The Children and Families Minister on special educational needs and disability reform at the Council for Disabled Children (CDC) conference.
A little more than a year on from the special educational needs and disability (SEND) reforms coming into force, today’s conference is an opportune moment to pause for reflection, take stock, check we’re on track, and look ahead to make sure we’re confident of securing the transformation and culture change set out in that initial vision.
And in doing so we should remind ourselves what we’re trying to fix and why.
Why are these reforms necessary? Well, let me give you 3 good reasons:
First, for too long, too many families have had to fight too hard to get the support their children need. They feel the system doesn’t work for them.
Second, it remains the case that children and young people with SEND don’t do as well in early years and school as they should, and don’t have as many opportunities for further education, training and employment as they deserve.
Third, the law, and the systems that existed - at national and local level - didn’t encourage education, health and social care agencies to work together for the benefit of the children and families in need of their support. The incentives weren’t there, let alone the clear legal duties to make it happen.
Things had to get better. So we’ve made fundamental changes to the law. But in doing so, we must also make changes to systems so the tide they create flows with families and not against them. And, for some, the reforms also mean changes to attitudes and mindsets. After all, any system is only as good as the people working within it.
Only if we do all of these things, in tandem with one another, will we make real and lasting improvements.
That’s why, from my perspective, it has been so emboldening to meet so many people who work hard, and show real commitment, to improving the lives of all children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities.
And I’m in no doubt that it’s because of that commitment that there’s widespread support for the reforms that are quintessentially about realising the ambitions and aspirations for disabled children and young people and those with special educational needs.
But in setting out to achieve just that, we also need to recognise that despite our collective impatience to ‘get on with it’, these reforms will take a while to embed. Yet with continued support - and challenge - and with the voices of parents, children and young people at the heart of service delivery, I’m confident we will continue to see changes which empower, support and enable children and young people reach their full potential.
So it’s only right that I use this opportunity to register how grateful I am for all of the enormous effort so many people have put in to make the changes work.
It’s been impressive to see and hear about the progress being made in many areas - the leadership that local authorities have shown, the genuine co-production with parent-carer forums that exists, and how young people are being engaged.
I’m also hugely appreciative of organisations, like CDC, Contact a Family, IPSEA, Nasen, the LGA and many others, for the way they’ve provided constructive challenge along the way. And for the support, advice and leadership they continue to give.
I think it’s fair to say that some aspects of the reforms are a natural progression - in essence, getting better at what we already do. And some require us to operate differently. For example, designing support around the needs of families was always how it was supposed to work (and sometimes did, but not nearly enough).
Agencies working together, sharing information, joining up - that’s not new. The duty to make sure families have access to impartial information, advice and support has been with us for years.
But the reforms also introduced EHC plans, local offers and new arrangements for 16- to 25-year-olds because it’s critical that families are properly and genuinely involved in designing how these things are developed and implemented locally.
And although not all those barriers, system joins, communication vacuums and duplications of effort have disappeared, I urge you to keep at it because the rewards will be worth it.
When systems work well - and perhaps more importantly, people across the systems drive a collective improvement in the quality of assessment, planning and delivery - they make a real difference to children and young people.
Some of you may know Corey, who is here with us today and taking part in a workshop later on. Corey’s a member of EPIC, a young people’s group we’ve been working with for a few years now and who’s been immensely valuable in helping shape these reforms by telling us how it is, no holds barred. I think Corey puts it well when he said:
The SEND reforms aim to create a more fluid and inclusive system of support for me and people like me, but it will take time, patience and resources.
And in an event about vision, it’s only fitting that I offer you mine. It’s one I hope you share. In simplistic terms, it is this.
Our vision for children with SEN and disabilities is the same as that for all children and young people - that they achieve well in their early years, at school and in college, that they find employment; lead happy and fulfilled lives; and experience choice and control.
A vision is one thing, but it’s imperative that we keep measuring ourselves against it to really understand whether it’s taking hold. So, how are we doing? The headline facts, I think, are these:
- all areas are well on with implementing the reforms
- they all have transition plans in place and are making progress
- they all have a local offer, although there is still work to do to improve their quality and local co-production arrangements.
Where real thought, creativity and co-operation has flourished, it’s had great results. Take the good example of a strong local offer in the Isle of Wight, for instance. They set up a Young Inspector programme to increase the involvement children and young people with disabilities and additional needs, and these young inspectors have gone on to make a significant contribution to the Isle of Wight’s local offer.
Parent-carer forums and ‘independent supporters’ are up and running in every area.
And it’s great to see so many forums actively shaping implementation in their local area. In June, a survey of parent-carer forums said that 67% were very, or extremely, well engaged. 67% is good. 100% would be of course much better, but it’s encouraging all the same.
And 90% of parents and young people who had help from an independent supporter said it was very useful, a clear justification for their introduction to help the reforms bite and enable families to be - and feel - much better supported through the assessment and planning stages in particular.
We’re also seeing some examples of good, new, high-quality practice.
Take Ryan, a 14-year-old passionate Coventry City FC fan. He received help from an independent supporter to develop his EHC plan. One of Ryan’s aspirations was to have a personal assistant. He interviewed people for the position and scored them on their answers. The PA - who, I gather, supports the wrong football team but managed to get the job anyway - has made a big difference to Ryan, especially helping to develop his independence.
Good for Ryan - but we want to get this right, for every child and young person, so they have the support and education they deserve.
For instance, we want to ensure local areas manage the transition from statements and LDAs to EHC plans. We recently changed the deadline for transfers to EHC plans to 20 weeks, to bring them into line with new EHC plans. And I’ll continue to keep an eye on this.
We also want to continue to drive up accountability. And as you’ve just heard from Mary Rayner, the forthcoming joint Ofsted and Care Quality Commission local area inspections will help to ensure joined-up working at a local level is a reality, not just a statement in an Act of Parliament.
And importantly we’re continuing to work with the Department of Health which has led to them setting up their own virtual forum for CCGs and other health professionals in order to support system reform.
We’re also working through parent-carer forums and local authorities to ensure the GP register of learning disability is up to date.
All of these are necessary steps, in particular because the refrain I’ve heard more often than any other over the past 3 years is that when it comes to SEND, whether that’s identification, assessment, planning or support, health are the hardest nut to crack. It’s why closer monitoring of health’s role in joint-commissioning, co-production and other areas is going to be so vital as the reforms continue to evolve.
We’re also making children and young people’s mental health a priority. Schools play a key role in promoting good mental health and we’ve supported them by funding the PSHE Association to provide guidance on how to teach about mental health. We’ve worked with organisations such as Place2Be to produce guidance on what makes for effective school counselling. And in the Code of Practice we created a new SEN category of social, emotional and mental health, to emphasise the need to look beyond behaviour to underlying mental health issues.
To help bring that about, this month sees the start of our joint pilot with NHS England to train single points of contact across 27 CAMHS areas and in more than 250 schools. And we’re investing in children and young people’s mental health services - an additional £1.4 billion over the lifetime of this Parliament - that I’m working closely with my Department of Health colleagues on to ensure that children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities derive real and lasting benefits from.
But how do we know whether this is all helping to improve SEND provision, families experience and outcomes for children and young people?
Well, we’ve put in a range of measures to find out what’s happening locally and help us to target the national support on offer.
We’re conducting termly surveys of local authorities. And in parallel, Contact a Family are conducting surveys of parent-carer forums. We also gather data through, for example, the annual SEN2 data survey of councils to enrich the picture we have to judge progress against
We’ve a team of experienced SEN advisers in place, offering local areas support and challenge as well as seeking to resolve issues before they cement themselves as the norm.
And through visits, events like this, correspondence and enquiries we pick up a lot about how things are going. I personally garner invaluable knowledge from talking with parents and young people face to face and intend to carry on doing so in the coming months. Because for me it’s their experience that counts most.
And in that context, I’ve already mentioned the new Ofsted/CQC area inspections. As you’ve heard, Ofsted is currently consulting on the framework, and inspections will be introduced next year. So I would strongly encourage you to participate in the consultation because it’s vital that we get the inspection framework right.
We’re also looking at disagreement resolution arrangements, trying to make them simpler and clearer. The SEND Tribunal can only look at appeals about special educational provision at the moment but we’re running pilots to test whether we can go further – to allow the Tribunal to make recommendations about health and social care provision. We want to make things as clear and as easy as possible for families to understand, but rather than just assume that’s what’s happening, we’ll be conducting a comprehensive ‘User Experience’ Survey, with results expected next autumn.
And over the next few months, we’re laying on workshops across the country to look at Preparing for Adulthood, and EHC plans.
And today, I understand, we also have the latest LA and surveys being launched.
One of this afternoon’s workshops is considering funding arrangements and how in the future we can make funding fairer by ensuring it’s better matched to need.
And the reason for taking all these steps is because, as I said, just over a year ago the new law came into force. Legislating is, in some ways, the easy bit (although it didn’t feel like it at the time) - but implementation is so much harder. And we’re having to do it all at a time when money is tight and expectations have never been higher.
It’s why I’m not prepared to put my feet up and say ‘I’ve done my bit, it’s over to you’, because, although we have a fantastic framework on which to build a new 0 to 25 child and family-centred SEND system, it requires determination, humility and a willingness from us all to view everything we do through the eyes of those who should rightly be the beneficiaries of our collective effort - children and young people with special education needs and disabilities.
So I’m prepared to keep listening, make adjustments where necessary, but above all, continue to put the case for why the vision set out almost 5 years ago has to be made a reality.