July 27, 2022 dmh

What becomes of the government’s plans to reform special educational needs and disabilities (Send) provision in English schools will depend on who the next prime minister and education secretary are. But the proposals that have been out for consultation are concerning in several ways. For those directly affected, they are a source of justified anger and anxiety.

The government wants to solve problems that have emerged since it redesigned the system in 2014, and replaced statements of special educational needs with education, health and care plans (EHCPs). Since then, demand for plans that set out an individual young person’s entitlement to support has climbed sharply. So have appeals against refusals to grant them. Currently there are 473,255 children in England with an EHCP, compared with 232,190 with statements in 2014.

As demand has risen, so has the cost to the councils that fund them. In March, the government estimated additional spending at £1bn a year, and said that investment “cannot continue to rise at the current rate”. If its proposals are adopted, compulsory mediation and an intermediate assessment stage will be introduced along with price bands, in an effort to cut costs and reduce the number of cases taken to tribunals, where 96% of claims are upheld at least in part.

But while the Conservative leadership contenders put on a great show of straight talking, none of the party’s leading figures seem likely to admit what is staring them in the face. Tory schools policies are responsible for the rising cost of specialist help: directly, because they extended the entitlement to age 25, but did not fund this (and have changed accounting rules so that councils will soon be blocked from running deficits on their schools budgets); and indirectly, because they have made schools into less inclusive places.

Real-terms funding cuts and the failure to address recruitment and retention problems are probably the largest causes. These have left schools less able to manage the full spectrum of children. Another issue is the fashion, actively promoted by ministers, for extremely tight discipline, such as penalties for pupils who touch each other or avoid eye contact. While such measures may support learning in some contexts, there is little doubt that children with complex needs find them challenging. A third point is the reorientation of the whole system around timed exams, and the extent to which schools are held accountable on the basis of results.

There have recently been some tentative steps towards a more holistic emphasis – for instance, Ofsted’s promise to crack down on “off-rolling” (informal exclusion). But ministers should not be surprised that their regime has led many parents to conclude that their Send children can no longer be catered for in the mainstream.

It may be that, over time, the bandwidth can be widened to make schools more accommodating to children with diverse needs – thus reducing the need for individual support. There is nothing wrong with making this an aim. But the thrust of government policy has been in the opposite direction, with academic achievement emphasised at the expense of everything else. To criticise the adversarial nature of the tribunal system, while making clear the intention to spend less on EHCPs, is contradictory and provocative. To reduce entitlements now, when schools and families are already struggling as a result of the pandemic and because the government has refused to invest in an adequate education recovery package, would be deeply irresponsible.


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