Families feel they have been battling the system for too long, says Education Secretary Gillian Keegan
The government has unveiled new plans to reform support for children with special educational needs and disabilities (Send) in England.
The long-awaited Department for Education plans aim to improve what it calls a “postcode lottery” system.
Plans for earlier diagnoses are part of the reforms, as well as a commitment to build 33 more special free schools.
School leaders welcomed the plans, but said the “desperately needed” new schools “will take years to build”.
Parents and campaigners have been waiting since last summer – when a government consultation closed – to see the detailed plans. Their aim is to improve Send support and the alternative provision system, which is for children who cannot attend mainstream schools because of behaviour or other reasons.
Training for 5,000 early years special educational needs co-ordinators (Sencos) and 400 educational psychologists is a major part of the plan to improve earlier diagnoses.
It aims to help children like Macey, who was diagnosed as autistic and with ADHD in November 2021.
Macey, 14, has struggled in class and been excluded in the past. She now receives one-to-one support at her mainstream school.
Her mother Lauren said she gave a “cry of relief” when Macey was given the diagnosis.
“It gave us answers – for her and for us as a family – knowing this is what we can work with,” said Lauren.
Macey (left) and her mum Lauren, who says her daughter’s experience of school improved after her autism diagnosis
Other pledges confirmed in the Send and Alternative Provision improvement plan announced on Thursday include:
- An extra £4.8m to expand “specialist taskforces” in alternative provision, to offer intensive support from experts such as mental health professionals and speech and language therapists
- 33 special free schools will be built in England, in addition to 49 already planned
- Plans to digitise paperwork across local authorities to help parents receive extra support for their children more quickly
- £70m to test and refine the improvement plans
The plans say national standards for Send support will be published by the end of 2025, to help make it clear “what support should be offered at every stage of a child’s journey across education, health and care”.
Special educational needs schools across the UK are under pressure because of a shortage of places. Families invite the BBC’s Elaine Dunkley to see the challenges they face as they fight for a school place.
Speaking exclusively to the BBC about the plans, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said it was “wrong” that parents feel they need to have a legal document in place for their child to get any support.
The process to get an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) is often lengthy, and can lead to costly tribunals between parents and local authorities.
“If your child needs extra support at school, you shouldn’t need to get an EHCP to make sure that support is available,” said Ms Keegan.
She acknowledged many families have felt they were “battling the system” to get support “for too long”.
“I want to say to them, ‘we’re here… to make sure that you get more support and you know what support you should expect’,” she said.
“We’ve almost ended up in the worst of all worlds, with a lot more money being spent but the provision not being right – because it’s being spent on going to tribunal and very expensive [school] places.”
Ms Keegan acknowledged there were not currently enough places at special schools, with many oversubscribed and overcrowded.
“What we need to do is work much, much better with providers, people who want to set up new schools as well… but the reality is you need to build that provision locally. It will take time to build up the capacity, but we are going to improve the system.”
But the Local Government Association, which represents local authorities in England, has expressed concern that the measures “do not go far enough in addressing the fundamental cost and demand issues” that they say result in councils struggling to meet the needs of children with special educational needs and disabilities.
An education union welcomed the plans, but expressed concern at the length of time it will take to implement some of the policies.
Margaret Mulholland, Send and inclusion specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “More special schools are desperately needed, but will take years to build.”
She said the prospect of extra special school places “will be of no comfort to those missing out right now”, who cannot go to the school they need as a result of it being oversubscribed.
The charity Disability Rights UK said the government’s plans weren’t “radical enough” and that families would be left “underwhelmed and disappointed”.
How have you been affected by any of the issues raised here? Is your family waiting for support? You can get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.