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Rona Tutt’s SEND Summary – October 2022

An unusually long gap since my previous SEND Summary happened to coincide with a time of unprecedented turmoil in Parliament. We used to bemoan the fact that education secretaries rarely lasted longer than a couple of years. Little did we realise that it was possible to have three in three days! Since then, there have been two further changes, after Liz Truss replaced James Cleverly with Kit Malthouse, and Rishi Sunak replaced James with Gillian Keegan.

Secretary of state for education: Gillian Keegan

Gillian Keegan, MP for Chichester, has had a brief spell at the Department for Education (DfE) previously. Welcoming her appointment, Paul Whiteman said:  

“School leaders will be hopeful that in Gillian Keegan we might now finally have an education secretary who understands that education should be seen not as a drain on the nation’s finances, but as the best investment that can be made in our country’s future – and who stays the course to the next election to make education a priority for this government again.”

Before she was appointed, Gillian had spoken about how SEND funding is an issue close to her heart as she has a nephew who has Down’s syndrome. During a relatively short time in Parliament, as well as helping the Down’s Syndrome Bill to become an act, Gillian has spoken about Tourette’s Syndrome, autism and neurodiversity; support for young carers; children’s mental health, and the need for more psychologists and psychiatrists. She warned in 2020 that special schools in her constituency were oversubscribed and needed capital investment to expand. While the responsibilities of her ministerial team are still being finalised, it will make a refreshing change to have an Education Secretary who sees SEND as an integral part of education rather than an afterthought.

Ministers returning to the DfE: Robert Halfon and Nick Gibb

Another hopeful sign is the return to the DfE of Robert Halfon, MP for Harlow. Since leaving the DfE in 2017, he has been a very industrious chair of the Education Committee, including having an in-depth look at the SEND system. Special educational needs and disabilities was published in October 2019. The final paragraph in the summary of its findings reads as follows:

“Special educational needs and disabilities must be seen as part of the whole approach of the Department’s remit, not just an add-on. The Department for Education has an approach which is piecemeal, creating reactive, sticking-plaster policies, when what is needed is serious effort to ensure that issues are fully grappled with, and the 2014 Act works properly, as was intended.” (2019:7)

Other inquiries the committee undertook while Robert was chair included: Strengthening Home Education; Prison Education; Children’s Homes; School and College Funding; and the Catch-up Programme. 

Another former minister returning to the DfE is Nick Gibb, MP for Bognor Regis. Few will have forgotten his previous 10-year tenure at the DfE, where, surviving several changes of education secretary, he appeared unsackable until Boris returned him to the backbenches. There is no doubt about his commitment to education, but his focus on rigorous academic standards and testing was exemplified by his approach to reading and the introduction of a phonics screening check for six-year-olds. Helping young children to understand that reading is about getting meaning from the printed page or scree isn’t achieved by using pseudo-words.

If there has to be a check, it would make more sense to keep the 50% that are actual words and remove meaningless words, such as: quab, grux, smung, tirt and whike, which were used in this year’s check. The other half of the check could then focus on pupils being able to recognise some of the most frequently used words where ‘sounding out’ doesn’t work, eg: the, of, to, you, he, have and was. This would also help children to get to grips with the fact that around half the words in the English language are irregular.

SEND green paper 2022

When I last wrote, the consultation on the green paper, SEND Review: Right support, right, place, right time, was underway. This was concluded towards the end of July, and there have been thousands of responses. The government is expected to report on these responses before the end of the year. Alison Ismail, who has been appointed as director of SEND and alternative provision at the DfE, has confirmed that, by then, a national SEND and altnernative provision (AP) board will have been established. On the board will be people working across education, health and care; parents and carers; and civil servants. A national SEND and AP improvement plan will set out how the work will move forward in delivering improvements to the SEND and AP system. 

Some of us have been concerned that, with all the political changes, everything might come to a standstill – again. However, we have been assured that, although there may be some time before there is room in the parliamentary programme for a bill, there is much that can be taken forward in the meantime. Teams have been set up within the DfE to work on the detail of some of the proposed changes. This includes testing out some of the ideas. Meetings I’ve attended this term include the Special Educational Consortium (SEC), the National SEND Forum (NSENDF) and joint union meetings on SEND Issues. All have had significant input from the DfE, which has given updates on what is happening and has also been prepared to listen to a range of views. 

Josh McAlister’s review of children’s social care

Although the final report of this review came out a couple of months after the SEND green paper had appeared, in answer to one of Josh’s 85 recommendations, a Children’s Social Care National Implementation Board has already been established. The DfE has said that “the board brings together strategic leaders and people with lived experience of the care system to advise on the reform programme for children’s social care". It was due to be chaired by Brendan Clarke-Smith, who, at the time of the announcement, was the children and families minister. He is no longer in this post, and to date no new chair has been announced.

However, board members have been named, and they include: 

  • Amanda Spielman, HMCI
  • Isabelle Trowler, chief social worker for Children and Families for England 
  • Dame Rachel De Souza DBE, England’s Children’s Commissioner. 

New framework for area SEND inspections

In 2016, Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) were given five years to inspect every area, in order to see how well they were embedding the 2014 SEND reforms. These inspections showed that more than half of the local areas needed to improve, and they were required to produce a written statement of action (WSoA). A consultation on the proposed framework indicated that people were largely in favour of the changes, which would mean more regular contact between the inspectors and local areas. In addition, the nature of the visits would change in terms of hearing more from children and their families about their experiences of the SEND system and less from those leading local services for education, health and social care. Over the last year, Ofsted and CQC have been piloting this new framework, with the intention of implementing it early in 2023. In keeping with the SEND green paper, inspections will include an increased focus on AP.

Senior mental health lead (SMHL) training

For schools and colleges in England who haven’t already applied, opportunities for a grant of £1,200 are still available, provided the SMHL training begins within the financial year 2022 to 2023. Although this training isn’t compulsory, it has generally been found to be very usefu, and a number of quality-assured providers have been given the DfE’s stamp of approval. As it is not known if this training will continue to be funded in future, anyone who is interested should check out the details as soon as possible by visiting https://onlinecollections.des.fasst.org.uk/fastform/senior-mental-health-leads.

NAHT’s annual SEND Conference

After being unable to meet face to face for some time, this year’s SEND Conference was held in Manchester on Wednesday 19 October, under the title Reforming the SEND system: accountability, funding and interagency working. It was great to meet some of you there, and I will be able to provide a fuller account in next month’s summary, by which time the SEND Conference working group will have met to go through the feedback and to start planning next year’s conference.

At this point, suffice it to say that it was a very successful event with excellent speakers and workshop leaders. Added to this, was the delight delegates expressed in being able to network again with each other, the speakers, the exhibitors, and members of NAHT’s SEND council. And last but not least, being able to meet national vice president Simon Kidwell, who, knowing the area well, was in an ideal position to welcome us to Manchester and to be with us throughout the day.

First published 07 November 2022

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