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SEND reforms pilot already nine months behind schedule

The government’s £70 million programme to pilot the SEND and alternative provision reforms is “about nine months” behind schedule, with some changes going down like “a bucket of cold sick”.

The Department for Education previously announced the “change programme” would test its proposed reforms to the support systems for children with special educational needs and disabilities over a period of two to three years.

That meant reforms – including new national standards – were already potentially not going to be rolled out until 2026.

Nine change programme partnerships, each made up of several councils, are trialling the changes.

Today, Mark Vickers, chief executive of Olive Academies, which is one of four organisations working on the change programme, told the Schools and Academies Show it was behind schedule by “about nine months”.

“And that’s down to particularly the startup phase. The DfE have obviously been very open about this, it took a lot longer than was anticipated. Obviously, coordinating that number of local authorities into change programme partnerships took longer than anticipated.”

Proposals put forward by the government include plans for controversial “tailored lists” of schools for parents of SEND children to choose from, as well as digitised education, health and care (EHC) plans and mandatory mediation when parents dispute a council’s decision.

Some reforms working better than others

Amanda Allard, director of the Council for Disabled Children, another organisation involved in the programme, said the proposals for EHC plans, strengthened mediation and tailored lists had gone down “like a bucket of cold sick”.

On EHC plans, she said “I think essentially people aren’t keen on change” and often local areas have put an “awful lot of effort into co-producing their own template”.

“They’ve had quite a lot of training and they’ve used workshops to develop the process that sits around the plan, you know, and they kind of just feel like everybody’s chucked that pile of cards up in the air and are saying ‘oh no, use this’.

“But actually people who understand the law really like the plan, parents like the plan, so this is kind of maybe a mixed hit.”

Concerns about mediation and tailored lists “is really about people feeling that, if that theory of change is right, then why aren we focusing on that specialist end. Why is all of that change capacity up there thinking about that?

“And also, there is a bit of an issue…until we get the theory of change moving in the right direction and us in a position of meeting more children’s needs in mainstream provision, all of the special schools are full, most of the APs are full.

“So to some extent, there is a danger that an advisory tailored list will be a bit useless, because it’ll tell you provision that the local authority can’t promise that you can have.”

However, some elements of the proposals have gone down better during the pilot, Allard’s presentation said.

These include a three-tier model for AP and a plan to introduce statutory local multi-agency panels to review and make recommendations on requests for EHC needs assessments.

DfE to decide if testing needs extending

The contract – which was awarded to Olive, the CDC, Impower consultancy and PA Consulting as the REACh Consortium last year – runs until March 2025. Allard acknowledged there would be a general election “in the middle of there”.

“But given the size of the problem, and the fact that it’s not going to go away, I think we’re reasonably confident that a new government are unlikely to just kind of chuck it all out and start again.”

The consortium will test the reforms until next year “and then the department will have to make a decision about whether or not they want testing to go on longer”.

“Some of them will require legislative change. And obviously, that will not happen until there’s a new parliament.”

But Allard indicated the DfE would allow for non-mandatory adoption of successful reforms.

“There might be some things like, for instance, with the EHC plan format, if actually, that seems to be working well, then what would happen is the department would give people the opportunity to adopt it.”

She also revealed they had been a “little frustrated with the department” over sharing the learning from the programme.

“The EHC plan template has got out there because somebody’s been naughty and shared it, we knew that would happen. At the moment, the rapid cycle, testing information is just going to the department.”

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