DfE announces major review of SEND system

Neil Puffett
Friday, September 6, 2019

Progress made over the past five years in improving support for children with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) will be subject to a major review, the government has announced.

The Department for Education said the review will aim to improve services available to families who need support, equip staff in schools and colleges to respond effectively to their needs as well as "ending the postcode lottery they often face", amid concerns the system is struggling to cope with rising demand.

The move comes after the government announced a funding boost of £700m in 2020/21 for pupils with the most complex needs.

As part of the Children and Families Act 2014 statements of special educational need were replaced with education, health and care (EHC) plans in order to provide children with special needs and disabilities more joined-up support from education, health and social care services.

But the process of transferring children with existing statements to the new system, and dealing with rising numbers of new applications has been challenging for local authorities, with concerns raised about levels of government funding to provide adequate support.

Last year, it emerged that the number of children being refused formal special educational needs (SEN) support following an assessment has more than tripled since ambitious government reforms came into effect.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: "I want parents to know that we're committed to boosting outcomes and ensuring the right support is in place for children with special educational needs, by breaking down the barriers to a good education and making sure the system works for families.

"That is why the Prime Minister committed to providing an extra £700m next year, an 11 per cent increase, to make sure these children can access the education that is right for them.

"Our reforms in 2014 gave vital support to more children, but we know there have been problems in delivering the changes that we all want to see.

"So it's the right time to take stock of our system and make sure the excellence we want to see as a result of our changes is the norm for every child and their families."

Around 350,000 children and young people aged 0-25 currently receive support via an EHC plan. Of those in schools around half (130,000) are continuing in mainstream education.

The DfE said the review will look at the how the system has evolved in the past five years, how it can be made to work best for all families and ensure quality of provision is the same across the country. It will also explore the role of health care in SEND in collaboration with the Department of Health and Social Care.

In addition, it will seek to align incentives and accountability for schools, colleges and local authorities to make sure they provide the best possible support for children and young people with SEND, and try to understand what is behind the rise in applications for EHC plans.

Rachel Dickinson, president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, said: "The 2014 reforms were ambitious, rightly raising expectations and extending support from birth up to 25 years, however, there is growing frustration and record levels of dissatisfaction despite record spending. 

"We therefore welcome this review, which follows confirmation of an 11 per cent uplift in funding to support learners with special educational needs and disabilities in 2020/21 earlier this week. £700m is a lot of money but by itself it will not address the systemic challenges we now face in the delivery of our statutory duties, particularly in relation to 19- to 25-year-olds requiring education, health and care plans. 

"This older cohort is growing faster than many others and children's services have not yet been funded to meet their needs."

Jolanta Lasota, chief executive of Ambitious about Autism, said: "We supported the reforms of 2014 which were designed to provide more children with tailored support to ensure their special educational needs were met.

"However, we know the system is beset with problems, with many parents facing lengthy battles - and sometimes costly tribunals - to get their children they support they need to thrive at school.

"We welcome this review and we hope it will result in smoother, joined up working between education, health and care services and enable parents to work more collaboratively with local decision-makers to ensure children have the best support."

The government also announced that Tony McArdle, lead commissioner at Northamptonshire County Council, will be the new chair of the SEND System Leadership Board, which brings together sector leaders across education, health and social care to drive improvements. He will also act as an independent advisor to the review, alongside Education Endowment Fund chair Sir Kevan Collins and Anne Heavey, national director of Whole School SEN.