Steve McCabe MP, Shadow Children and Families Minister, delivered the key note speech at The Future of Special Education Needs and Disabilities Conference at the University of Salford
Good Afternoon. It’s genuinely nice to be here although I’m not sure if 2pm on a Friday is the best time to deliver what I see is rather kindly referred to as a keynote address; maybe all the more so when it’s from someone the organisers may have hoped would be in a more influential position when this arrangement was made some months ago. I have no idea what the conference organisers thought, I hoped to be in a more influential position. Well we’ve had our General Election and I’m still the Shadow Minister and instead of me coming here today to tell you what I’m going to do about what I see as some of the outstanding issue in the SEND area, I’m here to tell you what I think and how, as an opposition spokesman, we can work together to identify issues and raise concerns. Edward Timpson, who I’ve actually got a fair amount of time for, is still the minister responsible for this brief. I think it’s unlikely that we’ll see any further government legislation in this area in the near future so we need to concentrate on what works, what needs fixing or improvement and what needs to get on the agenda because it’s still being ignored. As long as I’m doing this job my aim will be to offer Edward Timpson constructive criticism and to work with parents, young people and all those connected with the sector to help advance the case of those with special education needs and disabilities.
It’s in that context that I want to address you today and I want to concentrate on four areas where I think there is concern and scope for improvement. Access to schools; the Code of Practice and Local Offer in the new Children and Families Act; Post 16 education; and the inclusion debate.
Let me begin with schools, I’ve met too many parents who’ve told me about their problems trying to get a school place of their choice. And often having obtained a place, keeping your child there is another matter. We all know that the system is riddled with soft, or more accurately, illegal exclusions. Terms like, ‘Just take him home for the day’. ‘We think it might be better if we have a break till the start of next term.’ ‘Our teaching assistant hasn’t come in today.’ will be familiar to many of you. All expressions which signal an illegal exclusion. On the other hand, Head teachers will frequently tell you that rather than feel supported and commended for their efforts to provide places for youngsters with special needs and/or disabilities, they feel penalised. They say there’s no recognition from Ofsted, a downside in the SATs results and a struggle to get their hands on much needed assistance and resources. Some schools react to this situation by actively putting up barriers, even going as far as to deter the SENCO from attending open evenings so that there is no one who can reasonably advise on what the school has to offer and how they might respond to any special needs.
Theoretically the new Children and Families Act will give more power to parents but I wonder if we also need to do more to incentivise schools to do the right thing. Let’s ask Ofsted to include a positive commentary for Special Needs with a particular focus on the progress those children have made. Let’s have a specific weighting for SATs and other scores which recognises the contribution of children with special needs. And I think there is an argument to be had about funding. I’d have had a tough time getting a Labour Chancellor to agree to this but I think there’s an argument for extending Pupil Premium to SEND children with an additional element, where the individual child would already qualify on existing criteria. We’ve made a virtue out of giving schools control over their own budgets for several years now so why not go further. Let schools have additional Pupil Premium and much easier access to what we currently call Element 3 or special needs funding. In return we should demand evidence that schools are improving access and using this money to increase the opportunities for that particular group of children. And as well as some positive reinforcement, we should also make it abundantly clear that soft exclusions are illegal and that means using the law against those schools that continually flout their obligations.
Now turning to the Code of Practice and the Local Offer. I support the Children and Families Act 2015 and see it as quite a progressive piece of legislation, at least potentially progressive. But I’ve always felt that the key to it is the implementation. Governments and Ministers are never quite so good at that bit. They tend to think that once the parliamentary phase is over its job done but experience tells us that’s just plain wrong. If Labour had won the election I would have set up a small implementation unit within the department to drive good practice and ensure that the Act did what its architects have claimed it will do. There are two elements to the legislation which I think are central to how we judge it. The Code of Practice and the Local Offer. I’ve argued that the Minister should see the Code as a ‘living document’ which needs regular revision to take account of best practice and lessons learned so that we know if parents and young people are being properly consulted and listened to; whether Education, Health and Care Plans are being completed in a timely fashion and adequately responding to a person’s range of needs; whether promises about access, choice and opportunity are really being honoured. The Minister has to date shown little enthusiasm for this approach but a Code of Practice which gathers dust, which agencies and authorities come to ignore which isn’t revised for years on end is a worthless document. It’s only valuable if parents and young people can use it to obtain their rights and achieve their aspirations.
The ‘local offer’ is the aspect of the Act which promises us new and additional forms of support. Perhaps developed in conjunction with schools or voluntary bodies. The services which will enrich and add to the life of those with SEND as well as meeting obvious shortcomings in what local authorities, by themselves, can offer. It’s the innovative, forward looking part of the Act which should help councils and others to up their game. There’s a requirement for ‘local offers’ to have been published by September 2014. Research from the House of Commons Library shows that, as of April 2015, many local authorities were hardly pushing out the boat and several were simply ignoring the part of the requirement to publish feedback received on their local offer. Websites full of blank pages! It’s simply not good enough. Unless senior officers see the local offer as a means of increasing variety and driving up standards, as a competition to do better; it will be relegated to a junior staff task; a tick box activity at the back end of the council website. If the Minister won’t take my advice to annually assess and report on the local offer and thereby use it as a means to praise the good and shame the bad, we should do it ourselves as parents and as campaigners because without that kind of pressure, cash strapped local authorities won’t focus their imagination and inventiveness on those with special needs and disabilities.
The third area I want to comment on is Post 16 Education because it presents a real challenge especially now that the Children & Families Act has extended the age of responsibility to 25. I’ve met plenty of parents and young people who after years of struggle have finally found a school that does cater for their needs and helps them make some real progress, only to discover at age 16 they face a new cliff edge. There are too many FE colleges which promise to meet needs and fail on all fronts. I really worry about some of these special needs units within post 16 provision. It seems to me they largely serve to segregate students and limit rather than enhance educational opportunities. I wonder if we need some kind of accreditation system for FE so that parents and young people can be clear about the colleges that will really meet their needs. I think we need to extend the demand for trained SENCOs from schools to the FE sector and colleges must be encouraged to develop the widest possible range of teaching methods in order to accommodate those with special learning needs and disabilities. Perhaps more work should be done on developing modular courses within existing award structures and a Credit Accumulation Framework so that everyone has an opportunity of gaining awards and qualifications. And colleges just like schools need to improve their in-service training and ongoing staff development programmes so that staff acquire the skills and experience needed to work with students. Last year I visited Trinity College in Birmingham, a fantastic set up. A college established by parents to provide post 16 training for young people on the Autism Spectrum. Set up by parents because of the dearth of quality provision for so many SEND students after they reach the age of 16. It is deeply troubling that almost one third of those with a Statement of Special Needs at 16 are not in any form of education, employment or training within 2 years of their 16th birthday.
Finally I want to come to the question of inclusion. I don’t think it’s possible to be a Minister or Shadow Minister with responsibility in this area without running into the inclusion lobby and I’ve learned as I’ve tried to pick my way through the minefield of what’s good and what might be in the best interests of the child or young person that it’s very easy to get on the wrong side of the inclusion lobby. So let me say clearly. Yes they’re right. If our education system was better designed there would be no need for special schools and specialist education. I think it’s right that there should be constant agitation to improve the arrangements in mainstream education but the practical bit of me also wants to do what’s best for this child now. Wants to acknowledge what their parents feel is best. I’ve visited very many special schools and centres in the last few years. Places like the Oakfield School in Nottingham, The Tree House School run by Ambitious about Autism; the Young Epilepsy Centre and St Piers School and College in Lingfield; Victoria School for the Deaf in Birmingham and the National Institute for Conductive Education to name but a few. What all these places have in common is dedicated staff making huge strides with children and young people that far too many others were willing to write off.
Now as you may know I’m not a great fan of the government’s free school programme but where that programme has been used to plug obvious gaps in education for youngsters with special needs by opening up new schools and specialist centres, I think its money well spent. Where I disagree with the government is that I don’t see schools as isolated institutions in an education market. I believe in the concept of a ‘family of schools’ and that was never truer than in the area of SEND pupils. My ambition is to see the specialist centres working with families of mainstream schools. Helping children develop and progress in mainstream, offering support and guidance to staff in mainstream, sharing best practice so that all can benefit. Sure some parents can become a bit obsessive about their child’s needs, some can underestimate their child’s abilities and potential. It’s pretty understandable if you think of the lifetime of battling they’ve had to contend with. But I’m willing to bet that what most parents want is a school where their child will be happy and safe and where they can achieve and reach their true potential. Specialist centres, at the core of families of schools, can help to raise opportunities for everyone. Children may well divide their time between mainstream and specialist centres, we may be able to provide additional coaching at offsite venues. Baroness Warnock once made the case for inclusion and the end of specialist schools and that argument has held sway for too long in my view. She recanted on that position because what matters most is opportunity and recognising the talent of each individual. We need to maximise resources so that parents know their child is getting a fair chance and they’re not forced to fight for them every day.
There are a great many other things I could have raised today but I think in these four areas I see the challenges for those who work in the field in the coming years. We will have to meet them in a difficult economic climate where there is a real risk that political ideology may outdo what’s really in the best interests of the child but for those of us who want to see continuous improvement, we must stay focused. We must use the legislation, particularly the Local Offer and Code of Practice to demand and drive improvements; we must fight for a funding base in schools which promotes the case for making a real effort with SEND children, don’t let youngsters fall off a cliff at 16 and destroy, at that young age, all that hope and promise and let’s leave the more tedious aspects of the inclusion debate and together maximise the benefits of specialist schools by putting them at the centre of families of schools so that all can benefit.
Steve McCabe MP
Birmingham, Selly Oak