What deaf children need from SEN reform #2: More participation

NDCS - Ian Noon, Head of Policy and Research

Ian Noon, Head of Policy and Research

Yesterday, we kicked off a week of blogs about special educational needs (SEN) reform. All of these changes came into effect in England yesterday via part 3 of the Children and Families Act 2014 which sets out all the key changes. And one of the biggest and most positive changes is section 19 where there’s now a clear legal requirement for local authorities to take into account the views of children, young people and their families, involve them in decisions about their SEN support and support them in doing so.

And so our 2nd key issue for local authorities to consider when implementing changes to the special educational needs system is how they’re going to consult with and involve deaf children and young people and their families in decisions about local SEN provision.

One of our biggest worries is that lots of local authorities will treat ‘SEN’ as it were a single entity when we all know that the needs of a deaf child are very different to, for example, a child with autism. And because deafness is a ‘low incidence’ need and the so-called ‘invisible disability’, there is a risk that the needs of deaf children might get overlooked. That’s why we’re calling on local authorities to make sure they seek out and have specific regard for the views of deaf children, young people and their families, making sure that any such consultation and involvement is accessible and meaningful.

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Families with deaf children can also help make this happen by making sure they’re at the table when consultation events take place. There are lots of different ways that families can get involved. They can ask to join the local Parent Carer Forum. They can check if there is a Children’s Hearing Services Working Group (CHSWG) in their area and find out who is representing them on this group. They can see if their local Deaf Children’s Society is involved. They can also just get in touch with the local authority and ask about opportunities to get involved.

In partnership with Blind Children UK, RNIB and Sense, we’ve produced a campaign briefing for local authorities that sets out some tips for how they can make consultation, involvement and participation with deaf children, young people and their families a reality. You can help make sure this lands on the desks of the right people in each local authority by taking part in our new campaign action – as always, our website makes it simple and straightforward to take action.

Tomorrow, we’ll be talking about another big change – the Local Offer – and setting out what this might mean for deaf children.

What deaf children need from SEN reform #1: Better data

NDCS - Ian Noon, Head of Policy and Research

Ian Noon, Head of Policy and Research

Good news everyone! Christmas has come early… if you’re a policy geek like me. Yes, today is the day that (nearly) all of the big long-awaited changes to the special educational needs system in England come into force.

After years and months of debating the policy and the draft laws, the focus now shifts to implementation. Regardless of what we think about the changes, we want to make sure that deaf children benefit from them or at least aren’t disadvantaged by them.

With that in mind, we at the National Deaf Children’s Society have worked with our friends and allies at Blind Children UK, RNIB and Sense to produce a campaign briefing setting out five key issues where we think action is needed to make sure SEN reform implementation works for the children we work with. For each day this week, I’ll be blogging about each of those five issues (see, I said Christmas had come early).

14020 (d) and Leithisiya Lakshmisriranjan (d)The first key issue is: data. We need better data on deaf children, how many there are, where they live, what their needs are and how well they’re doing. Government cannot hope to meet the special educational needs of deaf children if it doesn’t know how many there are – yet that’s the situation we’re in now. Existing data-sets are incomplete, even by the Government’s own admission. According to the Department for Education, there are just 17,000 deaf children across England. Local authorities tell us the figure is actually more like 38,000 – but, in many areas we know that’s still not the full story. For example, many local authorities tell us that they don’t collect data on deaf young people over the age of 16 who are in education or training.

We want local authorities to get better at collecting data on deaf children so that they can use it to make proper decisions on what services are needed. We also want better data so that we can see how well local authorities are doing in supporting deaf children to achieve their potential. And we want the Government to make sure that this all happens.

If you agree, help us improve things. We’re launching a new campaign action today to ask local authorities to take action on each of the five key issues we’ve identified.

Check out our blog tomorrow for more information on our 2nd key issue on effective participation. In the meantime, you can get loads more information about SEN reform and what the changes might mean for deaf children on the NDCS website at www.ndcs.org.uk/sen.

Why NDCS thinks the new guidance on special educational needs won’t work

Brian Gale, Director of Policy and Campaigns

Brian Gale, Director of Policy and Campaigns

Today, MPs will be considering whether to approve new guidance (known as the SEND Code of Practice) on how children with special educational needs and disabilities are supported. NDCS is taking the difficult decision to recommend that the Code be withdrawn and redrafted.

This isn’t because we don’t share the Government’s objectives or that we hugely disagree with what the new Code contains. Our big concern is what is absent.

The Code fails to set out robust quality assurance arrangements that are necessary to promote service improvements and give parents and other members of the public the information that will enable them to hold their Council to account for the quality of support provided for children. Because of this critical omission we’re not convinced there will be any change for the better.

Parents of deaf children regularly bring to us problems about getting the support their children need to make educational progress. When we look into the problem we find that the main cause is a failing by education services to implement existing laws and guidance

We believe that this is due to the lack of accountability and quality assurance arrangements. In other words, it is possible for local authorities to get away with poor provision without proper checks or anyone calling them to account.

Unless this deficiency is rectified, any potential benefit from the recent legislation on special educational needs will not be realised. England will simply be following in the footsteps of Scotland where significant and similar changes were introduced 10 years ago. Despite these changes, research commissioned by NDCS revealed that parents and professionals don’t think there has been a significant change in the quality of service. This was also confirmed by the Scottish Government’s Doran Review.

We have therefore asked the government to make two important additions to help ensure the reforms have a chance of success:

1)   The Government needs to set out measures of success and ensure data on provision and outcomes for children with special educational needs or disability is published by local authority area. This will help parents know whether their local authority is doing a good or bad job.

2)   Ofsted should inspect quality of local authority services and their performance, helping children and young people with SEND achieve good outcomes. Parents rely on Ofsted inspections to know how well their local school is performing. It is equally important for parents of children with SEND to have an independent assessment of how well local authorities and health services are meeting their children’s needs.

Each year the Government allocates over £5 billion to meet the needs of children and young people with high levels of SEND and we know that even with this, local authorities are struggling to meet needs. Some have to raid other pots of money to make ends meet. This combined with significant changes and raised expectations, means that there must be far greater emphasis on quality assurance and accountability.

It would be a shame to see all of these changes being made at a lot of expense but with little prospect of any real improvement. It’s not too late for the Government to take heed and put in place accountability and quality assurance arrangements that promote the improvement of services and outcomes for every pound that is spent.

What does the reshuffle mean for deaf children?

Jonathan Barnes

Jonathan Barnes, Campaigns Assistant

With Jeremy Hunt remaining as Health Secretary, the headline-grabbing Cabinet move announced yesterday for deaf children was in Education. Michael Gove, the Secretary of State, was replaced by Nicky Morgan. The big question is what this might mean for deaf children?

We are unaware of any personal connection that Morgan has to deafness, whereas Gove had a deaf adoptive sister growing up and a mother who was a Teacher of the Deaf. This meant that Gove always had some interest and familiarity in the issue of childhood deafness. Morgan has previously asked questions of ministers on deaf issues, but otherwise there is a question mark over her familiarity with deafness.

Michael Gove at an NDCS event in 2008

Michael Gove at an NDCS parliamentary event in 2008

What can we expect from the Department for Education moving forward? There will be a continued focus on SEN reform. There are positive intentions here, but will it lead to better outcomes for deaf children? We are concerned it won’t unless there is a proper focus on accountability within the system.

We can’t ignore also the impact of cuts. Through our Stolen Futures campaign, we have interacted frequently with local government. Too often, cuts to services are happening at a local level. The Department for Education have said that they have protected the budget, but it’s clear that this hasn’t been backed up by action.

Over the past few years, we have seen a trend of improving attainment for deaf children and young people. With 43% of deaf children achieving five good GCSEs compared to 70% of children with no identified special education needs, there is still a lot that needs to be done. Action is still needed from the government. Let’s hope Nicky Morgan can deliver.

Winners and losers in the Special Education Needs Funding Lottery

Brian Gale, Director of Policy and Campaigns

Brian Gale, Director of Policy and Campaigns

The government gives local authorities (councils) in England over £5 billion each year to help fund the education of children and young people with high levels of special educational needs (SEN).

Each local authority receives a portion of this amount according to what they have spent on SEN in the past.  The levels of this historic spend per child and young person vary considerably between local authorities. This raises questions about whether the level of grant to each council truly reflects levels of need and is a fair and equitable distribution. Therefore the level of education support a disabled child may get to be able to learn and make good progress at school could depend on where they live.

Today is the deadline for research organisations to submit an expression of interest to the government to undertake research to look into this issue.

The Department for Education says that the main aims of the research are:

  • “To gather, collate, analyse and report on information about the incidence and costs of educational provision for pupils and students with SEN.
  • To inform the development of funding policy intended to improve the way in which pupils and students with SEN are funded through funding formulae applied to early years, schools and post-16 provision.
  • To recommend a formulaic approach to funding local authorities for high cost SEN provision, rather than one based on historic spending levels”.

Looking to move to greater equity in the distribution of funding for children with special educational needs is highly commendable.

However, finding a formula that truly reflects the distribution of need, and that parents of children with SEN understand and have confidence in is going to be extremely problematic. If there was an easy answer the government would have been using it by now.

More importantly, any moves to redistribute the existing grant to local authorities is likely to result in considerable gains in support for children with SEN in one area but significant losses for children with SEN living in another.

This will be particularly worrying for parents of children with SEN in areas receiving high levels of funding, such as London or Middlesbrough, compared with others. There is not the evidence to suggest that their children are receiving excess support or that their children are overachieving. No doubt parents of children with SEN in areas that receive lower levels of grants would be pleased with any increase in support. But few of them would welcome such changes if this was at the expense of children with disabilities elsewhere. Bringing support for children with SEN up or down to a common level of inadequacy would not be popular.

It is unlikely that a redistribution of the existing pot would contribute to an overall improvement in outcomes for children with SEN that the government hopes for in its SEN reforms.

The solution, which no doubt would be unpopular with the Treasury, would be to ensure sufficient funding so that children with disabilities do not lose out on the support they desperately need to fulfil their potential. But will this happen?

How can Local Government deliver for Deaf Children?

Reema Patel

Reema Patel, NDCS Trustee and newly-elected Barnet Councillor

As we take in the results of the local elections, campaign groups including deaf children, young people and parents will be considering how best to engage with local politicians and local political parties. We know that, despite deafness not being a learning disability, the attainment gap between deaf and children with no identified Special Educational Needs (SEN) is large – with a 28% difference in those who achieve 5 GCSEs between A*-C including English and Maths – and whilst over time this gap is narrowing, closing the gap remains one of the key priorities for local areas, schools and health providers.

There are, however, challenges. Local politicians may feel disempowered in an education system that has recently favoured greater independence for schools in the way they run and deliver services, and in a system where the impact of proposed changes to the SEN system have been less than clear. Whilst councillors may have every best intention to make an impact, it may not always be clear to them how best to do so.

So what are the most important steps that campaign groups, parents and children can take to close the gap between deaf children and non-deaf children?

1)    Reassure local politicians that there is something they can do

Local politicians should begin by gathering more information to find out exactly what the issues are in their area. What does the gap look like in their local area? What support already exists out there? In what areas is our local authority failing deaf children, and can we look at best practice elsewhere to improve the way we allocate our resources? How do we find the money to plug the gap? What powers do local authorities have to deal with these challenges?

2)    Provide evidence and solutions

As a campaigner myself, I know full well that it is often when local campaign groups are quick enough to take the initiative, to do research themselves and put forward concrete recommendations that the most effective kind of influencing happens. Parents getting in touch with local representatives, identifying problems that they have encountered first hand, sharing their story, and offering concrete solutions makes it very difficult for the representatives to say no.

3)    Stay ahead of the game

This week, we have a batch of brand new councillors who have never been local politicians before in a system that has changed a lot in recent years. For example, SEN reform – to be implemented later this year – presents great challenges as well as opportunities for local authorities and campaigners alike. Local authorities will be able to consider granting children personal budgets to meet their needs – balancing this with the need to allocate resources fairly in a world of dwindling resources, and they will also need to think about ways to make the most impact with less resource available. With a system such as this, a vocal, active parent-led campaign group could be very effective in securing improved outcomes and increased support for deaf children – and may well make a difference. Joining with other parents, as you can through the NDCS Campaigns Network, will amplify your voice going forward.

What local authorities can best do to support deaf children will vary depending on the needs of the child(ren) involved, the local area itself and what is already available in the local area – all in a rapidly changing local government and public sector landscape. Because of this, good local politicians will understand that part of their job is to make listening and responding to interested groups easier as well as building influence with stakeholders outside of local authorities in the health and schools sector, instead of adopting a ‘top-down’ approach and presumption of what is best for children without engagement.

It is a partnership with deaf children, their parents and advocates that will in the long-term enable local politicians to most effectively narrow and then close the attainment gap.

What type of parent are you – Prospector, Settler or Pioneer?

Brian Gale, Director of Policy and Campaigns

I have been working in the area of special educational needs (SEN) for over 25 years and had never contemplated trying to categorise parents in order to change their behaviour and develop or implement policy.

However this is what a firm of consultants, employed by Wirral Council to find ways of reducing spending on the transport of children with special educational needs, has suggested. The consultants advise the Council that “understanding what drives customer’s’ behaviour will impact on your ability to change behaviour”.

The consultants have used a “value modes” methodology to gain a greater understanding of parents of children with SEN. Using this methodology they identified three broad types of parent: the “prospector”, the “settler” and the “pioneer”. Find out which you are here.

After receiving responses from 200 parents to a questionnaire the consultants estimated that in Wirral 60% of parents of children with SEN were “pioneers”. They advised that this would “present an excellent cohort to implement changes” adding “this indicates a widespread interest in alternatives, if presented appropriately”.However on a more serious note this approach and some of the recommendations in the report raise some important issues:

  • Was it really necessary to categorise parents in this way? The consultants completed 352 interviews with parents about transport and this seemed to provide a reasonably sound information base to consider options. But did it really matter if parents who shared a common view on an aspect of SEN transport were “prospectors” or “pioneers”? Is Brian Lamb OBE now kicking himself for not using the “value modes” methodology during the Lamb inquiry into “SEN and Parental Confidence” for the government.
  • Is it really appropriate for a local authority to “change” the behaviour of parents with SEN as suggested in the consultant’s report? I am aware of such approaches being used in other contexts such as a campaign to promote healthier lifestyles. But is SEN the right context? Government policy is urging local authorities to work in partnership and in collaboration with parents of children with SEN. It does not mention changing their behaviour. 
  • How reliable is the categorisation in terms of ease of passage of the changes proposed by the consultants? For example the report explained that “to make a real step change the Council should take a bolder approach to reducing the number of statemented children, using the single Education, Health and Care Plan as an opportunity”. Government ministers have given assurances that the introduction of the new Education, Health and Care Plans was not about reducing legal entitlements to support. So faced with such a controversial proposal, I wonder how “pioneers” in Wirral will respond. Will they display the “avoid conflict” behaviours anticipated from “pioneers” or is there within them a latent “settler” who will be “inflamed by threats”?

And finally and most importantly, where was the focus on the needs of the child with SEN? The lengths the consultants went to consult parents was commendable (over 5,000 attempted phone calls). However, I was surprised by the lack of analysis on the needs of the children. The focus should not be on the characteristics of parents and trying to use this to change their behaviour. Neither should it be on looking at comparative data and simply concluding that because statementing rates are higher in Wirral can children’s needs be best met by removing statutory entitlements. Parents are important, but my overriding concern is that the focus must be on the children and what they need to fully participate and make good progress in their education.