The government won’t repeat the “mistakes of past reforms” to SEND provision, Nadhim Zahawi has vowed, telling MPs the current system is “failing” and reforms “long overdue”.
The education secretary admitted the government “fell over” when bringing in its major education, health and care reforms in 2014, and warned councils faced a £1 billion black hole due to high needs cost pressures.
Zahawi addressed the House of Commons about the government’s much-delayed special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) review, which was finally published this morning, two-and-a-half years after its launch.
The green paper proposed sweeping changes to the SEND and alternative provision system, with more government control over finances, more oversight of councils and academy trusts and new national SEND standards.
The review also proposed reforming EHCPs to introduce new standardised, digital templates to reduce variations between councils and bureaucracy.
EHCPs were brought in by the coalition government as a result of the 2014 children and families act to replace statements of SEN. But the system has been fraught with problems and delays, leading to pupils missing out on the right provision.
The system also got worse as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. A report last year found health and social care support was not provided to more than half of pupils with special needs who were entitled to it during the first lockdown.
Government ‘fell over’ on EHCP reforms
Zahawi told MPs the government would “pay close attention to implementation so that the mistakes of past reforms are not repeated”.
He admitted “change management is difficult”, adding: “One of the areas that I looked at where we fell over maybe in implementing the very good reforms that were introduced with EHCP plans is how you deliver that change.”
He said the £70 million pledged to help implement the SEND review reforms would “make sure we have the resources in place and I’m confident we can do this well”.
The SEND review also proposed reforms to the process that deals with EHCP disputes, after admitting rises in tribunals demonstrated the “increasing frustration” of parents and carers with the system.
Tribunal successes show ‘failing’ system
In 2020-21, there were 8,600 appeals, up 8 per cent on the previous year. Of the cases upheld, 96 per cent were at least partly in favour of the parent or carer. The green paper proposes to make mediation mandatory before appeals.
Zahawi admitted the success rate at tribunals “is I think symptomatic of a system that is failing, which is why this green paper is long overdue”.
He added that the system had become “financially unsustainable”, and pointed to a growing black hole in council finances because of SEND cost pressures.
“Local authorities are in deficit and overspending on their dedicated schools grant, with total deficits now standing at £1 billion.”
But he said the SEND review proposals “will improve the special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision system, delivering the right support, in the right place, at the right time for children and young people”.