Edward Timpson discusses special educational needs reforms

Children's Minister addresses The Key at the Improving the progress of pupils with special educational needs conference.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Edward Timpson

It’s a real pleasure to be here this morning and have the opportunity to share with you our ambition for the now-up-and-running reforms to special education needs and disabilities that I’ve had the task and pleasure of steering into existence.

As Michael [Bichard] said you’ll also be hearing later from Professor Sonia Blandford about effective provision for SEND pupils, and from Dr Rona Tutt, who‘ll be speaking about the new SEND code of practice. So I’ll try not to steal their thunder.

But I would like to thank both of them - along with Sharon Gray, Gareth Morewood and David Bartram - for the work they’ve done, and continue to do with us on our, or, I should say, your reforms as we are now into implementation mode.

You’ll see from today’s agenda that they’ll be running workshops later on, which I hope you’ll get involved with - believe me they’re worth listening to.

I’d also like to thank The Key - Fergal Roche and Michael Bichard, both here today - they’ve been hugely helpful in providing clear and pertinent information both to schools and to the department on the issues headteachers are raising.

And, in doing so, it’s worth reminding ourselves that these are the biggest, most ambitious and most aspirational reforms to special education needs provision in more than 30 years.

And what underpins these reforms, something that perhaps should go without saying, is the desire to see all children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities do well in education, find employment, lead happy and fulfilled lives, and have more choice and control over the support they receive.

But to make that happen we need to make sure that children and young people’s needs are identified early on, and the right support quickly put in place.

A common sense analysis I hope you will agree, but my passion for this, like for many, comes from personal experience.

Some of you may know a little about my background - that my parents fostered 90 children and adopted 2. Those children included some with severe behavioural problems, learning difficulties and physical disabilities too.

I used to particularly look forward to 15-year-old Glyn coming to stay with us 1 weekend a month, to give his parents a break. Glyn has Down’s Syndrome.

He used to love watching the wrestling on World of Sport, his nose inches from the screen, and insisted on playing Shakin Stevens at full volume on repeat.

In the words of Shaky himself, it used to ‘drive us crazy’, but what it did was make me appreciate the huge potential for joy in every child, if we just let them share it. Because the fact is our hopes and ambitions for children with SEND should be the same as for any other child.

That’s why our programme of reforms has been so wide-ranging and so unapologetically ambitious.

As we know the system, despite so much effort, became too disjointed, complex and adversarial. And so our reforms are much needed and promise to be truly transformative.

How? By requiring much closer working between services, including a new duty on health to provide support and work together with local councils. And by giving a much bigger and more meaningful say to children and their parents - whether through the local offer, which sets out the support that’s available in a particular area, or through new Education, Health and Care plans.

But it’s also right to acknowledge that these changes haven’t and won’t always be easy. It can’t be ignored that teachers and school leaders have had a lot to take in, and this new school year has perhaps offered up the most comprehensive set of reforms to absorb and deliver.

But I hope all of us here today can agree that our SEND reforms, the Children and Families Act and the underpinning code of practice were absolutely necessary to bring about the culture change and the improved system we need - and families were telling us was needed. Because if the reforms are to succeed, and to have a lasting effect on policy, practice and culture, then families will need to see - and feel - the difference.

Parents will need to see changes in their relationships with professionals, in how much say they have in defining outcomes for their children, and in shaping local services.

To check progress I’ve been asking parents how they think the reforms are going, including at a meeting last month with the National Network of Parent Carer Forums. It’s still early days and challenges of course remain. But I’ve also been greatly encouraged by a number of developments.

I’ve heard that Parent Carer Forums are having a big impact on implementing the reforms, and that many local councils are choosing to work closely with them. One parent told me how the recent review of her child’s statement, now EHC plan, had felt like it was more forward-thinking than before, and that it centred around her child’s aspirations.

That’s important, because the views of children, young people and parents are the barometers of change and they really matter.

I’ll be taking many more opportunities to ask them how things are going - not least from my young advisers who make up the self-styled EPIC group that’s been advising and informing the department throughout these reforms.

But whole-school provision is also a key element to delivering a high-quality service.

As schools involved in Achievement for All will testify, having really effective whole school provision for all pupils is the first step in improving outcomes for children and young people with SEN.

2 years ago, I visited Frederick Bird School on the edge of Coventry and it stands out in my memory. Not just because it was the first Achievement for All school I saw close up, and not because I was new to the job and keen to meet and learn from the teachers. But because it was one of the first times I saw and understood exactly what can be achieved when schools take that step and involve parents and carers in the provision for their children.

Some of the parents I met hadn’t ever really been that engaged with their children’s school before, but at Frederick Bird, I saw how the insights from parents, carers and the children themselves could influence the support provided.

I saw how a close relationship between schools and parents gave families real confidence that the changes we’re making are absolutely in their best interests. And that’s crucial, because for virtually every parent who has a child with SEND, their most regular, relied-upon contact with the SEND system will be with their child’s school.

But, ensuring this whole-school approach to SEND is not just a job for the special educational needs co-ordinator. Supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities to make progress is an essential part of every teacher’s job. The ability to adapt teaching to the needs of different pupils is a core part of the Teacher Standards for trainee teachers and key to their continuing professional development.

Of course the SENCO has a vital role, with other school leaders, in establishing a culture of high expectations and enabling all those who work with children and young people with SEND to develop the skills to make it happen.

And working closely together like this goes beyond the school.

Through the Children and Families Act, we’ve placed a duty on local councils and clinical commissioning groups to jointly provide services for children and young people with SEND, commissioning support on an individual basis if a child with an Education Health and Care Plan needs it.

And the reforms have been designed to complement the existing NHS constitution and are directly reflected in the NHS mandate.

So this is core business for the NHS. They’re equal partners with education and social care colleagues in delivering these reforms on the ground.

It’s a vision that’s been shaped by my ministerial colleague Dr Dan Poulter and Christine Lenehan from the Council for Disabled Children, and the joint chair of the Children and Young People Health Outcomes Forum.

And the SEND Code of Practice has been directly informed by NHS England, representatives from the Royal Colleges and health commissioners, all of whom I’m grateful to for their pro-active and constructive approach.

Because I’m keen to see this act and the code of practice as a way of encouraging schools to join up with health where they can, and making the most of the new duty on the NHS, which represents a real breakthrough in better support for SEN.

But I’m also conscious of the need for support to be in place to help staff to put these reforms into effective practice.

That’s why we’re developing specialist resources for initial teacher training through the National College for Teaching and Leadership, and new advanced-level online modules on areas including autism, and speech and language needs.

We’ve funded more than 10,000 new SENCOs through the masters-level National Award for SEN co-ordination, and supported 800 teachers to take it in 2013 to 2014.

And we’ve awarded contracts worth more than £2.5 million a year to specialists including the Autism Trust, Communications Trust, Dyslexia SpLD Trust and the National Sensory Impairment Partnership to help implement these reforms.

So the help is there. And to help parents navigate their way through the new SEND system, we’ve provided £30 million to fund independent supporters in every local authority, trained and experienced in imparting genuinely independent advice and support that will not only help parents feel more involved and in control of their child’s engagement with services, but will help reduce the prospect of unnecessary friction, misinformation or mistrust.

Another big part of our reforms is the personal budget - money identified to deliver parts of the provision set out in an EHC plan. Families can ask for a personal budget, either when the plan is being drawn up, or at the annual review. And through personal budgets we’re shifting the focus from the mechanics of provision to the potential of each child, encouraging families and professionals to communicate better, and giving children and their parents more choice and control over the support they receive.

For example, in West Sussex and Hartlepool, families are using personal budgets to improve the continuity of care between home and school and, in one case, to set up a work placement at a local charity for a young person with autism that will count towards an accredited course.

Others have used the budgets for learning outside of school, such as over the holidays - stopping children from falling behind in that long break from school.

Schools and colleges can manage personal budgets, and are already doing so where a family want a personal budget, but don’t want to manage it directly.

These are fantastic examples of what can be achieved when services really come together. And I hope they provide useful pointers as you implement the new system.

Now, we know it will take time to embed the changes we’ve made. To really see the full effect, pathfinders have told us it takes at least a year to get ready. But we’re looking to the future with expectation rather than hope. We’ve taken the time to listen carefully to head teachers and teachers, and we’ve protected funding for SEN. It’s time to say that we’re at a really important phase in these reforms, and we couldn’t have got here without your help.

As Michael said, enacting new laws is in some ways the easy bit. Implementing the changes to truly transform the experience of families and professionals alike requires much greater determination. But I know you’ll continue to work with us to make sure we’re securing the best outcomes for children and young people through these reforms.

I look forward to hearing your success stories in the weeks and months ahead. And I’m confident that, by remaining committed to working together, there’s no limit set by these reforms on what can be achieved.

Published 5 November 2014