The Future of SEN

The government has now published its long awaited response to the consultation that followed the publication of the SEN Green paper. A draft bill is due to be published in the summer with actual legislation to follow later in the current session.

The aims of a more streamlined system, better information for families, more early intervention and better trained staff are ones no one could argue with and some of the proposals may help achieve these things. There is however a basic naivety about the government’s proposals which suggests that they have limited understanding of how SEN systems work and a touching optimism about how much effect their proposals will have.

Fundamentally the document fails to come to terms with the basic reality that spending on special educational needs, just like health care and social care, has to be rationed. There is not a bottomless pit of resources and local authorities have always had to try to balance the resources available against the (always greater) needs of the young people. Everyone, including central government, then turns round and castigates local authorities for being uncaring and insensitive. Nothing in these proposals will change that reality and the result is still sometimes going to be disagreement, even conflict.

Budget cuts already mean that all over the country there are cuts in Educational Psychology services and other specialist SEN teaching services.  This makes a nonsense of pledges to speed up assessment and improve support. It can only make conflicts in the system worse.

Lurking in the small print of these proposals is the notion of contracting out SEN assessment to the voluntary sector. This we are told will make the process more independent. But who then will be responsible for keeping provision within budget? Making decisions about services when you don’t have financial responsibility for them is a recipe for chaos. Maybe it would be better to cut costs by using someone like Atos with all their splendid experience of assessing people with disabilities.

As ever, academies and free schools are the magic bullet that will transform the system. The first coalition achievement with regard to schools is apparently “we have given more schools the opportunity to convert to Academies and gain the freedom to innovate, improve standards and raise the achievement of all pupils.”  Locally maintained schools are of course strictly forbidden from doing any of these things. You might want to rewrite the sentence as “we have given more schools the freedom to manipulate their admissions criteria and to offer a curriculum that is only appropriate for academic high achievers”  

Another reality of course is that academies – especially the Gove academies with their favoured intakes – are taking funding away from local SEN services and can spend it on whatever they feel like.

The other big plank of the government’s paper is to explore giving people personal budgets to purchase their own support. It’s far from clear what kinds of support this would apply to but there is a proposal to “set up trials to test direct payments to families for education support”. Still pretty fuzzy – how would this work against the conclusions of the statutory assessment process? Would it mean parents can decide for themselves what the appropriate support is and ignore the judgement of the specialist services? If not, what does it mean? And of course it will be cash limited so parents will not necessarily get what they want, rather what they can afford. It sounds like a recipe for disputes and for an extra bureaucratic layer of key workers and contract writing.

Of course, one thing it could mean is that parents will be able to buy from private providers. This would represent yet another step in the privatisation and fragmentation of education. Crucially, if some people opt out of a service, it won’t be there for those who do want it, whether you’re talking about school transport or direct education services like teachers of the deaf. That, as in so many other areas, is the reality of this government’s approach to public services.