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Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Review

Volume 820: debated on Wednesday 30 March 2022


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Tuesday 29 March.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a Statement about our mission to level up opportunities for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities in England. Before I do, I want to praise my honourable friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), the fantastic Minister for Children and Families, who has been supported by my honourable friends the Members for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe) and for Wantage (David Johnston). I thank them for the level of engagement they have had with Members across the House, as well as with many wonderful people from across the SEND and alternative provision system. I also thank all those working in early years, schools and colleges, including specialist and alternative provision, for their dedication to service in the face of ongoing Covid difficulties. I am sure my gratitude will be echoed across the House.

This review has been shaped by children with special educational needs and disabilities and in alternative provision, by their families and teachers, and by the committed workforce across education, health and care sharing their experiences and stories. I send them huge thanks for their openness in sharing emotional, and sometimes difficult experiences with us. We have listened, and in response today I am publishing for public consultation the Government’s special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision Green Paper.

In schools in England alone there are 1.4 million pupils with a diverse range of special educational needs, and too often they do not get the support they need. In 2014 we made far-reaching changes to support children with special educational needs and disabilities, and their families—indeed, in 2016 I was the Minister for Children and Families. Those reforms gave critical support to more children, but in reality the system is not working as it should. Too often decisions about support are based on where a child lives, not on what they need, and many have lost confidence in the system. On top of that, the alternative provision system is increasingly used to support children with special educational needs, but the outcomes for many of those children remain shockingly poor. We have therefore considered alternative provision within this review.

Despite unprecedented investment through a £1 billion increase in high-needs funding, taking total funding to £9.1 billion in the coming financial year, on top of the £1.5 billion increase over the last two years, the system has become financially unsustainable. Local authorities are in deficit and overspending on their dedicated schools grant, with total deficits now standing at more than £1 billion. The publication of the Green Paper is long awaited, and I am proud to announce that our proposals will build a more inclusive and financially sustainable system, where every child and young person will have access to the right support, in the right place, at the right time.

To meet our ambitions, and the ambitions of so many children and their families, we propose to establish a new single, national special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision system across education, health and care, setting clear standards for how children and young people’s needs are identified and met. To enable effective local delivery, we propose establishing new statutory SEND partnerships, bringing together education, health and care partners with local government, to create a local inclusion plan. That plan will set out how each local area will meet the needs of children in line with national standards. We will also clarify the roles and responsibilities of every partner in the system, with robust accountabilities to build confidence and transparency.

Locally and nationally published inclusion dashboards will capture and track metrics to drive system performance and will mean that areas respond quickly to emerging local needs. Data and transparency are our allies on this journey. Parents should not need to fight the system; the system should be working and fighting for them. The proposed changes will help parents know exactly what their child is entitled to, removing their need to fight and guaranteeing them access to mediation, leading to better, earlier and more effective interventions for their child.

I will always be on the side of children and parents. Wherever possible, I want our children to be educated close to home, near to friends and within local communities. Frustratingly for families, that is not happening consistently enough. Today, building on the schools White Paper published yesterday, we are committing to improve mainstream education through early and accurate identification of need, through high-quality teaching of a knowledge-rich curriculum, and through timely access to specialist support, where needed. Change will be underpinned by the increase in our total investment in the national schools budget. As set out in last year’s spending review, we will invest an additional £7 billion by 2024-25, compared with 2021-22, including an additional £1 billion in 2022-23 for children and young people with high needs.

I recognise the importance of a confident and empowered workforce with access to the best training to support this cohort of children, and many of my colleagues have made representations to me on that. We will consult on the introduction of a new special educational needs co-ordinator national professional qualification for schools and increase the number of staff with an accredited level 3 SENCO qualification in early years settings.

For some children and young people, specialist provision will be the most appropriate place for them to be able to learn and succeed. For those requiring specialist provision, whether in a mainstream or special school, we propose a simplified process. We will support parents to make informed choices by providing them with a list of appropriate placements tailored to their child’s needs, meaning less time spent researching the right school. To prevent needs from escalating, for children with challenging behaviour we want to use the best practice of alternative provision to intervene earlier so that children and young people are supported to thrive, and that the risk of these vulnerable children and young people being exploited or, sadly, involved in serious criminal activities is minimised.

At last year’s spending review, we announced an investment of £2.6 billion over three years, delivering tens of thousands more specialist places and improving existing specialist and alternative provision. Today, I can confirm that £1.4 billion of that funding will be capital spending for high needs for academic years 2023-24 and 2024-25, to help local authorities deliver new places quickly. We cannot wait for the Green Paper consultation; we need to do that now for those with additional needs. That means up to 40 new alternative provision and specialist settings. Taken together, these proposals will improve the special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision system, delivering the right support in the right place at the right time for children and young people.

Today, I am launching a 13-week consultation on the proposals set out in my Green Paper. This is the opportunity for children and young people, their families, and those working across the special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision sector to help shape the next stage. We will pay close attention to implementation so that the mistakes of past reforms are not repeated. These reforms are about outcomes, but they are also about fairness: fairness to families who have struggled to get support for their children, to the sector which has gone above and beyond for years, and to children and young people who deserve excellent support to achieve their ambitions. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, the noble Baroness the Minister may be surprised to hear that, having read the review, my initial thoughts are positive—a view that echoes what many in the education, care and children’s charity sectors are saying. She knows that there is a “but” coming, but I will delay that for the moment.

The Statement says that it is proposed to establish a new single, national special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision system across education, health and care. That is welcome. But there is not a great track record of government departments working together. Too often, there is a silo mentality in the Civil Service, which is long established and often insurmountable. That cannot be the case in terms of this review or it will fail in its aims.

There are three key challenges that the SEND reforms need to address. The first is poor outcomes for children. The second is that navigating the system is often a traumatic experience for families, with many left to reach crisis point before getting meaningful support. The third concerns not delivering value for money. How was it that the £1 billion deficit in the dedicated schools grant, referred to by the Secretary of State yesterday, was ever allowed to happen? He spoke of being ambitious for young people, but where has that ambition been for the past 12 years? Where was that ambition when he was Minister for Children and Families? The Secretary of State cannot disown the legacy of 12 years of Conservative Governments, which have left us with a broken, adversarial and aggressive system that is letting down young people and often leaves families in despair.

So who is responsible for the £1 billion shortfall? The answer is central government, which I suspect is why the DfE appears to want to introduce a funding agreement, or contract system, with local authorities to secure provision. Where else have we heard about funding agreements with the DfE? With academies, of course—so this would be more of the inflexible rod of central government. Will any new system be successful if local endeavour, creativity and innovation are ironed out of it?

A vicious cycle of late intervention, low confidence and inefficient resource allocation is driving the challenges for effective SEND provision. The current system does not prescribe in detail exactly who should provide and pay for local services, leaving it to local agreement and First-tier SEND Tribunals. Similarly, delivery of alternative provision is inconsistent across areas and schools. As a result, parents, carers and providers feel that they have no choice but to seek EHCPs and, in some cases, specialist provision, as a means of legally guaranteeing the right and appropriate support for children and young people. The Government’s reform simply must do much better than this in terms of the support given to parents of children with special educational needs.

It may or may not be a coincidence that the 13-week consultation that the Secretary of State launched yesterday will reach its conclusion at the end of June, which is around the time when the independent review of children’s social care is due to report. That would be entirely appropriate, as the SEND review cannot be seen in isolation—and I do not believe that the Government do see it in isolation.

Early intervention is essential in correctly identifying needs, but the current system often prevents that. All too often, local authorities need to spend on non-discretionary services, such as child protection, taking money away from preventive services like children’s centres. The barriers that prevent children from having their needs met as early and as close to home as possible must be removed.

We welcome the recognition in the Green Paper of the importance of building expertise and leadership in SENCOs. This would dovetail with the Government’s proposals in the skills Bill for SEND to be an integral part of initial teacher training. Perhaps the Minister could confirm that that is how she sees it as well. However, many children with complex and interrelated physical, health and learning needs, such as those with cerebral palsy, autism or communication difficulties, require a specialist approach to education which is provided by professionals with expertise and a deep understanding of their condition and how it impacts on their learning and development.

The reforms that emerge following the consultation should ensure that the best possible use is made of prompt specialist expertise to enable vulnerable children with disabilities to be identified and assessed early, opening the way to delivery of the optimum level of support throughout their education so that they can reach their potential. It is important that alternative provision—too often hidden away—is included in the Green Paper. We also welcome the integrated role and the recognition of the need to improve oversight of AP placements.

The role of colleges in supporting SEND students is understated in the Green Paper, which is contradictory given that the aim of the reforms is to create a system that serves young people all the way through to age 25, from childhood to adulthood. Colleges are a lifeline for students with SEND, many of whom have struggled at school but thrive in a college environment. Many students with EHCPs progress to their local college where they are supported into independence and often into work. Can the Minister say what the DfE sees as the role of colleges in their provision for SEND students and what resources will be made available to support that role?

Resources is, of course, the but. All of this is dependent on the provision of adequate resources and on that score, I fear the mood is more downbeat. I have already mentioned the DSG deficit; the Statement mentions £1.4 billion of capital spend on high needs between 2023 and 2025. Presumably, this is to increase capacity and places within schools. It averages out at roughly £60,000 per school on a one-off basis. Will the Minister say how the Government imagine that capital spend flowing?

Finally, the Secretary of State also says in his Statement that there is to be an additional £1 billion in the current financial year for children and young people with high needs, but then what? Is that figure to be consolidated in the high needs budget? The families of children with special needs of all kinds deserve to be told.

No matter the Government’s good intentions in terms of SEND and AP provision, without the resources to ensure a system that is fair, joined-up and effective from an early point in a child’s life, little will change for those families that so desperately need support for their children.

My Lords, first I remind the House of my declared interests in this field: I am dyslexic; I am president of the British Dyslexia Association; I am a long-established user of assistive technology and chairman of a company that provides that across the education and working sector.

The best thing about the system is acceptance of the problem. In the current system, you are advised to get legal advice to get the best results. If ever there was a definition of failure, that is it: people cannot get the help they need from the mainstream system which the law dictates unless they have legal support. There really is no bigger condemnation, and I congratulate the Minister on bringing forward something that recognises that. The system we have has not worked. It has not worked for a variety of reasons, mainly, I feel, because the school process, whereby schools take money out of their budgets to support individual pupils, is counterintuitive to the school. They can take £6,000 out of their mainstream budget to support a pupil, but not put £6,000 into training staff to meet the recurring needs.

We talk about pupils with a commonly occurring condition, but I agree that this is not the full package: there is a range of subjects and most people who come into this category have a cocktail of conditions. If they are lucky, with good parents—the tiger parent—fighting for support, a bit of resource, they generally get a decent result, even if they have to pay lawyers. If they do not have that, they get a bad result and will end up in alternative provision. Can the Minister give me some idea about how those who will initially be below the threshold for intervention needed for the plans will get help and support? I cannot see how that will occur.

The noble Baroness will say something positive about SENCOs, which is good, but it requires more than that. It requires a recognition strategy caused by having good teachers, teachers with knowledge, in place to identify and get help in early. Because we all know that is the way it works: identify early, get strategies in place, get structure, and there is less resistance from the pupil. How will we do that with this system? How will we make sure that the system knows what it is doing when somebody starts to fail? Are we going to have a degree of flexibility built into this national plan?

Why can I never remember the exact name of the phonics system? It is specialist synthetic phonics. The Government say that the phonics system is suitable for everybody; guess what? The British Dyslexia Association, the biggest individual group, says it does not work for dyslexics, so we will need an alternative provision of teaching and how to implement that throughout the system to get the best out of the biggest cohort. It is not the only cohort, but it is the biggest. How will we do that? How will we make that work if we do not have a degree of flexibility built in and do not address the fact that certain people will always struggle?

We cannot ignore what happened yesterday. Apparently, 90% of pupils in this country are going to reach literacy standards. I have already identified 10%—and that is a conservative estimate—of those who will have extra problems with reading and writing. We can also stick on 5% or 6% who are dyscalculic. But wait, look at the good news—some of them are included in the first 10%, so they actually have multiple disability problems. It is called “comorbidity”, but I think that “co-occurring” sounds better. You can stick dyspraxia and autism in there, and they are just the hidden disabilities. How will we achieve this unless there are people who can identify early, and not take it to this system of struggling identification? I quite understand that the Minister may well be able to make it less legally driven, but there is a danger that it will go back there.

I hope that the Minister can give us some idea about guidance. If the Government want to achieve their high literacy levels, how about someone who word processes by talking and listening to their computer, as opposed to just tapping the keyboard? That is available to everyone. I know that the Minister has had some experience with this; she is the first Minister I did not need to show this technology to.

A slightly more flexible approach will get far better results here. If the Minister can assure us that, with guaranteeing standards, they agree with that flexibility, all things are possible. If we go back to saying, “No, this is the way we should do it”, and having conflicting stories, we will just have failure—it may not be quite as bad, but we will still have failure.

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their remarks and acknowledge the opening positivity of the noble Lord, Lord Watson. I genuinely believe that the reason his initial response to the review was positive—“buts” permitting—was because my ministerial colleagues and officials in the department have worked really closely with parents, carers and young people with disabilities. This review has been co-created with them, and we thank them enormously for their time.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, rightly highlighted the adversarial system which we face today, with parents feeling forced to go to a tribunal to get suitable provision for their children. We really believe that our plans will lead to much greater transparency about what is available for their child in their local area, and much great clarity about how it can be provided. We very much hope that, combined with our offer around mediation, parents will feel that their voices are heard—and heard early—and that their child’s needs can be met, ideally, as close to home as possible.

Both noble Lords rightly stressed the importance of early intervention, and I am sure that they also share our aspiration in terms of quality and consistency of provision. It is really striking—for example, when comparing local authorities and the percentage of children with an education, health and care plan who end up in a specialist setting—that the same child is six times as likely to end up in a specialist setting in one part of the country, compared with another. That spreads through the system, including those without an EHCP. We hope that one of the building blocks for earlier intervention will be clarity. This clarity will be achieved through new national standards which will set out which needs can and should be met effectively in mainstream provision, and the support which should be available there without the need for an education, health and care plan. It will also provide guidance on when a child or young person does need an EHCP and whether they need a specialist placement. I am sure that the House shares our concern not just for those children who are diagnosed late, but those children who are never diagnosed at all and do not get the support they need.

We also hope that reinforcing the provision that exists in mainstream schools for children with special educational needs and disabilities will help with early intervention. Our ambition is that we should have a truly inclusive education system so that mainstream provision, supplemented by targeted support when it is required—by which I mean those specialist interventions for children but also pastoral interventions—will allow them to thrive in a mainstream setting. We also want timely access for those with more complex needs to specialist support or placements in alternative provision.

We are trying to balance the work we are doing in consulting on and planning a system that works more effectively for young people with not waiting to make sure that the funding that the noble Lord, Lord Watson, referred to, gets to young people through their local authorities as quickly as possible. We are investing more in this system than we ever have. In 2022-23 the high-needs budget will be £9.1 billion, and it is set to increase further over the coming years. Therefore, we have made our commitments in revenue funding but also, critically, in capital funding, providing up to 33,000 additional places for children requiring specialist provision.

Looking to the future, the review proposes a system of funding bands and tariffs so that people better understand the level of future funding they can expect to receive. We will move to arrangements for funding schools directly, rather than through the local authority funding formula, but that will obviously take some time to implement. We also think that improvements in the quality of provision will be driven by the local inclusion plans, which every area will prepare in a multiagency way with their health and social care and education partners, and, critically, with parents and carers. That in turn will be reinforced by local dashboards, so that we have real transparency across the country about what is working, what needs more attention and how we can learn from one another.

The noble Lord, Lord Watson, referred to the 2014 reforms and the need to have really effective implementation. We are absolutely aware of the need to learn lessons from 2014. We are setting up a special delivery board, which will oversee the rollout of these policies. We are also establishing a £70 million change programme for this work so that we can test and refine proposals before we scale up.

In response to the noble Lord’s question about further education settings, we absolutely agree that they are an incredibly valuable resource for young people with special educational needs. Our proposals will allow FE settings to be absolutely clear about the support that they are expected to deliver for young people. We continue to work with stakeholders in that sector so that our proposals are shaped by their expertise.

On the questions from the noble Lord, Lord Addington, regarding dyslexia more broadly and the use of technology, it is fair to say that there is a range of views about the use of phonics for children with dyslexia and the right place for technology. I would be very glad, if the noble Lord would be interested, to arrange for him to meet colleagues in the department so that we can give the points he raised the time that they deserve.

In closing, the Government are ambitious for all our children. For children with special educational needs and disabilities, as for every other child, we are determined to build an education system where they can get the right support, in the right place, at the right time.

Can I ask my noble friend the Minister what the plan is for teachers to be able to identify children with special needs, particularly at an early age—as early as reception, where I feel things often start going wrong? It is also about being able to give parents support when they come forward, when they feel that there might be a problem with their child.

My noble friend raises an important point. She is right that early years education, even before reception, has consistently been proven to be absolutely fundamental to strengthening a child’s readiness for school and educational potential over their life, as well as for wider educational outcomes. We propose to increase the number of staff with an accredited level 3 SENCO qualification in early years settings to improve the special educational needs and disability expertise in those settings by up to 5,000 additional practitioners.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Watson has had a good deal more time to look in detail at this Green Paper than I have, but I look forward to some conversations about it with the Minister. My question follows rather well from those of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the noble Baroness opposite. One issue about early intervention is that there is a paucity, not to say an absence, of the study of child development in the initial stages of teacher training and education. Frankly, if teachers are not exposed to that in their period of training, they will be ill equipped to recognise these difficulties early in their career. I implore the Minister to have a little look at initial teacher training and education, just to make sure that everything that we are saying is consistent, so we really can address the needs of all children.

Having said, that, we have had two Statements on education in two days—it is great, is it not—and there is a great deal to welcome in this Green Paper. However, we must all acknowledge that there is much more to do for children and young people with special needs and disabilities. We all, I hope, acknowledge that the challenges are not new. As it says in the Green Paper, the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated pre-existing difficulties. Some of us in this Chamber who have been teachers will know, and will have been having an uphill struggle in saying, that there is enormous unmet need and enormous challenges. However, the Green Paper also helpfully says, on page 13, that

“We need a system where decision-making is based on the needs of children and young people, not on location”.

That is absolutely right. If a child has a need, it should be met.

It may be that the standardisation of the education and healthcare plan will help with that, and it may also help, as I think it suggests in the Green Paper, with some elements of reducing staff workload. But however much we have the ambition, the lived reality for children and young people has to be, as the book says, that they get the right support at the right time, so I applaud that.

Is the Minister absolutely confident that there will be sufficient funding going forward? I have one specific question. Why is it that the special schools with alternative provisions will be free schools, when it is very clear that local authorities will have a significant role to play in the delivery of these improvements? Why can they not be commissioners of providers of schools?

In answer to the noble Baroness’s second question, they could potentially be presumption free schools. However, as she knows, all new schools are free schools. On early childhood development—this was not her question, but just to clarify—content on special educational needs and childhood development is part of the initial teacher training curriculum. I am extremely interested in early childhood development. As the noble Baroness knows, I ran a domestic abuse charity for many years, so I am looking forward to a longer conversation with her on that.

In relation to funding, the noble Baroness will know that we have moved fast to try to meet the increase in funding needs, which have gone up by 40% over the past few years. It has been an unsustainable situation, and we have worked hard with local authorities to try to manage the pressures they are under. We hope that this approach will mark a step change in the funding that is required and how it is spent.

My Lords, I should declare an interest having chaired the National Mental Capacity Forum in recent years; I have just finished doing so.

I want to ask about the children and young people with severe learning difficulties. I seek assurance that their plan towards adulthood includes looking at the strengths they have to maximally support them in their own decision-making and, where possible, ensure that they have adequate capacity to choose someone to hold lasting power of attorney in future for financial, health and welfare decisions. It is awful when they suddenly reach their 18th birthday and their parents find that they can no longer take decisions and have not made adequate provision ahead of time. Many of these young people have enough capacity, when carefully supported, to take the decision because they know what they need and who they trust to take decisions for them. It is much safer than leaving it up to fate later on.

The noble Baroness makes a very good point. Given that this is a consultation, I really encourage her to share that as part of her consultation response so that we can take it into account in our plans going forward.

My Lords, following on from the noble Baroness, I do not think that the Minister entirely answered the point about initial teacher training. What is being done in such training to ensure that every new teacher is equipped to recognise special educational needs? There is early and accurate identification of need, but they can do that only if they are trained to recognise the different types of disability that children might have.

The other thing I want to ask about concerns the new statutory SEND partnership. How will this plan differ from the plan that is in existence at the moment for children’s health and care plans? Can the Minister explain that too?

I understand why the noble Baroness talks about initial teacher training, although she will be aware that it is outwith the scope of this Green Paper. Our wider vision for teachers is that they should have opportunities for professional development at every stage of their career, whether that is initial teacher training, early career development or beyond. We will consult on creating a SENCO NPQ, which will give teachers who wish to develop in that area an opportunity to do so.

The noble Baroness also asked about the new approach. Some of the difference will be around clarity. First, the new approach brings together special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision. As the noble Baroness knows, one of the things the pandemic high- lighted was the number of children in AP with special educational needs and disabilities, so we want to bring those together. We want absolute clarity around standards of provision and on roles and responsibilities. We also want much clearer accountability and the partnership to work in a coherent way, including with the partners I mentioned in response to an earlier question.

My Lords, returning to a theme that has been at the centre of our discussion, the Early Years Alliance did a survey of its providers in preparation for the Green Paper. It found that three-quarters of them had seen an increase in the number of children with formally defined SEND over the past two years, while even more—84%—believed that they had children whose needs had not been identified formally but were clear to them. The survey covered a really disparate group of nurseries, pre-schools and childminding professionals. Some 40% of them said that they get no extra funding now; 87% of them said that they do not get enough funding to meet the quality of care they believe is necessary; and 56% of them said that they had had delays in getting funding. Is the Minister really confident that there is enough in this Green Paper, with the reorganisation and redrawing of boundaries and responsibilities being put on local authorities, to address these issues? Do we not need massively more resources to be put into this stage, which the paper identifies as absolutely crucial?

The Government are putting significantly more resource in. I absolutely hear what the noble Baroness says but I hope she also accepts that we have little consistency in how we identify children with special educational needs and disabilities. Of course, their needs are at varying levels and require varying levels of funding to address them. Just from visiting mainstream schools, I know that there will certainly be great variations in the percentage of children identified with special educational needs. Sometimes that is because of great early intervention that has addressed and dealt with their needs; other times, it is because of poor intervention; other times, there are different reasons. However, every local authority will attract a funding increase of at least 12% per head for their two to 18 year-old population in 2022-23, with some local authorities seeing increases of up to 16% compared with the previous year. I hope the noble Baroness acknowledges that we are really committing money to sort this out.

My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of the National Society, which leads the Church of England’s education work.

I hope the Minister will be pleased to hear that, in response to yesterday’s Green Paper, the Church of England has established a national network for SENCOs at primary and secondary levels, partly to get their opinions on how we should respond but also to offer development in future. However, I want to continue to pursue the early years question. Understandably, this is about education and social care. The first 1,001 days of life are the most crucial. Nothing here refers to the development of family hubs and the work of health visitors in the pre-two context, where some discernment ought to be available. Can the Minister comment on the join-up between the development of family hubs and the really early years?

I start by asking the right reverend Prelate—I am sure I speak on behalf of my ministerial colleagues as well—to share how warmly we welcome the creation of the networks. We very much look forward to their contributions to the consultation. In relation to family hubs, he is absolutely right that they are critical to this task of early identification. Obviously we have already announced our plans on family hubs; we are excited at the potential for multiagency working so that we can identify and support as early as possible. As the right reverend Prelate knows, family hubs support the whole family through to when the child reaches maturity; whether it is early or a bit later, they are there to help.