The Westminster Education Forum: SEN Post-Green Paper
Here is my conference speech of Monday 4th April 2011.
I support contentions made and explored in the Green Paper, regarding the culture of low expectations, the lack of good information about what parents can expect, and the limited choices available to parents, in terms of educational establishments.
The practicalities, of how we move forward from intention, to implementation, seem problematic. Problematic because we have been driven and constrained by terminology that has little helped us, in our search for the best solutions, at the right time, in the right place, for the young in our population who experience special needs.
Inclusion has become a term of little value when it sets the best practices, skills and expertise of one set of providers, against another. Inclusion, I believe, is about the provision and placement that best enables a young person to be truly themselves, without fear that that self is less valued than others.
I support the move towards a greater diversity of provision, although, I am less inclined to support a narrow and pre-determined choice within state-funded mainstream or special schools.
Mr Gove has spoken often and fondly of the capacity of Academies and Free Schools to meet the diverse needs of our least advantaged school population. I am perhaps not so gushing about the ability of either to meet the full range and complexity of all our children’s SEN.
Of preference, a greater dialogue and collaboration between Local Authorities and local or regional, third and private sector providers, may support that diversity of provision in cost-effective ways .
The third and private sector have some excellent specialist provision that is too often, only made available to those young people who have access to a strong advocate who battles tirelessly on their behalf.
For that greater collaboration to be effective, there needs to be a shift in attitude from either side: in our private and third sector, opening up services and expertise to make available short-term, flexible placements, including assessment or respite provision, so that a placement is not necessarily a permanent or life-long solution to need; from Local Authorities, recognizing the value of third and private sector provision as a local asset, and not a threat.
Perhaps I am deluding myself that this state of affairs may ever be possible, but it is my considered opinion that this should be our path forward.
Many of our young people with complex and long-term special needs are at the mercy of policy- makers who are beholden to the local, low-cost agenda. Parents, as well as our vulnerable young people, need advocates who are impartial, unbiased and who may be fully informed about the realities of provision within the locality, within the region, and about the availability and accessibility of those placements.
At a Capita Conference recently on 14 – 19 provision, I heard of a brokerage system that some authorities support, uniting the needs of students with a range of educational providers and employers. This type of brokerage system, I believe, fits our desired goals of giving greater transparency to the process of making appropriate placement choices, detailing the type and quality of provision, the cost, availability and the likely outcomes or destinations of students.
The need for collaborate, innovative partnerships has never been greater than it is today.
With regard the identification of special needs and our potential for over-diagnosis, there are many complex issues at play. I am conscious of the tough decisions that schools make in using delegated budgets to buy external support; of the pressures that schools face daily, to make a difference, to be accountable for their results.
I do have concerns however, regarding an absence of a collective understanding of what it means to have special educational needs.
I have debated with SENCos and Head Teachers, the practicalities of including all children on the SEN Register who are unlikely to achieve level 2 at end of Key Stage 1, or the ethics of selecting those children from the SEN register in Years 4 & 5 for support, as these are best placed to make a difference to future Key Stage 2 SATS results.
In a school recently, I have queried the support needs of a young man whose subdued demeanour, isolation and less usual behaviours and coping strategies, concerned me. The school dismissed my concerns, as this child’s academic achievement and performance did not merit him a place on the special needs register.
To elaborate this point, I have queried the support given to a girl of seven, with rickets, whose bowed legs and poor motor movement troubled me; of a young man with Tourette’s and a horrendous home life; of another young man who disclosed three years of self-harming, at the age of 8. In each case, my concerns have not been matched by the school’s regard for these children’s needs. In each case, their academic achievement has not been a sufficient cause for concern for them to be included on the special needs register or prioritised for support. The social and health, including mental health needs, of these young people have not been seen as a school responsibility.
I suggest that if we over-identify special needs, we under-identify in equal measure. It is back to that collective understanding. The examples I’ve given, taken from real contexts, real discussions, happen too frequently to be incidental. Far too often, it is the distress and discontent of parents that alerts schools to problems. Our schools should be the first to identify, at the earliest stage, pupils with special needs, not just those pupils who pose a threat to future league table rankings.
I would like to touch on the proposals to introduce Education, Health and Care Plans, conscious that I am, again, skimming the surface of very complex issues. Our Local Authority support services contain professionals with outstanding skills in the identification, assessment and management of special needs. At a school level, these services remain our best and most immediate, local providers of support and expertise.
The move towards Education, Heath and Care Plans as an alternative solution to our current Statementing system, pleases me, as a long over-due measure to redress the balance in recognizing the health and social care needs of young people.
My views may not be popular, but I believe, if we are seeking expertise in this area, we must put aside our differences and look to the excellent practices of our third sector and private sector. It is those schools who frequently cater for our most complex needs, including Autistic Spectrum Disorder, challenging behaviour, emotional and social development difficulties, and all those variants and co-morbidity of special need, that have experience of the shared funding structures that enable provision to be made across all three areas of education, health and social care.
In our health sector, we have become adept at considering a cost-gain analysis of provision for complex medical and health needs that is not bound by constraints of locality. There is furthermore, an acceptance of the need for urgency, of a sense that every moment counts, that is too frequently absent from discussions regarding a child’s special needs.
There is real potential for collaborative & innovative partnerships between Local Authorities and providers in the third and private sector to consider how best we move towards the creation of Education, Health and Care Plans.
Apropos parental preference, the following comment by Sarah Teather on 21st March interests me: “There is often a real push to get expensive independent provision that can be a drain on local authorities’ resources when, if we could get some of the necessary health care delivered earlier, parents would not necessarily push to go all the way to the expense of independent provision. A lot more can be done to spend the money that we have better.” (Source: Sarah Teather, 21st March 2011, c678 Hansard)
I agree with the goals of early intervention and joined up thinking between health and education. I disagree with Sarah Teather’s contention that independent provision is ‘expensive’ or a ‘drain on resources’. It may be costly provision, where staffing levels are often set at between 6:1 and 8:1 for 24 hour care, but to say it is expensive, adds a value that I believe is unhelpful .
It is necessary to consider what has happened in that young person’s life that has led to the decision, frequently post-tribunal, to enter full-time residential care. What are the complex and life-long needs we are striving to meet, that have not been adequately recognized, identified or addressed before?
The real expense lies not in the cost of the placement, but in picking up the pieces of a life that has been shattered by the effects of protracted periods of academic, social and emotional failure and breakdown.
Finally, to reiterate –
1. There is a need for a greater dialogue, between Local Authorities and the third and private sector, so that increased diversity in a locality or region, is seen as an asset, and not a threat;
2. There is an absence of a collective understanding of special educational needs in our schools;
3. There is a need for a sense of urgency in our decision making, that is too frequently absent
4. Real expense lies not in the cost of the educational placement, but in the damage that has been done long before that placement has been made.