The government’s new plans for improving education for disabled children and young people have been described as “wholly insufficient” and an “all-round failure” by disabled people’s organisations.
Alongside the long-awaited improvement plan, ministers have announced another “tranche” of new special schools across England, with 33 local authorities given permission last week to open a new special free school in their area, in addition to 49 special free schools that are “in the pipeline” and 92 that have already opened.
A Commons debate this week on the new Special Educational Needs and Disabilities and Alternative Provision* Improvement Plan featured a string of MPs welcoming the announcement of new special schools in their constituencies.
But in an initial response to the improvement plan for England, while it prepares a detailed report, The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) said it was “very disappointed” with the government’s plans.
It criticised the “all-round failure” to address the concerns ALLFIE raised in its response to the government’s review of the Children and Families Act, originally announced in September 2019.
The government’s improvement plan highlights how flaws in the special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) system are leading to children and young people’s needs being identified “late or incorrectly, with needs escalating and becoming more entrenched”.
This is leading to “low confidence in the ability of mainstream settings to effectively meet the needs of children and young people with SEND”.
As a result, families and providers “feel they need to secure EHCPs [education, health and care plans] and, in some cases, specialist provision as a means of guaranteeing support”.
This pulls resources “to the specialist end of the system”, meaning there is less funding for “early intervention and effective, timely support in mainstream settings”, which means “the vicious cycle continues”.
The improvement plan promises new national standards for the SEND and alternative provision system which the government says will place “a greater emphasis on the important role” played by mainstream settings in meeting the needs of “the majority of pupils with SEND”.
Ministers hope these national standards will lead to improved early identification of the needs of disabled children and young people and will “set out clear expectations for the types of support that should be ordinarily available in mainstream settings”.
They believe these “expectations” and improved mainstream provision will mean fewer families will feel they need to access support through an EHCP and often a special school placement.
The plan says there is evidence “that greater inclusion in mainstream settings can improve the academic achievement for children and young people with SEND and has neutral or small positive effects on the outcomes of those without SEND”.
It says: “A whole-setting inclusive ethos improves the sense of belonging for those with SEND and has been found to increase acceptance of difference amongst peers.”
And it adds: “We have heard that lessons must be learned from the past to prevent unintended consequences, such as a drift away from inclusion in mainstream education and over-emphasis on securing an EHCP in order to access support in the future.”
These comments appear to be the latest sign of a retreat from the policies of the 2010 Conservative-led coalition (PDF), which pledged to “end the bias” towards including disabled children in mainstream schools.
The improvement plan also says the government wants to see more children with SEN and in alternative provision reaching the expected standard in reading, writing and maths at the end of primary education, and achieving improved GCSE grades in English language and maths.
And it wants to see mainstream settings that are seen as “high-quality and inclusive, valuing those with SEND”.
The improvement plan says the SEND system has become “financially unsustainable”, with an increase in government “high needs” spending of more than 50 per cent between 2019-20 and 2023-24 leading to “no marked improvement in outcomes or experiences”.
Among its pledges are to pilot examining how to ensure there can be flexibilities to the standard English and maths requirements for apprenticeships; to improve the supported internships programme; to invest £18 million in doubling the capacity of the supported internships programme; and to improve the disabled students’ allowance process.
There will also be a “nationally consistent” EHCP process which “makes greater use of digital technology”, which should “reduce bureaucracy in the system”.
The improvement plan says the “vast majority” of pupils receiving alternative provision also have SEND.
It says there will now be a “three-tier” alternative provision system, with “targeted early support within mainstream school”, time-limited intensive placements in an alternative provision setting, and longer-term placements “to support return to mainstream or a sustainable post-16 destination”.
There will also be an improved regime of local authority inspections by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission, with “a greater focus on the outcomes and experience of children and young people with SEND and in alternative provision”.
There are measures in the plan to improve the SEND skills of school staff, train more educational psychologists, and improve access to speech and language therapy, as well as to develop new SEND and alternative provision practice guides, which will “equip frontline professionals with the skills and expertise to make best use of provision and to identify needs early, accurately, and consistently”.
Both ALLFIE and Disability Rights UK (DR UK) were highly critical of the improvement plan.
In its early response to the plan, ALLFIE highlighted the “zero mention” in the plan of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which makes it clear in article 24 that inclusive education is a human right.
It said the move to a three-tier alternative provision system would move the UK further away from the inclusive education elements of CRPD.
And it criticised the emphasis in the plan on opening new special schools and the government’s “continued strategic thinking towards segregation”.
Fazilet Hadi, DR UK’s head of policy, said disabled children and their families would be left “underwhelmed and disappointed” by the government’s plans.
She said: “The plans aren’t radical enough and investment in the future of disabled children is wholly insufficient.
“The vast majority of disabled children are educated in mainstream schools in classes that are too large, in inaccessible buildings and without sufficient learning assistants to provide personalised support.
“It’s good that the government is going to set standards and increase elements of the workforce but this just doesn’t go far enough.”
She added: “The growth in special schools is presented as a huge step forward, in fact it is a sign that inclusive mainstream education is failing.
“It is only relatively recently that disabled children were allowed to come to mainstream schools and now the clock is being turned back.
“Disabled and non-disabled children should be given the choice to be educated together.
“Of course, for this to work you need to create a mainstream system that is fully accessible and inclusive and provides personalised care and learning support to those who need it. Why has this vision been dropped?”
The Local Government Association said the measures in the plan “will help to fix some of the problems with the current system” but “do not go far enough in addressing the fundamental cost and demand issues that result in councils struggling to meet the needs of children with SEND”.
It said that improving levels of mainstream inclusion would be “crucial to the success of any reforms, reducing the reliance on costly special schools and other settings”.
It claimed that the gap between the cost of providing SEND support and the funding available to councils currently stands at about £1.9 billion a year and is projected to rise to £3.6 billion by 2025.
Claire Coutinho, the minister for children, families and wellbeing, said: “Parents know that their children only get one shot at education and this can have an enormous impact on their child’s ability to get on with life.
“Yet for some parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities, getting their child that superb education that everyone deserves can feel like a full-time job.
“The improvement plan that we are publishing today sets out systemic reforms to standards, teacher training and access to specialists as well as thousands of new places at specialist schools so that every child gets the help they need.”
*The Department for Education defines alternative provision as “education arranged by local authorities for pupils who, because of exclusion, illness or other reasons, would not otherwise receive suitable education; education arranged by schools for pupils on a fixed period exclusion; and pupils being directed by schools to off-site provision to improve their behaviour”
Picture: Michelle Daley (speaking, second from left), ALLFIE’s director, at an inclusive education protest
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