SEN reform; for better or worse?

In the last twelve months there have been a number of developments in the review of legislation for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND).The much-awaited Children and Families Bill has become the 2014 Children and Families Act, with a draft SEN Code of Practice due to be implemented from September 2014. A new vocabulary is emerging from this agenda; Education, Health and Care Plan (EHC); Resource Allocation Systems (RAS); and Local Offers. At the same time some old friends; Individual Education Plans (IEP); school action; school action plus are bowing out. What’s debateable is whether the new legislation and procedures will support a continued trajectory towards rights-based inclusion for all children with SEND or if, instead, it marks a return to segregation by stealth and the reinforcement of a two tier system of provision.

In 2011 there was widespread concern when the Green Paper ‘Support and Aspiration’ seemed to signal a return to a segregated approach to supporting children with SEND, by ‘removing the bias towards inclusion’ (DfE 2011). Following pressure from campaigning groups, the phrase was dropped, but while, asserting a general principle of inclusion, the Draft SEN Code of Practice also remind us that: children and young people can be educated effectively in a range of settings, and that parents have the right to seek a place at a specialist provision.

Dispensing with categories of SEN in favour of a single category of additional support needs, and replacing Individual Education Plans with a more integrated cycle of ‘plan, do, review’, built into planning for all children, could both be seen as moving away from medical model traditions of labelling and stigmatising, and towards a social model approach. But we have been here before, in 1981, with the creation of the category ‘special educational needs’. This homogenising of disabilities was precisely one of the issues highlighted by Mary Warnock in her 2005 paper as being counter-productive to ensuring that children have their individual needs met. The language remains woolly; as ever, schools are only required to make their best endeavours to meet needs. In the context of the removal of ring fencing around SEN budgets and the increasing numbers of Free Schools and Academies, whose autonomy grows incrementally this is less than reassuring. The likely outcome is that only children with the most significant and easily identifiable (labelled) needs will be supported.

The multi-agency approach has long been successful in supporting individual children with SEND. The extension of this to the new EHC plans that will require effective collaboration between education, health and social care services at a strategic level, seems ill thought through, coming at a time when services and budgets are being squeezed. Perhaps not surprisingly, the evaluation of the Pathfinder projects, set up to test out the new proposals, noted that most services have not committed money for development or service provision. These projects have also found that the ‘local offer’ (a model successfully developed through Every Disabled Child Matters), from which parents would choose the services they require, and must be more than simply a directory of services, is turning out to be exactly that, meaning again that those parents who have the capacity to actively seek out the most appropriate support for their child will again be at a significant advantage. No doubt the device is intended to create competition and ‘drive up standards’ which past history would suggest will involve expending valuable and shrinking resources on competing through an endless cycle of short-term bids, rather than effective service provision. These moves are designed to encourage ‘responsibility and independence’ presumably in much the same way as the wider reform of welfare services for disabled people.

Increased power and control for parents and young people (subject to the usual caveats about efficient resources) is laudable if it can be fairly implemented. But the advent of optional personal budgets and direct payments, will leave funding for resources subject to negotiation (the well-established ‘who shouts loudest’ principle), allowing the problems of equity inherent in the old Statutory Assessment process, to continue to thrive under the new regime. That transport costs are also set to be transferred to the ‘consumer’, will surely only exacerbate this.

One positive aspect of the new developments that must be welcomed is the acknowledgement that for many children with SEND, it is appropriate for support to continue into early adulthood; the draft Code covers the age range 0-25yrs. Similarly the philosophical shift to a focus on aspirations and outcomes for children and young people is to be applauded. It would be hoped that this will be supported by rigorous enforcement of equality legislation with regard to subsequent  training and employment, but again none of this sits easily with welfare cuts.

Exactly how these changes will affect the lives of children and young people with SEND remains to be seen, but meanwhile, whilst some improvements have been noted: ..to date, we have found no consistent statistical evidence of the pathfinder approach having had an impact on wider child and parent outcomes. This could be because the impacts are fairly small and our sample sizes are too small to detect them; the survey may have taken place too early for impacts to have occurred; or it may be that changes to the process will not significantly impact on outcomes.

Chris Collett

Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Education and Care, Newman University

References

DfE (2011) Support and Aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability: a consultation. Norwich. TSO.

DfE (2013) Draft SEN Code of Practice available at www.gov.uk/government/consultations.

DfE (October 2013) Impact Evaluation of the SEND Pathfinder Programme.  Research Report available at: http://www.sendpathfinder.co.uk/thepathfinderprogramme/

Warnock, M. (2005) Special Educational Needs: A New Look. London. Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain

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