From education to employment

Transformational reform begins for children and young people with SEND

students walking through gate
  • Plan for better, fairer access to high quality special educational needs and disabilities support
  • New national standards to set out what support will be provided, by who and with what funding
  • Thousands more specialist school places, as 33 new special free schools approved across the country

Children and young people across England with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) or in alternative provision (AP) will get high-quality, early support wherever they live in the country.

The SEND and AP Improvement Plan published today (Thursday 02 March) confirms investment in training for thousands of workers so children can get the help they need earlier, alongside thousands of additional specialist school places for those with the greatest needs – as 33 new areas are approved for special free schools to be built as of today.

This means that there are 33 new special free schools being approved to be built, across 30 local authorities (as some local authorities have more than one).

The transformation of the system will be underpinned by new national SEND and AP standards, which will give families confidence in what support they should receive and who will provide and pay for it, regardless of where they live.

There will be new guides for professionals to help them provide the right support in line with the national standards but suited to each child’s unique experience, setting out for example how to make adjustments to classrooms to help a child remain in mainstream education.

To improve parents’ and carers’ experiences of accessing support, the plan will cut local bureaucracy by making sure the process for assessing children and young people’s needs through Education Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) is digital-first, quicker and simpler wherever possible.

This package forms part of the government’s significant investment into children and young people with SEND and in AP, with investment increasing by more than 50% compared with 2019-20 – to over £10 billion by 2023-24.

Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing, Claire Coutinho said:

“Parents know that their children only get one shot at education and this can have an enormous impact on their child’s ability to get on with life. Yet for some parents of children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, getting their child that superb education that everyone deserves can feel like a full-time job.

“The Improvement Plan that we are publishing today sets out systemic reforms to standards, teacher training and access to specialists as well as thousands of new places at specialist schools so that every child gets the help they need.”

The 33 local authorities selected today to have new special free schools built in their areas add to the 49 already in the pipeline. These new places come with the government’s £2.6 billion investment between 2022 and 2025 to increase special school and alternative provision capacity.

There will be expanded training for staff, ranging from up to 5,000 early years special educational needs coordinators to 400 educational psychologists, covering a wide range of educational needs. The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education will develop an apprenticeship for teachers of sensory impairments.

The £70 million change programme will work over the next two to three years with selected local authorities in nine regions, working alongside families to implement, test and refine longer-term plans – including new digital requirements for local authority EHCP processes and options for strengthening mediation.

The changes are also underpinned by a strengthened local authority inspection regime joint between Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission.

This plan follows extensive engagement with around 6,000 consultation responses and 175 events, ensuring the new reforms take into account the views of children, young people, parents and carers. The plan sets out a clear roadmap to transform the SEND and AP system and make it sustainable over the long term.

Children’s Commissioner for England Dame Rachel de Souza said:

“Children with SEND and their families have, for too long, felt penalised by a system that doesn’t support their needs. 

“I am particularly pleased to see this plan’s focus on early help, which will prevent families from reaching breaking point, and the increase in specialist school places so that many more children are able to attend a great school, every day.  

“I have called for children’s voices to be at the heart of this plan, so I am encouraged by the move to make EHC Plans digital, standardised, and more focused on what each child wants. 

“Our focus must now be on delivering these reforms, in tandem with those for children’s social care, and matching the ambition that children have for themselves.” 

Dame Christine Lenehan, Director of Council for Disabled Children said:

“The SEND and AP Improvement plan has set out the DfE’s understanding of the complexity and level of challenge that exists in the system whilst also acknowledging the difficult experiences of some children and families as a result.

“CDC welcome the focus on early intervention and providing families support at the earliest opportunity which is key to ensuring needs are met effectively. It will be vital to provide strengthened accountability routes and to continue to focus on the improved experiences of children and families to ensure outcomes are met.

“We look forward to continuing to engage children, young people and their families as well as practitioners across the SEND sector in ongoing opportunities to input into the plans moving forwards.”

Additional measures confirmed today in the Improvement Plan include:

  • A new leadership level Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator National Professional Qualification (SENCo NPQ) will be created, ensuring teachers have the training they need to provide the right support to children.
  • A new approach to AP will focus on preparing children to return to mainstream or prepare for adulthood. AP will act as an intervention within mainstream education, as well as high-quality standalone provision, in an approach that meets children’s needs earlier and helps prevent escalation.
  • An extension of AP Specialist Taskforces, which work directly with young people in AP to offer intensive support from experts, including mental health professionals, family workers, and speech and language therapists, backed an additional £4.8 million investment.
  • A doubling of the number of supported internship places by 2025, from around 2,500 to around 5,000, backed with £18 million of funding to help young people make the transition into adulthood. The process for young people claiming funding for reasonable adjustments for apprenticeships will also be simplified.
  • £30 million to go towards developing innovative approaches for short breaks for children, young people and their families, providing crucial respite for families of children with complex needs. The programme funds local areas to test new services including play, sports, arts and independent living activities, allowing parents time to themselves, while their child enjoys learning new skills.

Sector Response

Minister for learning disabilities and autism, Maria Caulfield said:  

“Everyone with special educational needs and disabilities deserves to live a happy, healthy and productive life – but we know there are often barriers to accessing the right support, especially for parents navigating the start of their children’s educational experiences.

“It is vital that health, care and education are working together properly from day one for people with additional needs, which is why we’re making sure steps are being taken to better join up the system and provide support more readily for children and young people with special educational needs and for their families.”

Helen Hayes MP, Labour’s Shadow Children and Early Years Minister, said:

“The Conservatives have been failing children with SEND and their families for 13 years. Across the country, children are left waiting for support.

“This unambitious plan won’t meet children’s needs or end the scandal of families facing lengthy court battles.

“Labour will make breaking down barriers to opportunity for children and young a people a key mission in government. That means reforming SEND education by identifying children’s needs to get support in place sooner and delivering ongoing teacher training to ensure more children can be appropriately supported in mainstream settings.”

Margaret Mulholland, SEND and Inclusion Specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said:

“The current system for supporting children with special educational needs is badly broken and critically underfunded. Children and young people are not receiving the help they need, and schools are left without the resources needed to best support them.

“Efforts to fix this crisis are very welcome. Expanded training for staff and the standardisation of Education Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) are important steps but we are concerned about the length of time it is going to take to implement some of these policies. More special schools are desperately needed, but will take years to build. The promise of additional places in the future will be of no comfort to those missing out right now who have a special school named on their EHCP but who can’t get a place as the relevant school is oversubscribed. Nor will it help the mainstream schools currently struggling to meet the needs of these pupils. Funding must also be made available to convert existing buildings and ensure they offer the bespoke provision young people deserve. 

“It has taken an awfully long time to get to this point. We look forward to reading the plan in detail, and to an explanation of the level of funding available and the timeframe for when these policies will be implemented. We are yet to see anything to suggest the government understands the gravity of the situation and the urgency with which they need to act.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said:

“Many pupils with special education needs and disabilities are being let down by a system which is currently a dysfunctional mess and the devil will be in the detail in judging whether these reforms go far enough in achieving the change needed to meet the needs of children and their families.

“On the surface, plans to focus upon early intervention, increase the specialist workforce, improve the Education Health and Care Plan process, and boost special school capacity, appear positive. National standards setting out the support and funding children should receive could work in principle as a way of ending the current postcode lottery.

“However, it’s unclear whether enough money will be provided to transform the wider system and ensure it is truly led by pupils needs rather than the resources available.

“While there can be value in piloting different approaches, action and investment is also needed now so that children in large parts of the country are not left behind.

“These plans have been years in the making and we need to see urgency from the government in listening to and acting upon feedback and implementing fully-funded changes that make a real difference for children and families.

“Until the government commits to properly funding the system based on pupils’ needs, fundamental problems will remain.”

Jo Hutchinson, Director for SEND and Additional Needs at the Education Policy Institute, said:

“These plans include some important incremental improvements but they fall short of being transformational. The government must set out a detailed assessment of how many additional special school places are required, of what kinds and where, and how its pipeline of new special schools will meet that need.

“The focus on early help and mainstream inclusion in the national standards is welcome, but we await sight of the draft standards in order to assess these. A transformational training plan would include details of when, where and how school teachers will receive training in the specific needs of children with different types of SEND; ten of the eleven need types have no government-funded training for schools and this is not included in the ITT Core Content or Early Career Frameworks.

“Finally, the government must set out how it will place funding for Alternative Provision on a stable footing and extend this to enable post-16 alternative provision to help reduce the rates of NEET status among young people who have attended AP.”

David Holloway, AoC Senior Policy Manager for SEND, said:

“The new SEND & AP Improvement Plan correctly identifies many of the barriers students face as they move through the education system. It is clear that colleges have been listened to. But it is equally clear that crucial detail is missing.

“Without the right detail, the plan will be a missed opportunity. So it is essential that government continues to work with the college sector to deliver the “single national system” which ministers promise.

“The plan acknowledges critical issues faced by college students with SEND – like the muddle around the status of specialist colleges and the lack of distinct funding for those who do not qualify for high-needs support. But the plan offers no solutions to these problems, nor even a timescale for review.

“On the vital question of students moving on from school to college, the plan recognises that late decision-making by local authorities prevents colleges from planning transition. But it is far from clear whether local inclusion dashboards and other devices proposed in the plan will really have the teeth to improve the ramshackle arrangements that young people are expected to navigate. 

“Some issues, such as investment in college buildings for students with SEND, are not addressed at all. We accept the need for a ‘design and test’ approach to finalise the details of new mechanisms – but with some of these tests due to complete this year, there has to be a better focus on post-16 provision.

“It cannot be right to treat one phase of a young person’s education as more important that another. Today’s young people will soon become adults, so if poor decisions are made about SEND provision now, they will limit their life chances for decades to come.”

Rosamund McNeil, Assistant General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: 

“Whilst we welcome ambitions to transform the landscape of SEND, we remain unconvinced that the measures proposed will improve the standard of provision that is currently on offer. Throughout the consultation process, teacher unions, parents and expert associations raised concerns about the ‘National Standards’ which will replace the SEND Code of Practice, yet the Department for Education have pressed ahead with this ill-advised change. 

“There is no evidence that National Standards for SEND will improve access to the specialist support services that schools tell us is the most challenging aspect of keeping students in mainstream provision.  The proposals place the emphasis on already stretched schools doing more through the current available provision.  Without funding and a more timely expansion of professional support, such as speech and language therapy and Camhs, schools will buckle and more SEND young people are likely to fall between the cracks of the system.  

“Since 2015 the number of children and young people with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) has increased by 97%. The Department for Education has only increased funding by 65% and that is before seven years of inflation is taken into account. There is now a £3.3 billion gap between funding the DfE provides through the High Needs Block and the cost of restoring the value of an EHCP to its real terms value in 2015-16.

“We welcome additional special school places for those students who need them but remain concerned that with limited numbers of new areas accessing funding to build 33 new special schools, there continues to be a postcode lottery of provision which will not meet the current, let alone future, needs of SEND young people.”

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