ENGLAND - The two areas that the SEND Review cannot afford to forget

Professor Adam Boddison identifies two areas in which the 2021 SEND Review provides an opportunity to accelerate progress towards effective SEND provision and an inclusive education system.

The Children and Families Act 2014 was heralded as a game-changer in relation to SEND (Special Education Needs and/or Disabilities) and inclusion. In particular, the 2014 SEND reforms were designed to place children and young people and their families at the centre of decision making about the provision put in place to meet their needs. However, there is broad consensus that whilst the reforms were the right reforms, the implementation has fallen far short of the ambition, and there are three key reasons for this. 

Firstly, the general squeeze on education funding has significantly hampered implementation. Almost every Local Authority in England is struggling with significant deficits in their high needs budgets, and the most inclusive schools arguably face disproportionate financial pressure. Secondly, the reforms were not sufficiently tied into the wider changes happening in education at the time. Large numbers of schools were converting into academies, but little was done to emphasise the expectations of the SEND reforms as part of the academy conversion process. Lastly, the accountability system for schools continued to be primarily based on academic progress and attainment, which effectively penalised some of the more inclusive schools, where a broader notion of outcomes was valued. 

Fast-forward to 2021, and the government are undertaking a SEND Review designed to address the aforementioned implementation challenges and to make significant improvements to the way in which SEND and inclusion is realised. So what should we expect from the 2021 SEND Review? Whatever else the SEND Review covers, there are two areas that absolutely must be included. 

1. Getting it right for learners at SEN Support

The 2014 reforms had a significant focus on the statutory end of SEND provision, i.e. those with EHC (Education, Health and Care) plans, but there was insufficient attention given to the 1 million plus learners with SEND without EHC plans. In particular, the reforms failed to provide clear and unambiguous expectations in relation to the provision that should be ordinarily available in schools. 

One of the concerns about defining a minimum expectation was that there would be a ‘race to the bottom’ and that such a policy might encourage schools to only provide the minimum rather than aspire to much more. However, as a parent of a child with SEND said to me recently, by not defining a minimum there is no bottom. The result is significant geographical disparity in levels of provision. Two pupils with similar needs attending different schools may well have vastly different levels of support. Some schools will become ‘SEND magnets’: known for being inclusive and by extension overwhelmed with demand for places and relatively high proportions of learners with SEND. At the other end of the spectrum are schools who believe they cannot meet the needs of some learners with SEND well enough and so they actively discourage them from enrolling: “there is a school up the road that would be much better suited to meet your child’s needs”. 

The SEND Review needs to tackle this issue head on by setting out a clear national expectation of the baseline that is ‘ordinarily-available provision’ in schools. This should be supported by a local level analysis of the barriers with additional targeted funding provided where need to remove barriers. Once expectations are clear and the necessary resources are in place, accountability systems then need to be realigned so that leaders and governors can provide appropriate support and challenge. For example, SEND could be given an equivalent status to pupil premium with an annual report for governors that clearly sets out how resources are being used to ensure that ordinarily-available provision is in place and being exceeded, and the impact of this provision for learners with SEND. 

2. Giving SENCOs sufficient time and strategic responsibility

There are only two roles that are legally required in a school: the Headteacher and the SENCO. And of these, only the SENCO is required to be a qualified teacher. This emphasises just how important the role of the SENCO is. I would even go as far as saying the SENCO is the lynchpin of effective SEND provision in a school. 

Whilst this may seem obvious, the harsh reality is that around ¾ of SENCOs do not have sufficient time to ensure that provision is in place to meet the needs of learners with SEND in their schools. The time they do have is disproportionately spent on paperwork (typically gathering evidence for EHC needs assessments). Given that SENCOs are qualified teachers, who also have to complete the Masters level National Award in SEN Coordination and likely have other specialist qualifications, this makes the typical SENCO a very expensive administrator. 

The SEND Code of Practice (January 2015) did not go far enough in reinforcing the criticality of the SENCO role. For example, the requirement for SENCOs to be part of the leadership team was a ‘should’ rather than a ‘must’ within the statutory guidance, which means that too many SENCOs are not able to shape strategic decisions at the point at which they are made. 

The SEND Review offers an opportunity to shape policy and statutory guidance so that SENCOs are able to fulfil the requirements of their role effectively. For many SENCOs, 100% of their time needs to be fully protected to enable them to improve the proportion of high-quality inclusive teaching in their school. Some SENCOs will need dedicated administrative support so the time they do have can be spent on those areas where they can have maximum impact on SEND provision. In particular, the SEND Review must seek to strengthen statutory guidance so that all SENCOs are part of the senior leadership team. 

Once the government publishes its thinking in relation to the SEND Review, there will be a period of consultation and feedback. When this happens, it is essential that there is engagement with the full breadth of the sector. SEND is not niche, it is everybody’s responsibility. 

About the Author

Professor Adam Boddison is CEO at nasen and Chair of Whole School SEND. He is a National Leader of Governance for the Department for Education and a Trustee at two Multi-Academy Trusts, spanning primary, secondary and specialist settings. Adam chairs the National SEND Reference Group and is a Trustee of the grant-giving charity The Potential Trust. He is a Visiting Professor at the University of Wolverhampton, a published author and a qualified clinical hypnotherapist.  

nasen is the National Association for Special Educational Needs – a charitable organisation that exists to support and champion those working with, and for, children and young people with SEND and learning differences. nasen seeks to ensure that all education practitioners across early years, schools, post-16 and wider settings are given the information and support required so that children and young people, particularly those with SEND and learning differences, can thrive.

From SENCOs to senior leaders, teachers to TAs, local authorities to leadership boards and beyond, nasen works to ensure that every part of the education workforce is equipped to understand, identify and support those with SEND and learning differences. Rooted in research and evidence-informed best practice, nasen provides free resources and support while offering structured programmes of professional development, accredited training and conferences as well as a package of SEND services throughout the UK and internationally.