SEND Green paper does not avoid worrying problems in the system

Matthew Dodd, Head of Policy and Communications at the National Children’s Bureau considers how the SEND Green Paper doesn’t underestimate the challenge of getting support right.

The Green Paper does not shy away from the poor outcomes and experiences of many disabled children and those with special educational needs. All too often, we’ve heard of inconsistent levels of support, delay, and unmet need. It also lays out the problems with the current system that cause a vicious cycle of late intervention and increasing demand:

  • A slow and adversarial process for accessing support;
  • Huge increases in the number of statutory Education Health and Care plans issued each year; and
  • Local authorities reeling from spiralling demand for high needs support, with spending rising by more than 40% over the last three years alone.

This worrying state of affairs in the SEND system is eerily similar to the problems in the children’s social care system. Each year more and more resources are concentrated at the statutory end of the system; each year there is less money for local authorities to support early intervention; and each year further demand for statutory interventions is generated. The stress, pain and financial cost of a system that waits for children to fail before intervening are laid out starkly in the Green Paper itself.

In a move that will surprise many, the Green Paper rightly identifies that the solution to these challenges lies in a more inclusive mainstream education system. The Green Paper’s proposal to develop standards on what support should be made available universally in mainstream settings is bold, and could drive a far more consistent approach across the country.

However, to truly deliver an inclusive system, we must make changes to the wider framework that schools operate within. This includes the rigid and narrow mainstream curriculum and behaviour policies that take little account of diversity and difference. School accountability measures, particularly Progress 8, are not set up to recognise the progress of many children with SEN and disabilities and end up penalising inclusive schools. However, despite laying out the problems clearly, neither the SEND Green Paper or Schools White Paper appear to have actively sought to address these issues.

We should not lose sight of the fact that the education system is just part of a wider ecosystem that supports children and families. Local SEND partnerships will oversee the effective development of local inclusion plans, but these will sit within the new Integrated Care Systems (ICS). The very welcome prioritisation of children within the Health and Care Bill provides a solid foundation on which to land these reforms, but now we must focus on statutory guidance for ICS and ensure they deliver for children with SEN and disabilities specifically. We will also be eagerly awaiting the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care recommendations to strengthen the offer of family help, and how this can provide much needed support to the families of disabled children.

There is much to welcome in this green paper yet, like the Schools White Paper before it, the failure to mention, let alone address, the financial realities of children and families is shocking.  Families with disabled children were already much more likely to be living in poverty than other groups, and the impact of the pandemic on the financial position [1] and wellbeing [2] of disabled children and their families was devastating.

Now, without further action on living standards, the Secretary of State’s ambitions for children with SEN and disabilities will be completely undermined by the corrosive effects of poverty. Up to 150,000 more children living in poverty by the end of the year is not the context in which children can reach their full potential, despite the best intentions of politicians and public services.