Power to the parents

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    Brian Lamb discusses his Inquiry’s recommendations and calls for radical changes that challenge all who work with children with SEN

    Children with disabilities and SEN represent 20 per cent of our school population. However, the education system is still living with the legacy of a time when these students were routinely seen as uneducable. Today, these students are still often set the least demanding challenges. During the course of the Lamb Inquiry, we met with many parents whose children are well-supported and making good progress. We also met with parents for whom the whole system represents a barrier against which they have to fight for the support their child needs.

    We found that the SEN framework functions well for most parents when adhered to, but poorly when not. Even in areas where it does function well, parents should be more involved, and the culture of low expectations challenged.

    Our research, and that of other studies, found that overall satisfaction and confidence rates of parents in the system are relatively high. However, within these groups of parents there are often deep pockets of dissatisfaction, especially around the process of statutory assessment. The aims of the SEN framework remain relevant and still have the support of parents we consulted. The overriding desire of all the parents we spoke to was simply to have someone who understands the needs of their child and can help them to succeed. When this happens, parental confidence is high and children achieve to the best of their capabilities. However, for far too many parents, local implementation has too often failed to live up to the aspirations the SEN framework embodies.

    We concluded, therefore, that we need a radical recasting of the relationship between parents, schools and local authorities to deliver what is envisaged by the aims of the framework. This will involve major cultural change, which will create challenges for a system that has continued to treat children with SEN as peripheral to mainstream educational concerns. This needs to be backed up, where necessary, by changes to the framework and legislation.

    The Inquiry pointed to four key areas for improvement, which, if successfully tackled, would bring the profound changes to the system we are seeking:

    A clearer focus on outcomes

    We know that educational achievement for children with SEN is too low and the gap to their peers too wide. The culture of too many schools is still to focus the best teachers either on those children with the highest abilities or those children targeted for improvement, sometimes to improve the school’s standing in published attainment tables.

    We need inclusive leadership which has high aspirations for all children and deploys staff and financial resources to achieve the following ends: to produce teachers who are confident in identifying and responding to the full range of SEN, and to ensure that teaching assistants and support staff are well-led and effectively supervised.

    Children with SEN are still routinely being subjected to bullying and their voices are not being listened to within schools. Further, children with SEN make up over 80 per cent of those permanently excluded from school and they need protecting from over-hasty exclusion. If school staff and others in the education system listened more closely to what children and parents are telling them, they would know what they need to do to make a difference.

    Recommendations:

    • we have already established The Achievement for All pilots which are working with schools to improve outcomes across the whole of SEN (£31 million has already been invested and pilots are running in ten authorities representing 460 schools)
    • greater focus on school leadership around SEN (£2m funding has been allocated to produce new training and guidance.)
    • new statutory guidance to help tackle exclusions
    • more investment specifically for tackling disability and SEN related bullying
    • more training on the use of learning support assistants.

    A stronger voice for parents in the system

    When things go wrong, the root cause can often be traced to poor communication between school and parents. Better communication and the establishment of constructive relationships that recognise parents have a vital role to play is essential.

    Research has consistently shown that when parents are involved in their children’s learning, outcomes improve. The mutual respect that develops through careful listening to parents can transform working relationships and improve children’s progress.

    Recommendations:

    • a core offer guaranteeing better access to information and transparency about resource allocation
    • removal of outdated information requirements on schools
    • local authorities (LAs) to publish SEN policies and make them more widely available
    • improving parental confidence through better involvement and a new round of pilot projects to trial new approaches
    • relaunch parent partnerships with better training and clearer remit.

    A more strategic system

    The role of LAs in relation to schools has changed radically since the SEN framework was established. There is now greater delegation of responsibility and funding to schools, LAs increasingly act as a commissioner rather than provider of services, and there has been a breaking down of the divide between education and social care for children and families. In relation to children with SEN, however, LAs retain responsibility for those with more complex needs, whose needs schools would otherwise struggle to meet.

    At the moment, children with SEN are part of a system which has lost sight of their needs by spending too much time assessing and providing services that are easy to quantify, rather than looking to improve outcomes.

    While it was not as widespread as is sometimes claimed, the Inquiry did find anecdotal evidence, both from parents and LA officers, of decisions being made, not in the best interest of the child, but on the basis of spending restrictions in the authority. More typical was a simple unwillingness to discuss provision that officers knew to be unavailable locally. Neither are permissible or acceptable practices. Accurate and transparent assessment is a crucial part of promoting parental confidence in the SEN system and ensuring that children get the right support to achieve and thrive. Professionals who assess children’s needs and work with children need to adhere to professional codes so that parents can have confidence in their judgements. We came across too many examples where this was not the case, and there is nothing more corrosive of parental confidence than parents feeling that they cannot get their children’s needs addressed.

    We also need a strategic approach to the development and deployment of staff with the right skills to recognise and respond to children’s needs. LAs and children’s trusts need to do more to arrange services to ensure that schools are able to provide appropriate specialist support early on, before children’s needs go unrecognised and confidence in the system slips away. Parents should not have to wait until their child fails, or falls further behind, before help is available.

    While there may be significant resources in the system overall, the increased delegation of spending power has not always led to responsibilities to invest in specialist skills or to ensure transparency about how resources are being deployed locally. Targets for the progression of children with SEN should have been included as part of the responsibility of getting the additional resources in the first place. Funding has increased, but parents rarely know how it is being applied to improve outcomes for their children. Parents still have to reach too far up the system to get support that should be routinely available within the school without having to resort to complex processes. Simple early intervention should be the norm.

    Recommendations:

    The role of local authorities:

    • statements to focus on outcomes, not inputs, with new training and revised guidance for LAs and others involved in assessment
    • revised codes of professional standards to ensure that the needs of the child come first
    • more independent assessments through LAs subcontracting to third party assessors
    • direct access for parents to advice from educational psychologists
    • parents should have direct access to multi-disciplinary teams
    • there should be more coherent commissioning of services around SEN.

    A more accountable system

    We need to hold the system to account for delivering for our children and enhance routes for feedback and redress where parents don’t think this is happening.

    Parents need to know that the quality of their children’s education is being monitored and improved, that good practice is the norm and that the highest standards of teaching and support are being applied to their children’s education. Parents need to be listened to more and brought into partnership with statutory bodies in a more meaningful way; after all, they are often the best experts about their children.

    To do this, we need to have greater clarity and accountability from service providers and confidence that school inspections have an adequate focus on SEN. A school cannot be a good school unless it caters properly for all the children it is there to serve.

    When good communication is present, it is rare that issues need to escalate, but, if necessary, parents need to have better forms of redress than the system currently offers. The changes that have taken place to the tribunal system are encouraging, but we need to ensure the tribunal system is more accessible and that other forms of redress and support are on hand. Parents expressed particular concerns about the processes leading to exclusions, the implementation and review of provision in a statement, and challenging the decisions made by authorities.

    There needs to be a new partnership between parents and professionals to improve outcomes for children by empowering the system to focus better, intervene earlier, rely less on formal routes of complaint, but hold providers to account when things do go wrong. The system should not be designed around the presumption of failure but should help parents to build towards success for their children.

    We should not be comfortable with a system that routinely excludes eight times more children with SEN as a means of managing children’s learning needs. This is a dramatic signal that schools have not invested enough in early intervention and good teaching for those with the most challenging needs. As OfSTED has observed, schools that do invest in these things have exclusion rates for children with SEN that are materially no different than for other children. We need to give statutory protection to children and more encouragement to schools to get this right. This is a fundamental rights issue for these children.

    Recommendations:

    School-level accountability:

    • OfSTED to have a requirement in law to inspect schools on SEN provision
    • more training for OFSTED inspectors in SEN
    • schools will be required to provide auxiliary aids following the removal of their exemption from the provisions of the Equality Bill
    • statutory regulations on reducing the extent of exclusions and more focus on addressing the underlying causes and compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act.

    LA-level accountability:

    • LAs should be held more to account for overall delivery of SEN though monitoring and joint inspection where there are failures
    • greater monitoring of LA performance on SEN.

    Individual redress:

    • new legal rights to ensure that all statements are reviewed and if parents are not happy, that they can appeal
    • easier access to tribunals and better trained tribunal members
    • children should have the right to bring cases in their own right
    • Local Government Ombudsman to be an enhanced route of complaint for parents.

    The future of the system?

    There is also a very strong case for children with multiple and different levels of need to be assured of a team around the child approach, ideally driven by a key worker. Throughout the Inquiry, parents held up the innovation of the Early Support Programme as an excellent model and urged that this be developed further.

    The Inquiry recognised the strength of the argument for a broader definition of SEN, especially that exemplified by the Scottish model of additional needs, as a potential route to change the SEN framework. While the Scottish model has clear differences from the framework, what struck us were the similarities, from the continuing need for an assessment mechanism and debate about the point of its triggering, to the need to involve parents and the co-ordination and availability of specialist services. We felt, therefore, that it was important to focus on the underlying issues with the system, which both frameworks shared, and how these could best be addressed.

    Broadening the definition does not alter the nature of the needs to be addressed and, indeed, could even dilute further the specialist support and the ruthless focus we wish to see on enhancing SEN provision. Parents have been crystal clear in their feedback to us that they want minimum requirements and standards as set out in the Code of Practice. The evidence from parents and OfSTED is that SEN is insufficiently well embedded to be sure that, without legal safeguards, the needs of the most vulnerable are not overlooked. Therefore, at this time, we want to see effort expended on closing the gap in outcomes through specialist provision and support.

    We also noted arguments for a change at the point at which there is a statutory trigger for a statement and, indeed, questions about whether statements should continue at all. We saw very wide local variation in how the trigger was applied. We also found, as others before us, that statutory assessments are unnecessarily bureaucratic and time consuming and one of the biggest causes of dissatisfaction for parents.

    The Inquiry, therefore, recommended ensuring more resources and better support at School Action level. However, while we thought it was desirable that a child’s needs should be met without recourse to a statement, we also noted the additional confidence that statements can give parents and the high satisfaction rates of parents once they have a statement. Therefore, while a reduction in statements may be a welcome consequence of better earlier intervention, we have not recommended any change to statute or targets for reducing statements. Where children progress well and parents are happy, then any reduction in statements is welcome, but should be the by-product, not the aim, of policy, which should focus on children’s progress and parental engagement.

    Moving towards implementation

    Taken together, these recommendations are a radical challenge to all who work in the system to change the culture and practice of the way they deal with children and young people with disabilities and SEN. However, there is little that I am recommending that is not already being done by the best teachers, schools and local authorities across the country.

    I am delighted that the Government has agreed in principle to all of the Inquiry’s 51 recommendations. I am delighted that some are already being implemented and will be reporting back in March on the progress of others to the Secretary of State. Whatever further developments we may wish to see, what is now being put in place is an essential underpinning for changes in culture, expertise and practice that is fundamental to the system’s capacity to deliver real improvements in outcomes for disabled children and SEN, now and in the future.

    Further information

    Brian Lamb OBE is the Chair of the Lamb Inquiry into Special Educational Needs and Parental Confidence and is the Chair of the Special Educational Consortium.

    For further information about the Lamb Inquiry and to download a copy of the report, visit:
    www.dcsf.gov.uk/lambinquiry

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