William Eichler 23 October 2019

Special educational needs reforms ‘poorly implemented’, MPs say

A generation of children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities is being failed by the Government’s SEND reforms, MPs warn.

An 18-month inquiry by the Education Committee has concluded that the reforms to the support for children and young people contained in the Children and Families Act 2014 have been poorly implemented.

The reforms included the introduction of a co-ordinated assessment process to assess a child’s educational, health and care needs. They also ensured that Education Health and Care plans from year nine onwards included aspects to help them prepare for adulthood.

These reforms, which were initially proposed in the 2011 Green Paper ‘Support and aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability’, also included introducing supported internships to help young people with SEND prepare for the workplace.

The committee, which heard from more than 70 witnesses and received more than 700 submissions of written evidence, concluded that poor implementation of these reforms has put local authorities under pressure, left schools struggling to cope, and thrown families into crisis.

The committee also heard that young people were left isolated in school, unable to access the curriculum, and struggling to make friends, while training and employment opportunities for adults were found to be poor because of a ‘fundamental lack of ambition’ for young people with SEND.

‘Despite the good intentions of the reforms, many children with special educational needs and disabilities are being let down day after day,’ said the committee chair Robert Halfon.

‘Many parents face a titanic struggle just to try and ensure their child gets access to the right support.

‘Families are often forced to wade through a treacle of bureaucracy, in a system which breeds conflict and despair as parents try to navigate a postcode lottery of provision.

‘A lack of accountability plagues the system as local authorities, social care and health providers too frequently seek to pass the buck rather than take responsibility for providing support.

‘Children and parents should not have to struggle in this way – they should be supported. There needs to be a radical change to inspection, support for parents, and clear consequences for failure to ensure the 2014 Act delivers as the Government intended.’

Responding to the report, Cllr Judith Blake, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: ‘This report supports our long-term concerns that the services for children with special education needs have reached a tipping point.

‘Extra funding for SEND services next year is recognition of these pressures and will help councils in meeting demand for support next year, but we agree with the committee that system reform is necessary alongside additional funding.’

The committee’s report called for a more rigorous inspection framework for local authorities, with ‘clear consequences for failure’. It also said there should be a greater focus on SEND in school inspections.

‘We are pleased that MPs have also echoed our call for Ofsted to assess inclusion by schools – rather than focussing primarily on academic results - during an inspection and hold schools with low numbers of children with SEND to account,’ said Cllr Blake.

The report also recommended the creation of a direct line for parents and schools to appeal directly to the Department for Education where local authorities appear not to be complying with the law.

‘Councils support the reforms set out in the Children and Families Act in 2014, but we were clear at the time that the cost of implementing them had been underestimated by the Government,’ Cllr Blake continued.

‘Since the introduction of the Act, which extended eligibility for SEND support, councils have seen a near 50% rise in children and young people with Education, Health and Care plans – which state the support a child with SEND can receive.

‘There are currently 354,000 pupils with EHCPs, and is a 11% increase since last year alone, Government funding has simply not kept up with the increased demand.

‘Councils want to work with the Government and families and children with SEND to make the system work more effectively for everyone.’

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman Michael King also welcomed the report, which recommended his office be granted more powers to investigate complaints about schools.

'The Education Committee’s findings of families having to battle a system designed to support them, echoes what we’ve seen in the complaints we investigate,' he said.

‘Sadly, we uphold almost nine out every 10 investigations from children and families with special educational needs and disabilities. This is unprecedented in our work.’

‘Widening our powers would simplify the process for already stressed families to raise concerns, but also increase the accountability for all parties in the system and increase the reach of the learning from our investigations,’ continued Mr King.

‘With this in place, we could investigate holistically all areas of a complaint about a child with an EHC Plan, but just as critically, we could provide accountability for the support given to children and young people that don’t meet the threshold of an EHC Plan – and these make up the vast majority of children with SEND.’

A Department for Education spokesperson said: 'No child should be held back from reaching their potential, including those with special educational needs.

'That’s why we recently announced a £780 million increase to local authorities’ high needs funding, boosting the budget by 12% and bringing the total spent on supporting those with the most complex needs to over £7 billion for 2020-21.

'This report recognises the improvements made to the system over five years ago were the right ones, and put families and children at the heart of the process. But through our review of these reforms, we are focused on making sure they work for every child, in every part of the country.'

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