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(UK) No one deals with the "real problem" of SPED reform

May 3, 2024, Special Needs Jungle: More system “reform” won’t fix SEND, because the real problem still hasn’t been accepted

“It's hard to understand why there’s so much unwillingness to accept that unlawfulness is the biggest problem in the SEND system. What needs to be reformed isn’t the law, but the prevailing culture and attitudes: attitudes to the law itself, to inclusive educational settings, and to parents of children and young people with SEND…."


One thing that everyone seems able to agree on is that the system for supporting children and young people with SEND is in crisis. Although examples of good practice exist, children and young people all over the country are being failed every day. This leads to either losing their educational opportunities or their families being forced to engage in lengthy battles to secure the special educational provision they need and are entitled to.

Because what we’ve got now clearly isn’t working, the obvious conclusion, then, is the system itself is failing and in urgent need of reform.

What do we mean by ‘reform’?

But I think we should pause and ask: What exactly does “reform” mean? What needs to change? And what is needed from politicians and policy-makers? . . .

The SEND green paper published in 2022 was based on the premise that a “huge overhaul” was necessary. This is what Will Quince, the children’s minister at the time, told MPs in December 2021.

The subsequent SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan – currently being delivered through the SEND Change Programme – seems to be working towards a change in the law, via the testing of a series of measures pushing at the boundaries of the current legal framework.        . . .

. . . However, its starting point was the misconception that the system lacks clarity and, as a result, is littered with disputes, with too many children and young people receiving too much specialist provision.

The reality is that local authorities’ statutory duties to children and young people with SEND are clear, and what the system is actually littered with is unlawful decision-making. It's hard to understand why there’s so much unwillingness to accept that this unlawfulness is the biggest problem in the SEND system. What needs to be reformed isn’t the law, but the prevailing culture and attitudes: attitudes to the law itself, to inclusive educational settings, and to parents of children and young people with SEND.

When parents and politicians say they want reform, what does that mean?

For parents and education professionals at the sharp end of a system that’s failing to provide the special educational provision and support that children and young people urgently need, and for politicians who want to help them, ‘reform’ seems the obvious solution.

It’s true, the system absolutely does need to be made much more accountable. However, there’s no good argument for changing the legal framework underpinning children and young people’s existing rights and entitlements.

Accountability means an end to the current situation where the same local authorities are taken to the SEND Tribunal for the same unlawful decisions over and over again with no negative consequences for anyone other than the families affected. It means ensuring schools understand and fulfil their obligations under the Equality Act 2010, to make inclusion a reality rather than a vague aspiration.

What also needs to change is the toxic way parents are perceived and treated. The narrative that parent carers “expect too much” and make too many “demands”, selfishly causing councils to go bankrupt is endemic within local and national government and their politicians in power.

Parents are blamed for learning about their children’s rights and SEND law—and for expecting legislation to be followed.

Why we should be wary of politicians promising reform . . . .

The risk of overhauling the SEND system, of taking it apart and putting bits of it back together again in a different way, is that the detailed framework of rights and entitlements on which the system is currently built could all too imaginably be eroded and weakened. That’s why I think we should be wary of calls for reform. The focus on reform fosters an assumption that the current system for supporting children and young people with SEND – which is rooted in rights – is impossible to implement in its current form.

Under the current SEND framework, every need a disabled child has must be identified and met with provision that’s specified and quantified. There are clear entitlements with little scope for local discretion and a clear role for the Tribunal. There’s enough good practice in inclusion, early intervention and joint working to know it can be done. . . .

On the basis that we may have a Labour government this time next year, we’re still waiting for some detail of Labour’s policies and plans for supporting children and young people with SEND. So far, all we have is the assurance it wants an inclusive education system and supports early intervention.

It would be useful to know whether an incoming Labour government would keep the SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan and stick to the current government’s proposals for “reforming” the system; reforms that can only go so far without changing the law.

Or will Labour address the central problem that following the law seems to be widely regarded as an optional activity, with very little requirement on local authorities to be accountable for their actions.

The main SEND challenges for a new government will be to:

Resist the temptation to re-reform the system;

Protect children’s existing rights and entitlements;

Make the current system work by making it more accountable; and

Get decision-making right first time.


Will a Labour government commit to protecting children and young people’s existing rights to support that meets their needs?

Will it commit to ensuring these rights are delivered in practice?

Will politicians from all parties commit to ending all talk of ‘demand’ relating to our young people who need support to achieve their potential?

Will politicians finally understand that parents aren’t hell-bent on destroying local councils’ finances, but simply want what all parents want for their children and without having to fight for it?




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