The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Christopher Rob...

The SEND system in 2017: change for better?

When the government introduced the Children and Families Act in 2014 it claimed that new legislation would transform provision and support for children with SEND. So, what has really changed?

We are now in the third year of the Act’s implementation and it seems timely to consider how the system has changed, whether progress is being made and what challenges continue to face schools and services as they seek to ‘refresh’ and improve their professional practice for the benefit pupils and their families.

It's important to reflect on the continuing challenges faced by education professionals, and the actions schools and local authorities should take in the coming year in order to ensure that the SEND reforms are making a positive difference.

The statutory requirements

Without rehearsing the details of the 2014 SEND policy changes it is worth summarising the government’s key aims.

By introducing the ‘biggest reforms to the SEND system in a generation’ it sought to develop a system that would:

  • involve co-production with children, young people and their families
  • increase satisfaction with locally available information and services
  • guarantee more timely identification of children and young people with SEND
  • improve attainment for all children and young people with SEND
  • meet the needs of children and young people on SEN Support (a single school based ‘category’) and those with Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans (a replacement for cumbersome and ‘not fit for purpose’ Statements of Special Educational Needs)
  • enable more young people with SEND to access post-16 education, training  and employment
  • prepare children and young people as well as possible for adulthood.

To achieve these aims, the 2014 legislation introduced new statutory duties to ensure compliance by all state-funded schools (including academies and free schools). It also required schools to replace two school-based stages of support for pupils (School Action and School Action Plus) with a single school-based SEN Support ‘category’ by September 2015 and local authorities to replace all Statements by the end of March 2018.

Three other legal requirements introduced in 2014 are also noteworthy.

First, a duty on local authorities to produce, monitor and evaluate a ‘local offer’ of services for all children and young people with SEND.

Second, duties requiring local authorities, health and care services to co-operate and joint commission the services needed.

Third, statutory protections for young people in the 16-25 age range to support preparation for adulthood.

Monitoring the changes

The Department for Education (DfE) has been monitoring changes to the SEND system, by:

  • gathering feedback on local area progress from regional SEND advisers who liaise on a regular basis with local authority area staff
  • termly ‘self-report’ surveys completed each term by local authorities termly surveys completed by Parent Carer Forums (administered independently by Contact a Family)
  • feedback from a Young People’s Advisory Group
  • inspections of local area SEND provision by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) (from May 2016)
  • directly funded research projects (e.g. completed and on-going studies looking at EHC planning, processes and the experiences of families).

In addition to government monitoring of progress, a number of other organisations have been measuring the impact of the reforms (e.g. the Driver Youth Trust and the National Autistic Society have both published reports on early implementation).

Successes to date

The DfE view, based largely on local authority survey and adviser evidence indicates that:

  • all local authorities have a Local Offer in place
  • The vast majority of schools have published SEND information reports
  • all local authorities have established an EHC assessment pathway
  • all local authorities are issuing EHC plans
  • the transfer of Statements to EHC plans is progressing and must be complete by April 2018
  • health services are increasing levels of engagement with the reforms (e.g. in relation to involvement in in EHC assessment and aspects of joint commissioning).

A number of the early local area SEND inspection reports corroborate these findings and confirm positive progress with the implementation of the reforms.

For example, SENCOs are accessing valuable local training that is helping them to introduce SEN Support and taking the initiative with regard to identifying staff development that helps staff to be more responsive to the needs of pupils in their schools.

However, these reports, together with research published by organisations independent of government highlight implementation difficulties too, and these need to be brought to the fore so that we can address challenges to system change before create difficulties that become entrenched.

Implementation challenges

Drawing on the DfE’s local authority survey data, Ofsted and CQC local area inspection reports, other published research and feedback I receive from education professionals I work with on a regular basis, it is clear that:

  • Local Offers vary in quality – and some are of limited use to education professionals, children, young people and their parents
  • Local Offers vary considerably with regard to how far parents, and particularly children and young people are involved in co-producing content
  • many local authorities are concerned that they will find it difficult to meet the April 2018 DfE deadline for replacing all Statements with EHC plans
  • local authorities vary with regard to the timely completion of EHC assessments
  • the imperative of meeting EHC assessment deadlines (20 week schedule) for individuals, the looming overall deadline for transition to an EHC based system compromises efforts to ensure that EHC assessment approaches are person centred
  • local area capacity – especially services supporting statutory assessment – is stretched
  • the quality of EHC plans varies and not enough are outcome focused
  • engagement with health and social care services remains limited in some areas and inputs to EHC assessment from these service is not always appropriate
  • the development of joint commissioning by local authorities, health and social care services has been slow
  • the role of new Designated Medical Officers has not yet been embedded in many local areas
  • the number of pupils identified as needing SEN Support (formerly School Action and School Action Plus) has steadily fallen since 2010 – this may be because school staff are getting better at intervening early to help pupils ‘catch up' with their peers, but it is possible that there is an underestimation of needs and that some pupils are not benefiting from SEN Support
  • the post-16 education sector is not fully prepared or supported to carry out its role in supporting students transitioning from school to further education, training and employment
  • system accountability – at local and national levels – is not as effective as it should be and this means that compliance with SEND legislation is not monitored (Robertson, 2016a).

This listing of challenges could be longer! In presenting it I am not suggesting that implementation of the SEND reforms is failing. I am, though, arguing that focused and specific action must be taken if we are to build on the positive progress reported by the DfE.

Action to support the SEND reforms

Mainstream schools and their SENCOs should consider a number of priority actions in the year ahead to improve the impact of the SEND reforms. Here are ten that I think can make positive difference.

SEN Support

Review pupils registered at SEN Support to ensure that everyone in need of additional interventions to make progress receives it. This review activity should also be communicated to children, young people and their parents, particularly in instances where new or changing needs are identified.

Identify current and future professional development needs for staff

This will enable a school to address gaps in knowledge and skills. These can change to reflect the needs of pupils and instances of staff turnover (for example when a colleague with a SEND specialism leaves).

Carrying out a ‘swot’ (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis can be a helpful way of reviewing needs and planning appropriate training.

Review the deployment of learning support staff (teaching assistants)

There is a growing evidence base focused directly on deploying support staff in ways that optimise impact on pupil learning (e.g. the Education Endowment Foundation ‘Making the Best Use of Teaching Assistants research and resources'). 

Look at the involvement of children, young people and their parents in co-production

Focusing on how best to engage them in strategic planning and review activities; contributing to the development and evaluation of the SEND information report, and monitoring the local authority’s local offer of services.

Of course, this does not mean that everyone must be involved, but the opportunity should be available, and support provided to make participation possible.

Ensure person-centred approaches to planning and reviews for all pupils with SEND are in place 

The emphasis here should be on ensuring that pupils on SEN Support as well as those with EHC plans can fully participate in decisions that affect their education, and that their aspirations and views on learning outcomes are taken seriously.

Consideration should also be given to how pupils can participate in meetings (termly and annual reviews) and what changes professionals and parents might make to encourage meaningful participation.

Review support for phase transition

This applies to transition from early years to primary, primary to secondary and secondary to post-16.

Here, two key checks should be made.

First, it is important to ensure that planning is well in advance of phase transfers.

Second, key staff, including the SENCO must have sufficient time to liaise with colleagues in other schools and settings. Pupils/students may also benefit from visits and phased transfer arrangements to new schools and settings.

Review the role of the SENCO

With reference to leadership and strategic management, professional development needs (e.g. the National Award for SEND Coordination, succession planning etc.) – the 2014 SEND Code of Practice emphasises the importance of SENCOs and sets out their responsibilities.

However, research evidence published during 2016 shows that the role is not as well supported as it ought to be in all mainstream maintained schools (Robertson, 2016). Without the support and strategic drive of SENCOs teachers are unlikely to be able carry out their SEND responsibilities effectively.

SEND governance

School governing bodies have clear responsibilities in relation to SEND provision and the role of the SENCO. A sub-committee or individual SEND governing should play an active role in supporting the SENCO and challenging leaders in instances where the SENCO role cannot be carried out in accordance with Code of Practice guidance, or where aspects of SEND provision require development. An annual ‘health check’ on SEND governance will help to improve and sustain the quality of SEND provision.

A strong working relationship between governor and SENCO is paramount to effective provision.

Optimus members can download this toolkit of resources and talking points, which covers everything from termly reporting to monthly meetings. 

SEND aspects of school improvement

Progress made with changes made following the implementation of new legislation in 2014 needs to regarded as an integral part of school improvement. This means that it ought to feature in development plans and be evaluated on a regular basis.

For example, the ‘priorities’ listed here could usefully be incorporated into a ‘self-check’ monitoring approach to the development of SEND provision.

Increasingly, schools are operating beyond the direct control of local authorities. This means that they access school improvement ‘advice and challenge’ from a range of providers (e.g. individuals, educational consultancy organisations). In doing this, it is important know that providers have relevant skills and knowledge related to SEND.

The possible actions for schools to consider taking need to be considered in the context of services that local authorities must also be providing directly or indirectly through commissioning arrangements with external organisations.

Accurate and accessible information on local authority services must be set out in its Local Offer. I have already noted that the quality of these offers varies at the current time.

With this in mind, local authorities may need to review their progress in implementing the SEND reforms, and:

  • check that the Local Offer is comprehensive, accurate and co-produced – if it isn’t then updating is required and changes to service provision may be needed. In other words, changes may require the provision to be upgraded with additional resources and not just be ‘cosmetic’
  • check that the local area has the capacity to make the SEND reforms work as intended – this may be very difficult where financial resources are limited or decreasing, but in these instances concerns need to be brought to the attention of the DfE
  • check that key professional services are skilled enough to carry out their roles effectively (e.g. if teaching support, assessment or psychology services outsourced, is the quality of these as good as it should be and does service delivery have the required impact)
  • check that the ‘reach’ of service provision, monitoring and advice encompasses all provision set out in the Local Offer and is aligned with changes to organisational landscape of the educational system in England (e.g. the developing role of regional school commissioners and multi-academy trusts).

If school and local authorities take systematic action the progress of the SEND reforms will continue and the promise of system transformation is a possibility.

At the same time, there is enough government and other research available to remind us that the reforms will not be as successful as they could be unless policy adjustments are made and greater investment in the SEND system is made by the DfE.

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