Judging the effectiveness of the SEND reforms 2014

The Children and Families Act 2014 brought in a number of substantial reforms to several areas of child and familial legislation, and was largely considered to be ground-breaking at the time of its introduction, creating larger reform than had previously been seen. The areas the act covered were expansive, ranging from parental leave and flexible working, to foster care, and special education needs and disability (SEND).

In the 4 years since the Act’s introduction, several key issues have arisen across the board (as one would expect with such a new and overtly ambitious Act), and which are still largely being tackled today, especially regarding the SEND reforms the Act introduced. However, whilst the SEND reforms 2014 have indeed sparked major frustrations, particularly concerning EHCP timescales and the ineffective nature of SEN policy in schools, positive effects have also been evidenced, and adequate reasoning given for the failures shown. Whether this reasoning makes up for the prevention and delay of SEND support, which has been experienced by so many since the Act’s introduction, is highly debatable, and will be discussed below.

For a full report of the 2014 Act’s changes to SEND, including the proposed advantages and disadvantages to parents/children, local authorities (LAs), schools and health authorities specifically, please see our extensive post on changes in special education needs.

Issues Found as of 2018 with the 2014 Act’s SEND Reforms;

As stated above, in the past 4 years, several issues regarding SEND have arisen since the 2014 Act’s implementation. The 3 most consistently occurring and significant of these are as follows;

  1. EHCP timescale: Unfortunately, an extended timeframe between applying for and receiving SEND support was always to be expected, as the 2014 Act did not create a mechanism for ‘transforming’ pre-existing statements into EHCPs*. Consequently, every child with a statement at the time of the Act’s introduction had to be re-assessed before being issued with an EHCP. Upon the new system’s implementation, the government therefore found itself tasked with both re-assessing all pre-existing SEND qualified individuals, as well as new EHCP applicants. This mammoth task therefore set processing times on the backfoot straight away; a problem which has persisted since. This issue of excessively lengthy EHCP timescale between application and reception has been branded unreasonable by many. Even a Department of Education adviser admitted that major inadequacies in the SEND system existed in this regard, with some families experiencing up to a 90 week EHCP timescale, as opposed to the 20 week deadline.

The wait times parents have faced are not only frustrating, but have the potential to be detrimental; unsurprisingly, numerous parents have stated that the delay in receiving support has negatively affected their child’s progress across all areas, including social/communication skills, behavioural and educational development. The importance of this impact has been summarised well by Mark Level, chief of the National Autistic Society, who stated ‘every day a child spends without the right education reduces their potential to succeed in life and become part of a strong and diverse UK workforce’. In this sense, it seems clear that the SEND reforms 2014 have negatively impacted those they seeked to help.

*EHCPs are legal documents provided by LAs to describe a young person or child’s special education needs or disabilities.

  1. Lack of SEN support: The second most commonly voiced issue has undoubtedly been the lack of support available for pupils classed as possessing SEN but who do not qualify for EHCPs, which stems from the changes made within the 2014 Act regarding the categorisation of SEN. Before the SEND reforms 2014, pupils were classified as either ‘school action’ (with their school giving them support), ‘school action plus’ (with their school and LA giving them support), or as requiring a complete ‘statement’ of special educational needs. The 2014 act changed this three-tier system to contain just two tiers; pupils eligible for a legally-binding EHCP (such as those previously on statements), and less severely disabled students, who require only ‘SEN support’. SEN support students receive support from their schools according to the SEND code of practice.

This absence of differentiation has, predictably, caused issues, both for students and teachers. Essentially, an EHCP offers protection (due to its legal nature), whereas a child with SEN support depends solely on how their school interprets the SEND code of practice. As stated by Malcolm Reeve,  SEND’s Executive Director, whilst the SEND code of practice does guide schools on how to support pupils with special needs, it is not legally binding, and at best, vague. SEN policy in schools can therefore vary drastically, and has no set template. Practice for SEN pupils has consequently been recognised by Reeves as a key area of improvement within the SEND reforms 2014.

These thoughts on SEND provision were echoed by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission’s findings in their joint 2016 inspection and subsequent report on SEND provision in LAs. This report found SEN policy in schools to be insubstantial, with the legally-bound EHCP students receiving much better care, in turn creating a ‘golden ticket’ mentality surrounding EHCPs, and evidencing that SEN support students are generally being done a great disservice. This realisation is even more worrying when considering that, as of November 2017, 242,185 EHCP’s had been issued, whereas over 1 million students were placed on SEN support, and whilst the percentage of EHCPs issued has remained constant, the number of SEN students has increased.

In addition to this, according to DfE statistics, only 2% of those needing SEN support have been placed in special schools, where the SEN policy is satisfactory- again evidencing that SEN students are not having their needs met. Some councils have even been ordered to write a statement of actions as their SEN provision has been so poor, whilst the SEN support category in general, and the SEN policy in schools it has subsequently birthed, has come under fire for being too vague; both in its’ purpose and execution.

  1. Understanding of teachers: Leading on from this lack of support, another issue with the SEND reforms 2014 has been the clear lack of understanding from teachers regarding what exactly SEN students require. Whilst schools have been unable to decipher the vague legislation regarding SEN policy in schools (see above), teachers specifically have found supporting SEN students problematic due to the absence of SEN-specific training, with 88% of school leaders believing standard teacher training does not adequately prepare teachers for supporting pupils with SEND. Despite this lack of training, according to the SEND reforms 2014 the responsibility of caring for SEN students is placed largely, if not entirely, upon the teacher. Teachers are therefore becoming increasingly over reliant on SENCOs, and this problem is only amplified when considering Autism specifically. 50% of teachers say they do not have the correct understanding of autism, and therefore don’t understand how to support SEN pupils on the autism spectrum. This deficiency in understanding has been reflected by parents and carers, who’ve strongly voiced their belief that Autistic children have been let down by the SEND reforms 2014. According to the NAS, parents/carers of autistic children have been facing ‘exhaustive battles’ to get the support they need, with half of parents dissatisfied with the SEND process, which has increased substantially since the 2014 reforms.

Aside from these 3 key issues, other difficulties have also been expressed regarding the SEND reforms 2014. There has been an increased gap between children’s needs and what is being provided, and a notably greater struggle to acquire the correct services. Families are now therefore more likely to take legal action to secure an EHCP, such as taking LAs to tribunal, due to a lack of support needs being met, including speech, language and occupational therapy. Another commonly occurring issue is a deficient of budget, with 82% of English schools claiming inadequate SEND funding. As a council decides whether an applicant receives an EHCP based on factors including school funding available, this clear lack of budget presents a major issue.

The DfE’s Response

The DfE has publicly acknowledged that due to the size of the 2014 system shake-up they always knew it would take ‘a long time’ for the SEND reforms 2014 to fully and successfully come into effect, emphasising just how progressive the reforms within the act are. The DfE has also pointed out examples of the Act’s successes, including improvements in the EHCP timescale (as noted in 2017), with SEND advisors now targeting areas with delays. They also noted how parents are now involved in more areas, with better parent-carer voice representation overall due to the SEND reforms 2014.

Conclusion; Have the SEND Reforms 2014 Been Effective?

Whilst clear issues have arisen since the 2014 Act’s introduction, strategies have been actioned by the DfE to counteract them. In March 2018, plans were announced for the creation of 14 new special schools across the country, the overall school budget was protected, and funding increased for high SEN by over £90m, with the hope that this would increase access to effective education for children on SEN support. SEND training was also announced as becoming part of the core content for all new teacher training, with the aim of effectively training teachers to all SEN needs.

However, despite these positive changes, and the fact that parents with EHCPs are more satisfied on the whole, the number of plans being issued remains substantially lower than statements. Furthermore, 4 years on from the SEND reforms 2014, as of March 2018 students were still waiting to be transferred from SEN statements to EHCP’s, and in September 2018, the entire SEND system was labelled ‘a system in crisis’ by the National Association of Head Teachers.

Some benefit of the doubt can be given due to the size of the SEND reforms 2014, which gives reason to believe it is merely and understandably taking time to see the desired results. However, given the sensitive nature of this legislation, harking back to NAS’s earlier statement regarding the lifelong impact of delayed SEND support, the real question is whether this is acceptable, or if irreparable damage has already been done.

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