Key changes to the special educational needs and disability (SEND) system in England, based on proposals outlined in the Support and Aspiration green paper fourteen months ago, have finally been announced in the recent Queen’s Speech (9 May). Her speech to MPs and peers outlined the government's legislative plans for the next session of Parliament and made specific reference to improving SEND provision for children and young people as part of the ‘family friendly’ policy, that is intended to be a hallmark of the second phase of its term in office.
Detail in the Queen’s Speech is not as important as the formal but brief signposting to legislative changes that the government is introducing. In the case of children and young people, the major legislative priority will be the new Children and Families Bill, the aim of which will be to improve the lives of all children and families. For professionals working in the field of special and inclusive education, the Queen’s statement that ‘My government will propose measures to improve provision for disabled children and children with special educational needs.’ is significant as the trigger for change that will lead to the implementation of key proposals set out in last year’s SEND green paper. These proposals will be debated in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords during the next two months when it will become clearer what is being introduced and the timescale for the introduction of new legislation. However, we already know that SEND pathfinders* are paving the way for the rollout across England of:
- a simpler but more effective single assessment process
- new Education, Health and Care Plans.
These will replace the current system of SEN statements and Learning Difficulty Assessments (for -16 to 25-year olds) and require changes to the statutory framework. So too, will the extension of the personal budget scheme currently being piloted by 20 local authorities, to include all eligible families who want to take up the option of managing key aspects of their child’s education and other provision through the use of direct payments. These changes will also need to be incorporated into an updated SEND Code of Practice.
Speaking immediately after the Queen’s Speech, children’s minister Sarah Teather said that new children and families bill
‘[W]ill mean that children and families get the support they need when they need it most - just after birth; if they have a disability or special educational need.’
This support will extend to young people up to the age of 25 and necessitate the extension of statutory protections currently given to children up to the age of 16.
We can also expect the government to strengthen the rights of parents to choose or express a preference for the kind of school they want their child to attend, and the Bill will no doubt include clauses to this effect, reversing the perceived bias toward inclusion that the Conservative party associated with the previous government.
Finally, the new Bill will include measures designed to ensure that:
- children and young people with SEND, and their families, receive timely and integrated education, health and care service support
- mediation is introduced to help settle disputes about aspects of assessment, placement and provision
- children have the right to appeal if they are unhappy with their support.
The government can finally take the ‘propose to’ label off its SEND reform priorities and we can now expect to see rapid changes being worked to ensure that by 2014 new legislation is in place. Detailed next steps, as well as a summary of responses to the SEND green paper are outlined in Support and Aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability – progress and next steps published on 15 May (www.education.gov.uk/childrenandyoungpeople/sen/a0075339/sengreenpaper).
For SEND professionals, parents, and other interested stakeholders, vital new information about the development of policy, provision and practice in the future needs to be ‘digested’.
For teachers the promise of a new streamlined Special Educational Needs Code of Practice in progress and next steps is particularly important because it should include essential advice designed to have a direct impact on practice. This will incorporate guidance on inclusive schooling that seeks to clarify policy and give greater control to parents as decision-makers. It will also provide long awaited information about the introduction of a single school based category of disability and special educational needs. Getting this right, in relation to identification, assessment and intervention, will be crucial because at the current time over 1.4 million children and young people in England’s schools fall into this category of need. Schools, teachers, and parents know there is a lot stake!
Progress and next steps also has important things to say about strengthening the knowledge and skills of all professionals supporting children and young people with both ‘high’ and ‘low’ incidence special educational needs or disabilities. This includes SENCOs and teachers wishing to gain specialist qualifications. New opportunities are already being made available, but whether these will be sufficient to meet demand when national education expenditure is subject to constraints remains to be seen. Perhaps the responsibility for supporting the specialist training of staff will become the prime responsibility of schools and their governing bodies in the future. Universities and other providers of training will increasingly need to be responsive to the needs of schools, and to adjust patterns of delivery and support to provide a ‘best fit’ for the professionals and organisations they seek to collaborate with.
The latest government plans for reforming the SEND system in England contain few surprises, and many of the ‘big ticket’ initiatives are already being road-tested so that when they are extended across the country in 2014 teething problems will have been overcome. In this regard, one of the biggest challenges to be addressed, and in a relatively short period of time, is in the area of ‘new accountability’. New legislation designed to ‘bite’ on education, health and care services - so that support for children, young people and families is integrated, personalised, effective, and available when it is needed – is critical to successful reform.
*Evaluation of the 20 SEND pathfinders will provide an evidence base for the changes to legislation. Interim reports are due in summer and autumn, with a final report in 2013.