SEND improvement plan’s cost cutting focus will not fix our broken system
Yesterday, the government published its long-awaited SEND improvement plan but was it worth the wait? The answer from many families and professionals working in the SEND sector is a resounding no.
The 2019 National Audit Office report on SEND told us that the reforms introduced in the 2014 Children and Families Act were correct, but implementation had not been sufficiently funded. At this point, the government had a choice – either fund the reforms and give children and young people with the SEND a shot at having the quality of life that other children enjoy or downgrade the vision.
The government has chosen to downgrade the vision. The reason for this? It simply has not acknowledged that the natural consequence of societal developments and the 2014 reforms would be more children needing additional support.
There are, and will be, more children with SEND in our society. This is for many good reasons. As a society we have advances in medicine, diagnosis and attitudes and aspirations for children and young people with SEND. This means that children are living longer and happier lives. That is a surely a good thing for them and our society. In addition, the 2014 reforms stated a vision that more children should be able to continue their learning longer to enable a positive transition in adulthood to live and work as part of their communities. So, we should as a society acknowledge and celebrate the growth in demand on SEND services – not deny it or imply that something has gone wrong in the system because more children and families are seeking more productive and happy futures.
Of course, we should expect universal services to do more, rather than escalate demand for specialist services, but that requires a significant reform of mainstream expectations and investment in that system. In the absence of these reforms, some schools will continue to focus on delivering narrow attainment targets at the expense of the inclusion and wellbeing of all pupils, especially those with SEND.
These reforms have missed a major opportunity to capitalise on societal advances for children with SEND, listen to children and their families and set out strategic whole-system reforms with tangible and aspirational outcomes. This would be the way to support more children to succeed in mainstream education. Instead, it has focused on trying to artificially supress demand for and cost of specialist provision, grounded in a false narrative that parents and specialist providers are somehow responsible for - rather than dealing with - the consequences of a failing system.
As always, the impact will be felt most by SEND children and young people – many of whom are already struggling in a hostile education system. As one autistic young person put it ‘we don’t want empty promises, we want action.’ Sadly, it appears this wish for positive action has been ignored and another generation of autistic children and young people risk being written off as a result.
Jolanta Lasota is Chief Executive of the charity Ambitious about Autism
The charity’s Written Off? campaign is calling on the government to protect SEND funding and rights. Over 7,000 people have signed its petition.