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Four reforms to put the SEND system on a long-term footing

A lack of policy attention on SEND over the past decade has led to little improvement in delivery, despite significant increases in funding.

Almost 40 per cent of young people are now assigned the label of SEND at some point in their school career. This is clearly too high a number to deal with through specialist or personalised intervention. Meanwhile, evidence points to this categorisation being both inconsistent in its application and ineffective in attracting the necessary support.

Parental complaints and legal disputes continue to rise, due to poor implementation of policy which pitches schools against parents.

Unlike other important policy areas, however, there is little in the way of comprehensive end-state policy solutions for the SEND system. This is urgent work for a new government serious about improving education. Here are four policies which should feature in this reform programme.

A new promise of ‘dignity, not deficit’

We need a bold vision of inclusion which normalises children’s different learning needs rather than seeing them as ‘special’. This promise challenges our outdated, medicalised model of inclusion based on ‘deficit’, which too quickly reaches for labels and prescribes provision that is ‘additional and different’.

This vision requires action now, but will require sustained leadership and time to realise. Through ten years of rebuilding and renewal, it should become normal for the vast majority of learning needs to be more precisely understood and catered for in mainstream schools through ordinarily available provision.

By 2034, we should aspire for a more expert and professionalised system in which special school admissions are de-coupled from mainstream inclusion and the ‘SEND’ label retired from use.

Investment in school workforce expertise

Expert teaching benefits everyone – particularly those who find learning most difficult.

To build more classroom expertise, we should invest in a national programme of professional development for every member of staff working in a school.

Reform to professional development for early career teachers and school leaders’ access to fully-funded and redesigned professional qualifications have been a recent policy success.

Expanding this entitlement, we can be ambitious forall teachers and support staff to access an ongoing entitlement of rigorously designed and nationally accredited professional development, with SEND content at the core and optional areas of specialism.

Early and evidence-informed intervention

The most important thing we can do for children who need more support to succeed is to identify their needs and intervene early, to avoid gaps opening up before they start school. Reforms to childcare and early years can ensure more have their needs identified and receive targeted support so they are ‘school ready’ by 5.

For pupils who need help at different times throughout their school careers, the current quality of intervention is variable. Investment in research so schools can better understand which intervention programmes have impact (and under which conditions) can improve quality and consistency.

A national commission on specialist placements

There are not enough high-quality and affordable specialist school places. A national commission should undertake work to fully understand and plan for the places required in the next decade and to deliver this through a range of different methods.

School trusts should lean into this challenge more, and work with different partners locally to ensure every child has a high-quality suitable place in a local school.

With pupil numbers falling, we can take advantage of classroom space in mainstream schools. But to ensure quality, we need a well-designed programme of development to help schools and trusts create a high-quality resource base, specialist units and satellite provision. This is also an opportunity to reset roles and responsibilities and galvanise relationships within local partnerships.

Reforming the SEND system comes with a price tag, but the cost of doing nothing is already eye-watering. Money that is currently plugging holes in budget deficits, being squandered on legal fees or paying for expensive private provision could be transformational if directed to the front line.

It will take time and leadership, but ensuring a great education for every child and restoring the social contract between schools and parents are urgent priorities for the next administration. It can’t remain on the ‘too difficult’ pile.

This article is part of a series of sector-led policies in the run-up to the next general election. Read all the others here

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