This month marks two years since the start of the implementation of the SEND reforms and the journey has had its share of challenges along the way. Dame Christine Lenehan looks back and asks: what could the government be doing better to improve the lives of disabled children and young people and their families?
Working with disabled children, their families and the professionals who support them is my passion. Before qualifying as a social worker in 1980, I started my working life in long stay hospitals for disabled children and have watched and been part of their journey into the community.
However, I believe that journey is not yet complete and we need to continue to challenge exclusion vigorously and set high aspirations for all children, whatever their impairment, so that they realise their entitlement to a life that is valued and that makes them feel valued. The SEND reforms go some way towards making this happen. I’ve said this before but, I believe that the principles around these reforms are right: disabled children and young people at the centre of the decisions that affect their lives, coproduction with parents, and multi-agency integrated planning. However, to me, it is still obvious that there are difficulties to overcome.
Where are the key challenges?
Over the last two years I’ve been listening very closely and responding to the concerns and experiences of children and young people, their families, CDC members and practitioners across all sectors and it is clear that there is a pattern in the challenges that have emerged.
One of the big things I hear time and time again is that there is a policy gap in which no one is yet sure about what the reforms mean for disabled young people aged 19-25. What happens to those who have left the system and come back in again for example? Who is entitled to an EHC Plan and what does that look like? Expectations of practitioners are vague and families don’t know what to ask for. What we are seeing is that the offer to families becomes diluted and of varying quality.
The recent legal judgement in Buckinghamshire has made some progress on this issue and recognises the value of continuing an educational programme beyond the age of 19, but there’s still a way to go. I urge the government to place the 19-25 agenda as a high priority for the coming year.
It also seems to me that there are some massive contradictions in the government’s White Paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere. I agree with the principle that local authorities should retain their responsibilities for SEND, but it is difficult to see how this fits within a system that is moving towards full academisation. Where is the power? Where are the levers? How does it work with health and social care? It feels a poor fit with other work that has been done and there is potential to put at risk what has already been achieved through the SEND reforms.
We are also hearing that some parts of the system are labelling key groups of children as ‘too difficult’. The needs of children with mental health and learning disabilities are a prime example. In response to this, I’m doing some work with the Department of Health to investigate why the system is repeatedly failing this group of children. What we need to be clear about is that no child is ‘too difficult’ to have a childhood. It is the overcomplexity of the system which is at fault.
Celebrating what’s working
A lot of what needs to be done to make systems work better for children with SEND lie in particular areas of policy: in health, in schools, in social care. It’s important that we push for change and encourage development, wherever we see it. So we should commend the Department for Education for the positive endorsements of access and inclusion in the current early years consultation – and for including practical proposals to promote inclusive practices and address families’ experiences of exclusion and rejection. However, we also want to make sure that they see it through to proper implementation and that is it properly financed and supported.
I’ve seen some wonderful work from colleagues across the sector. Nasen, for example, have been providing training to support teachers to identify and meet the needs of children and young people with SEND. NDTi have done much to advance the Preparing for Adulthood programme and the London Leadership Strategy are currently leading the Whole School SEND Consortium to build the SEND reform principles into the wider school improvement agenda. In social care we are beginning to see the positive impact of multi-agency working to build EHC Plans, particularly when there is an allocated social worker involved or when arrangements are in place to include input from early help services.
In many areas the appointment of Designated Medical and Designated Clinical Officers is helping to develop more effective joint working between education and health, which provides children, young people and their families with more integrated support that works better for them. This is just a fraction of the great work that is happening to ensure that the SEND reforms will work for disabled children and young people.
Just because the journey of the SEND reforms has been difficult and challenging, don’t forget why we’re doing it. Our vision is of a society in which disabled children and young people’s rights are respected, their aspirations supported and life chances are assured. The way I see it is that this vision is becoming a reality for some children but sadly not all, which is why at CDC, and as a sector, we will continue to push the government on the things it needs to do to make this happen. We will always be pushing, testing and challenging government on turning that vision into reality.