setting.
- And how does this change and adapt for children as they progress –particularly in the transition to secondary?
These ‘underlying issues’ are some of the elements that are currently leading to the three challenges identified in the SEND Review, creating rising cost and deepening mistrust.
The next 13 weeks will be critical in understanding how wide and meaningful the consultation will be and, crucially how delivery plans become tangible, demonstrable and, in our view critically locally deliverable. But an important first step has been made – and I am pleased to see some ambitious proposals finally being tabled for the SEND system.
We will be responding to the consultation and regularly posting further thoughts and proposals of our own as we further digest the full review. If you want to get involved or get in touch, we would love to hear from you.