Tuesday morning whilst on buses and in cafés, taking my daughter to a Young Carer’s activity, and trying to keep her younger brother occupied, I was probably being one of those parents often criticised for ignoring their children whilst using their phone. I was trying to watch or at the very least listen to the Education Select Committee on SEND Reform.
money spent on the Reforms had at least partly been wasted
Now I have to declare up front, that I am a big fan of Matt Keer and his work. As is typical for him, he stuck to the facts and shared data and information that illustrated the points he wanted to make and only when pushed conceded more emotive points such as yes he felt the money spent on the Reforms had at least partly been wasted if culture change was the aim and that having to go through the SENDIST process had caused him incredible financial and emotional strain. I will come back to both of these points.
What struck me as particularly odd whilst I was watching, was why he had to do this work. I know him to be fully employed in a completed different industry, so why was he presenting data and information he admitted he’d had to glean from Freedom of Information requests and by bringing together data from different Government departments for comparison? Why was this information collection and monitoring not instead a part a the design of the SEND Reforms, (given how much money was provided for them)? The Government should already know what he shared, and it’s systematic collection over the past four years should have shaped the Reform development and implementation. Embedding will be impossible without it as people continue to argue over whose fault it is the Reforms are not working in the absence of any evidence (and they really according to The Guardian on 22nd Oct 2018). Scrutiny, auditing and accountability is what is really what is at fault here, but what about Culture?
They had money to change their ways of working, but they blew it!
Matt was quoted by Ben Bradley MP for Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, to have submitted as a part of his written evidence that ‘The SEND system is still incapable of channelling this funding in ways that meet needs lawfully. They had money to change their ways of working, but they blew it!’ Matt explained that he was referring to the approximately £600m given to Local Authorities to implement the reforms, and stated that ‘And yet it appears that at ground and operational level, there appears to be very little change in the way Special Educational Needs Administration works.’ Matt then went on to express his surprise that that much money had been provided without ring-fencing or any meaningful effort to ascertain impact.
The Chair asked Matt if he was saying that this £600m was wasted. Matt answered with ‘If its initial ambition was to enable the process of change from one legal system to another and also, as I remember Edward Timpson saying at the time to enable a process of culture change that puts the child or young person with special educational needs at the heart of the process, yes, I would say, that money has probably been wasted.’
when we think we’ve got provision within the authority that we want to use and therefore the floodgates argument becomes a strong one
In part 2 of the proceedings the Chair asked two Local Authority representatives if they thought that a lot of money is wasted by councils in terms of tribunals and legal action. Dr Jackie Lown, Head of Children and Young People, East Riding of Yorkshire Council, responded with ‘Where the expense of the money that would be required to make a placement that the parent wants which might be an independent specialist provider, would take a great deal of money out of our system when we think we’ve got provision within the authority that we want to use and therefore the floodgates argument becomes a strong one’ (Italics my emphasis).
The questions that went through my head were; Where is the child’s needs in this statement? Why is there an implication that a parent ‘wants’ something, rather than a child ‘needing’ something. Why is it that an independent specialist provider ‘would’ take money out of the system any more than an in-house provider might, especially if that in-house provider cannot meet needs in a way that an independent might to lessen that child’s dependency on the system as an adult or later in their educational career? Why is a Local Authority forcing parents to tribunal because they ‘think’ they’ve got provision within the authority and why on earth must they force one family who is only interested in the life chances of their child to fight at tribunal for that chance as if they were fighting some giant war against the Local Authority on behalf of all families. They are not, and hurting families as if they were is cruel.
Further, it will be interesting to see if any of these claims are substantiated in the written evidence as I’m certain Matt’s will be, or as I suspect, this is another case so typical throughout the SEND Reforms and during the planning stage of parents or parent representatives bringing evidence that can be substantiated with sources for follow up and Local Authorities making unsubstantiated claims but not being asked to substantiate it and never will be.
parents rarely if at all go through the tribunal process if they have not exhausted all avenues already and have become desperate
When asked if Local Authorities use Barristers against parents, Dr Lown replied that they chose to use a Barrister largely when the parent was also bringing a barrister, and that the expense then becomes very high. That might seem fair (though I’d like to understand what was meant by ‘largely’) but parents rarely if at all go through the tribunal process if they have not exhausted all avenues already and have become desperate for their child to not or any longer be failed. That some who can afford to might seek some support with what is an extremely complicated process for them but bread and butter for Local Authorities is hardly a basis for blaming them for Local Authority tribunal costs. But what is the cost to parents of this attitude?
When the Chair asked the panel if parents are really able to afford Barristers, they replied that yes they are, and David Clarke, Deputy Director for Education, Oxfordshire County Council included ‘increasingly’. Now I very much doubt that parents are ‘increasingly’ able to afford to use Barristers, but what I think this reflects is that parents are ‘increasingly’ desperate. Most parents I come into contact with who use Legal services do so through desperation and make sacrifices that reflects that desperation driven by absolute fear of the consequence to their child should they not.
Where are my wedding and engagement rings? They are in the bank account of an Independent Educational Psychologist.
Where is my 3rd bedroom (desperately needed with 3 kids of different genders), my garage and driveway? They are with a SEND Legal firm.
Where is my career? It changed to unpaid and increased hours grappling with SEND law, complaints processes, creating complicated childcare logistic arrangements to jump the arbitrary hoops set by Local Authorities to produce the evidence they pretended they needed to actually offer some support occasionally.
Where is my husbands promotion? It is with the Local Authority meeting organisers who would make meetings about meetings even less about Outcomes without his presence.
Where is my pension? It’s via my husband, ensuring that I must stay married for the rest of my life through dependency rather than choice.
this despair is created through the culture within Local authorities that perpetuate attitudes that parents have wants rather than that their children have needs
I consider myself one of the lucky ones. Through my considerable sacrifices (and sacrifices made on behalf of his siblings) my son has a chance. But these sacrifices were made from despair, not greed. And this despair is created through the culture within Local authorities that perpetuate attitudes shown in this Education Select Committee, that parents are considered to have wants rather than have their children’s needs at their hearts, that parents claim more than their fair share of funding if they use the legal process, or that they are a homogenous group, working together who must be stopped lest one parents successful securing of something their child needs leads to other parents recognising their child is entitled to that too. In actual fact, The Special Educational Needs and Tribunal Services (SENDIST) can only ever order a child’s legal entitlement regardless of what a parent might demand, and that is the maximum that can be gained from what Matt described as a process that had caused him incredible financial and emotional strain.
And yet I have sat in a number of Local Authority meetings where there is an air of belief amongst the professionals that parents pay for large bundles of evidence that the Local Authority simply can’t compete with, and that the solution to keeping within their High Needs Funding is to simply get better at tribunals. At one point David Clarke appeared to suggest that parents win 86% of SENDIST tribunals because they hire Barristers. Another unsubstantiated claim not up to the quality of figures and data presented by Matt.
The Chair asked whether parents were awarded costs for their tribunal wins. David Clarke responded that they can in certain cases, and this is correct, but those cases are only where the parents can prove clearly that the tribunal process had been unnecessary and a simple win is not enough. When the Chair asked where parents might get the money to afford Barristers, Ian Mearns, MP for Gateshead replied that they can access Legal Aid. This is untrue.
Legal Aid is available to those families without any assets including owning a home regardless of the size of the mortgage and can only apply for support preparing a case, not for representation during a case. It is in short supply and the amount available does not cover the usual cost of a case, so parents usually only have access to a paralegal often without specialist knowledge in SEND.
they had decided to home school because they had waited so long to have Education and Health Care Plans (EHCPs) put in place
And those who are unable to access legal aid, make such sacrifices or bear to navigate the system or simply cannot repeatedly, what happens to them? Well it is hard to say. It is likely that with the soaring numbers of families who are now Home Educating that many of the children with SEND for whom their parents did not feel adequately resourced to fight the system are amongst them.
Indeed Thelma Walker MP for Colne Valley told the Committee that she has recently had a delegation of parents of children with SEND come to see her and each of them said they had decided to home school because they had waited so long to have Education and Health Care Plans (EHCPs) put in place. When questioned on this, Dr Lown responded that ‘delays can be perceived as delays by parents’ implying that parents weren’t correct in their assertions and yet from the data presented on transfers to EHCPs from statements we know that delays are very much a part of the SEND process.
The culture changed so desperately needed clearly hasn’t happened and never was going to happen.
It is unsurprising to me, that when pressed, Matt conceded that he felt the money for the SEND Reforms had been wasted. The culture change so desperately needed clearly hasn’t happened and never was going to happen. Memorandums submitted by parents and parent groups in 2013 to inform the Children and Families Act 2014 Bill such as this I co-authored with Dr Debbie Sayers seemed to have been largely ignored in favour of those who lobbied on behalf of Local Authorities and concerns raised by Every Disabled Child Matters (EDCM) and IPSEA’s call for a moratorium also were ignored. In short, the parent voice wasn’t listened to. But what of Parent Carer Forums (PCFs)?
There is either no will, or no capacity among decision-makers to really listen and respond to parent voices
Well, SEND Family Voices, the PCF or Richmond and Kingston in their closing statement said: ‘We have spent considerable time trying to find a satisfactory way forward by discussing our position and the concerns we have for the parent community with Contact (who administer the funding and support for PCFs), the DFE, AfC, our Local Councillors and MPs’ and ‘There is either no will, or capacity amongst decision-makers to really listen and respond to parent voices even though parents and young people were supposed to be at the heart of the SEND Reforms. Furthermore, we believe that continuing to operate as a Parent Carer Forum in this climate risks lending a veneer or legitimacy to decisions taken by service providers that we feel is undeserved’.
And they are right. Even at the top, there appears no appetite for the voice of Parents and Carers. Consider the forthcoming Westminster Education Forum on 6th December 18 entitled ‘ The next steps for SEND policy – high needs funding, local SEND service provision and improving outcomes’ where James Frith MP for Bury North (who was present at the Education Select Committee), is a Keynote Speaker. The agenda states that there will ‘be an opportunity to discuss key themes emerging from the Education Select Committee’s SEND inquiry, and to assess what more might be done to address concerns from teaching unions and local authorities around the level and distribution of high needs funding’. Was the parent/carer voice deliberately omitted from this or are their concerns simply not and never were considered relevant to this discussion topic?
Matt told the Committee near the beginning that families he supports who are navigating the system now, ‘are facing exactly the same issues of difficulty in acquiring the support our children need happen for the same reasons that they happened under the 1996 Education Act set up’. The system has simply not budged.
When later, Lucy Powell, MP for Manchester Central asked the panel: ‘Have you got any ideas about how we can flip that system in that way? A brave system with a maybe a bit more money in the mix to flip round.’ Justin’s Cooke from Ambitious About Autism responded similarly to Matt’s at the beginning, that there is no auditing or tracking of how SEND money is spent. But I’d like to offer something to Lucy.
How about we go back and look again about what parents and parent organisations were saying in 2013 about why the SEND Reforms wouldn’t work? How about we look again at the good analyses of what was ‘wrong’ in the first place by those and reported in the Lamb and Bercow reports, and actually link them this time to changes going forward from here?
Why don’t we actually listen to parent voice in its genuine raw state?
Why don’t we put in proper regulation of the legislation, as well as audit and accountability systems that means instead of fighting parents with tribunals, Local Authorities fight them with demonstrable outcomes for their children, with transparency for their decision-making and funding decisions, with parent confidence in local provision through invest-to-save priorities that ensure children get the provision they need early enough to head of future costs and before parents have lost faith? Where transparency and accountability is clear, only then can the true cost of SEND be uncovered as well as wastage and as well as the cost of not investing. Why don’t we actually listen to parent voice, in its genuine raw state, and not sifted and interpreted by those reliant on Government funding contracts which tell them how they must report it?
Lack of money is the consequence of the failures of the SEND Reforms
Only in such a culture that we currently have can the money be wasted or cuts be able to happen to the extent they have. Consider what might happen should new money be found? Would it be put into services for children, or legal services to fight against ‘floodgates’ for example. A quick check of how some Local Authorities have spent their SEND Reform Implementation Grant would answer this. Lack of money is not and never was the cause of the failures of the SEND Reforms. Lack of culture change, lack of innovation and ambition, obfuscation and poor accountability was the cause.
And this failure is predominately due to the lack of service client voice at the planning and implementation stage in anything other than a tokenistic or channelled viewfinder where it can be interpreted by public services unsubstantiated and unchallenged.