In June 2021 we held our Special Education Needs and Disability (SEND) conference. We welcomed several speakers who presented a diverse selection of informative presentations ranging from the impact of Covid-19 on pupils with SEND to the incorporation of technology in the teaching of pupils with SEND.

The Latest Government Policy on Improving SEND Provision and Support

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Olivia Blake is the Member of Parliament for Sheffield Hallam as well as Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities [1]. Olivia opened the conference by updating us on the latest government policy on improving SEND provision and support.

They highlight that we are still waiting on an updated government report on SEND provisions for students.

Due to the lack of up-to-date policy review, Olivia discusses what they feel the latest policy should look like while highlighting the challenges faced by the SEND community during the pandemic.

Olivia strongly agrees with the old disability rights activism slogan which goes: ‘Nothing about us, Without us.’ This highlights that change has historically been driven by those who have special educational needs and disabilities.

The SEND Provisions and Support Report: Produced by the APPG for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities

Forgotten, Left Behind and Overlooked: The Experiences of Young People with SEND and the educational transitions during the Covid-19 Pandemic in 2020, is a report published by the APPG for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities.

The APPG invited SEND young people, their families and those who run services to give verbal and written testimonies. They included a lot of these testimonies in the report so that the experiences of these people were described in their own words.

The words ‘forgotten’, ‘left behind’ and ‘overlooked’ were used by participants in their testimonies to describe how they felt during the pandemic. Olivia continues by explaining that at times it felt as though SEND has been deprioritised by ministers.

They questioned the Department for Education on the delay to the new SEND review. The DFE claimed that the reason for the delay was down to the pandemic. Olivia highlights that SEND students should be prioritised despite the pandemic as they are the ones greatly affected by the crisis.

This itself highlights a problem. SEND young people and their families are often the last group of people that are considered when they should be the first.

Often guidance for SEND schools during the pandemic came long after guidance for ordinary schools. This had consequences for the transition of SEND students to new settings. One parent who is noted in the report said:

“We have been very isolated. The initial lockdown was very confusing to our children, and now restrictions have been eased and they are expected to return to school without any support regarding transition – their worlds were already very confusing before coronavirus and are even more so now”

Olivia maintains that a sense of isolation has been greatly increased by the exclusion of people from the decisions that affect them.

For example, a survey by Special Needs Jungle suggested that 75% of families were not offered a risk assessment to consider the new context that the pandemic brought [2]. Most parents and young people that were assessed were not included in the process.

A parent who supplied evidence to the APPG report stated:

“My input was added once the decision that my son had to stay at home had already been made”

Even more, uncertainty has been generated by the lack of clarity over what SEND families can expect from services. Another parent stated:

“You have no idea what you’re actually entitled to and what your child could get, it’s almost as if they’re hiding it from you because they don’t want to tell you what is out there”

This has been made worse not only by longer-term problems in the system such as long waits for assessments but also the fact that statutory requirements that provide support were relaxed over lockdown. This meant that many children went without the support that they needed across a range of services such as physiotherapy.

The uncertainty that this has caused to the routines of SEND children is horrendous Olivia says, with an added impact on the mental health of families and care providers.

For instance, in a survey conducted by Ambitious about Autism, 63% of young people with autism that responded said that their mental health had worsened during the pandemic [3].

What can we learn from the pandemic?

The APPG report is described by Olivia as a difficult, yet powerful read. While it did identify good practice, it shows that the problems and challenges SEND young people, families and settings were already experiencing have been hugely magnified by the Covid-19 crisis.

The public health measures necessitated new ways of remote working and what this has meant for SEND provision is mixed. On the one hand, remote forms of participation in education have been very difficult for some SEND students. But for some, the remote experience has made education better for some young people. For example, a parent quoted in the report:

“One positive is the huge drop in anxiety by not being in school. He struggles with eating and weight gain, but since stopping school and learning from home he has gained 3 kilograms and looks amazing”

Olivia suggests that this evidence says two things. First, it states that there is a lot we need to do to improve the experience of SEND students. But second, it highlights that technology can be used to make mainstream schools more inclusive. Parents and young people were often told that remote participation isn’t feasible, but since the pandemic, we can see that it is in fact possible.

So, what next for SEND?

Olivia is optimistic in their view that the pandemic should spark a re-evaluation of some of the current problems facing SEND students, motivating us to address them.

The presentation finished by highlighting the 7 key recommendations of the APPG’s report:

  • The Department for Education ensures that all future guidance for schools and educational settings, fully accounts for the complex needs and challenges of the SEND community.
  • An urgent and time bound parliamentary review being taken to assess the impact of Covid-19 on SEND children.
  • New and additional funding is made available in the short, medium, and long term to support the SEND community as part of the Covid-19 recovery.
  • Specific funding should be allocated to address the delays and backlog in processes of assessment for educational health and care plans.
  • Urgent funding should be provided to support mental health of young people with SEND.
  • We need a review of our high needs funding.
  • The Department for Health should publish its long-awaited SEND review.

Key take-aways

There are 1.5 million people in the UK with a learning disability, we need a new approach to SEND provision which doesn’t see it as an afterthought but as an integral part of delivering a public education system for all.

The pandemic has not created new problems, in fact, it has shown that when there is political will it is possible to create a more inclusive learning environment for some SEND young people.

Olivia maintains that the problems experienced by SEND children and their families throughout the lockdowns are not new, but they are aggravated by a system that we already know is broken.


[1] Blake, Olivia, MP. 2021. Member of Parliament for Sheffield Hallam and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities

[2] Special Needs Jungle. 2020. Coronavirus and SEND Education: 75% of schools ignored Government risk assessment guidance during the lockdown

[3] Ambitious for Autism. 2020. Coronavirus and Lockdown: The impact on autistic children and young people

 

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This article will cover the current issues that students with special educational needs and disabilities are facing, with a focus on the need to review policy in this area.

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