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SEND challenge ‘enormous’ admits Labour’s Bridget Phillipson

Labour will wait until after the election to set out its full plans to tackle the “enormous” challenge facing the SEND system, Bridget Phllipson has said.

The shadow education secretary told journalists at the ASCL school leaders’ union conference that she was “not prepared” to make families promises she could not keep as she was pressed repeatedly on the party’s lack of a plan for the sector.

Labour has said little on SEND, and is keeping quiet about its plans for all aspects of education funding, around which many of the issues facing the sector revolve.

Phillipson said the “challenge on SEND is enormous” and admitted it would “take us time to turn that around” if Labour forms the next government. She promised an “early focus on reforming the system”, and early intervention in children’s lives.

“Far too many of the problems that we’re seeing at the moment are coming about because of long waiting lists, a lack of early intervention or lack of early help, and it’s about those services that sit around families, as well as the support that we need to see within our schools.

“But I’m in no doubt as to the scale of the challenge. And we will need to get a much fuller understanding from government if we win the election as to the full extent of just how chaotic the system has become and what needs to change.”

’14 years of failed reform’

She said providing support earlier to pupils with less complex needs would “free up” specialist provision for those who need “ongoing support”.

The government is in the process of reforming the SEND system. It published an implementation plan last year, but changes are due to take several years to be enacted. Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, acknowledged last year the system was “lose, lose, lose” for families.

Phillipson described 14 years of “failed reform that has left us in a position where children and families are the losers in all of this, where schools are really struggling to meet the demands that they place upon them”.

She said there was a need to “do more” to support school staff with training and development to help a “more diverse range of need” in mainstream schools.

‘Failed promises’

Pressed further, she said she was “only prepared to make commitments I’m absolutely confident that I can keep, and as I was saying in my speech, promises that I know I can deliver”.

“The families of children with SEND have had enough of failed promises and enough of support that’s never materialised. They face far too adversarial a system, and the change that will be required in terms of the landscape overall, in our school system around SEND is serious, it is necessary, but it has to be right.

“I think families of children with SEND have had enough of a system that isn’t delivering but have had enough of promises from politicians that just hadn’t been kept and I’m not prepared to do that.”

Labour ‘understands’ need for funding certainty

Phillipson was also pressed by Schools Week about funding. The party has said it will wait to see the state of the nation’s finances after the next election before making any commitments.

But schools have also raised serious concerns about the timing of school funding decisions. Teacher pay decisions are usually made right at the end of summer term, after budgets have been set.

And the government has said the next spending review will take place after the next election, meaning schools won’t know about their funding levels from next March until much later in the year.

Sir Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves

Phillipson said Labour would face a “really difficult set of public finances, a really tough fiscal inheritance” if it wins, “so we would need to take a view as to where we are”.

But she said she and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves “understand the arguments” about predictability of funding.

“Overall, not simply where we talk about funding, we do need a longer-term approach in terms of the shift that we need to see, that’s why Keir Starmer has talked about a decade of national renewal.

“Some of the changes that we will need to deliver if we win will require a longer term view, also around how we prevent problems becoming more acute, how we make sure we’ve got earlier support for children and families.”

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