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SEN Assessment Is One Of Cameron’s Howling Disasters

September 5, 2017

It was March 2011 when the coalition government announced proposals to reform England’s special educational needs (SEN) system. Some of the initial noise around their plans was grim: government sources said as many as 450,000 children could be taken out of the category of special needs altogether, while the dependably sensitive Mail Online ran such headlines as “Schools on a scam and an excuse for lazy teaching”. At the same time, ministers made contrasting pledges, many of which I heard first-hand – not least the promises to make things “stronger and simpler” for parents and children.

But from the start, the changes were plagued by confusion, slipshod administration and the effects of austerity. SEN is inevitably a niche area of policy, but there is a big story here, of one of the David Cameron era’s most howling disasters, and an iron law of modern government: that to try to revolutionise a system in the midst of swingeing cuts is to invite chaos and failure.

My 10-year-old son is autistic. Before he started primary school, my partner and I began the journey to getting him a statement of special educational needs, which would set out the support he required in detail, and gave us a legally backed means of securing it. Throughout the process, I was painfully aware of how it favoured people with the money and time to pursue their case, and cut out many more for whom the SEN system was an impossible maze.

As with so many parents, our initial request for our local authority to begin the process of getting a statement was turned down – which entailed probably the most stressful experience I have ever had: months of legal argy-bargy, stop-start negotiation with our local authority and the frequent fear that we were about to hit a brick wall. Even with some of the correct arrangements in place, it took two attempts to get our son’s provision right, but with the help of two brilliantly supportive local schools, by the time he was nine, we were able to stop fighting and worrying, at least for the time being. He is now making real progress, both educationally and socially.

In our case, the announcement that the SEN system was to be overhauled triggered a deep ambivalence. The system had just about worked for us, and the prospect of its reinvention often seemed like yet another obstacle we would have to climb over. On the plus side, statements were to be phased out in favour of so-called education, health and care (EHC) plans – ours, we’re told, is on the way – which would go beyond education to cover health and social care, and run up to the age of 25. But the means of holding the providers of these services to account were unclear. Pilot schemes ran late. And it soon became apparent that amid cuts and the shrinking of local authority education departments thanks to Michael Gove’s academies and free schools drive during his time as education minister, councils were in no position to roll the changes out.

Five years on, it looks as if the already-difficult lives of parents and children in need of support have been made even more trying. Getting a halfway satisfactory EHC plan seems to be as difficult as securing a dependable statement. SEN insiders say councils are using the transition to plans to cut entitlements, often by changing specified provision (for example, weekly speech therapy) to much fuzzier commitments: the word “regular”, which can often mean almost nothing at all, is a favourite.

According to Melinda Nettleton, the lawyer whose book Special Needs and Legal Entitlement is something of a set text for people fighting their way through the SEN jungle, many councils are insisting parents try at least three terms of non-statutory provision before they apply for a plan: something that has no basis in legislation, and in many cases, means months of failure before any meaningful improvements can even begin. She also highlights the serial absurdities of SEN funding: schools are now meant to spend up to £6,000 a pupil each year on SEN support – but it is part of the Kafkaesque thinking at work that this figure is “notional” and can sometimes translate into as little as £200.

Self-evidently, tumbling school budgets are compounding the pain. Many authorities have long had a policy of pushing parents away from statements and plans towards their own non-statutory arrangements, so as to keep costs down.

One example was Devon county council, which involved hundreds of families in an ad hoc system called My Plan, with no formal legal entitlements. In a particularly cruel turn, the council announced at the end of this year’s summer term that it would be drastically cutting back this provision, and leaving schools and parents to apply for individual EHC plans. It is not hard to see what this move threatens to result in: even more children being left with little or no provision at all.

Across England, the same story is glaringly clear: one failed regime being chaotically replaced by another, and all that initial hype dwindling into meaninglessness. The promise of a stronger and simpler system looks set to result in the exact opposite: a set of arrangements that are weak, absurdly complex and full of the same old trapdoors. The upshot, needless to say, will be tragic: dashed hopes, ruined lives, and a great ocean of educational potential left ignored.

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