Accountability and the Gap

In the health service and in most businesses if you implement a significant new technology or new way of doing something – you build into that innovation a quality assurance system that ensures that the new approach is delivering what people expect.  It ensures that something is delivered in the way in which it was designed and it is a cornerstone of effective quality assurance. Unfortunately these principles are often not applied to the way in which national government expects local government and other stakeholders to implement a whole range of policies around disabled children and vulnerable children. This gives rise to a situation where the theory of how things should be is far removed from the reality of things on the ground.

This is something that is well illustrated in a number of Steve Broach’s blogs but in particular in a recent article on Short Breaks which he concludes with the following paragraph:

I hope the time will come when we will finally say enough is enough and ensure that every family member who cares for a disabled person is properly supported in their caring role. The law I summarise above is piecemeal and patchy, but it should already be sufficient to make sure this happens in every case. Where it doesn’t, I suggest families get legal advice. We cannot continue to let this be yet another area where legal rights and everyday reality are so far apart. Steve Broach 2014

It is the gap between legal entitlement and everyday reality that concerns me most about the way in which the SEND Reforms are being implemented. In a recent article for Special Needs Jungle , Stephen Kingdom argued that formal monitoring of the reforms could not take place before September 2015 because it would take that long for the data to come through. This is partly true but not entirely so. Something that Bringing Us Together illustrated very effectively in their Local Offer Research published the evening before September 1st. In their research they were able to show that  a significant number of Local Offers had not yet been published . This was small scale ad-hoc research but it illustrates an important principle, namely that change can and should be monitored as it is being done.

If the DfE had implemented the reforms with a governance framework or quality assurance system, data about the availability of Local Offers on September 1st would have been available from them, as would data on the availability of Local Transitional Arrangements and all the other deadlines that exist between now and 2018. Without effective  and systematic monitoring and governance of the reforms and their implementation, the government is building slack into the system.  By deliberately implementing the reforms without a governance framework, the government is creating a situation where the gap between entitlement and reality will establish itself from the outset. And ultimately the people who suffer most from the existence of this gap are the families of disabled children.

But it isn’t just about the struggle for resources, because without effective governance, changes on these scale put children and young people at risk, something that Christine Blower the General Secretary of the NUT alluded to in a recent press release.

Teachers have been insufficiently involved in the pathfinders for these new SEND reforms and there is therefore a lack of clarity about what new expectations mean for schools. Teachers wonder at why Ministers are not risk assessing the cumulative impact of so many concurrent new reforms. Christine Blower (September 2014)

This is a particularly worrying statement given that by the spring of next year schools are expected to have introduced the new SEN Support System in the context of reduced access to specialist support.

Most of the children and young people affected by these reforms go to mainstream schools. We don’t know how the reforms are going to impact on the ability of schools to support children with problematic behaviour, we don’t know if local authorities are going to make it harder for schools to get an EHC Plan for a child if all of their needs are educational.  And we don’t know if recent changes to the system are going to make it easier to expel young people with SEN on the grounds of their behaviour – because the mood music coming out of Ofsted isn’t promising.

There are a great many things that we don’t yet know about the reality of the reforms but what we can be sure of, is that we will know a long time before the government does.


Accountability, Governance and the missing EHC Plan

During the recent web-chat hosted by Special Needs Jungle on Twitter, we discovered that the government will not begin work on developing a formal accountability framework until September 2015. In his replies Stephen Kingdom pointed out that local authorities were being held to account in a range of ways and that the DfE wanted to give local authorities time to embed the reforms before holding them to account more formally.  Sound’s fair enough. But, if we assume that it is going to take at least 6 months to identify a governance framework and a further 6 months to test it, the earliest it could feasibly be introduced would be September 2016. It is however, more likely that it won’t become operational until 2017.

So does it matter that the largest reform of the special education system since Warnock is being implemented without a formal governance and evaluation framework? It might not if we knew that local authorities were going to introduce the reforms in the spirit in which they were intended. But many of them will not and how do we know that ?  Well we don’t because there is no governance framework. But speaking from personal experience I’d be a little concerned.

Six weeks ago after having spent months working on our son’s new Person Centred EHC Plan (he is 19), we received a letter stating that the local authority was discontinuing his statement. No explanation and no EHC Plan, just a place at the Local Further Education College. This by the way, just a few weeks after being told that he wasn’t entitled to Direct Payments. Of course it could be a mistake or a strategic decision not to support Post 19 provision with an EHC Plan  and when we have finished supporting our son through his transition to his new college I’ll chase it up.

But what I can say is that here in the SEND Pathfinder Champion East Sussex, after having lost their Pathfinder Director in May, their Local Offer Lead last month and with the SE7 Pathfinder lead also leaving soon (all three of whom have wealth of experience and are fundamentally committed to the wellbeing of our children) it wouldn’t surprise me, if the reason that the DfE wasn’t keen to implement a formal governance framework at this stage was because they are too busy hiding behind the sofa hoping that by the time they have to come out things will be better.

Collaboration, Performance and the SEND Reforms

In policy making circles its usually accepted that ” participation and collaboration” is a good thing. The theory is that policies that are developed in partnership with service users are more likely to meet the needs of those service users. It seems common sense and when the government announced back in 2011 that it was going to involve families and a broad range of stakeholder groups in the development of the SEND Reforms I was pleasantly surprised by its commitment to participatory practice. Indeed as the reforms began and the process of piloting and testing them began to take shape, it was hard not to believe that the government wasn’t genuinely trying to co-produce the new SEN infrastructure and in the end I think they probably did. So what we now have is arguably one of the most collaboratively produced pieces of government legislation that any UK government has ever produced and if all of this hadn’t been taking place in the context of the cuts I’d be more optimistic.

Nevertheless, the reform process and the Pathfinders have shown us that many aspects of the reforms can work. But its important to remember that politicians are politicians and the purpose of a good minister is to convince people that they can make the world a better place without it costing anything. In addition to this from a political perspective Pathfinders and pilot schemes have an added bonus, they don’t just test ideas – they allow politicians too represent best practice as generic practice. Pathfinders allow them to pretend that this is how things are everywhere or could be if local authorities did as they were supposed to.

When the reforms came into force this September – the media was packed off to Wigan to see how well the idea of EHC Plans and Personal Budgets worked and unsurprisingly, given that Wigan was one of the Pathfinders that had been most successful in implementing them, the report left the viewer with the impression that the reforms are a good thing. But the reality of the reforms is that most local authorities are a long way from being as prepared as even the worst performing Pathfinders. And even in the Pathfinders, families who took part in piloting the ideas will very probably be receiving a better service than those who did not.

Participation has given a great many families a voice and that voice has undoubtedly made the SEND Reforms far better than they might otherwise have been. But that collaboration has also given legitimacy to the governments policy performance and allowed them to create the impression that the reforms have been rigorously tested and adequately funded. They have not, local authorities have made massive cuts to their SEN Infrastructure at a time of greatest change and a time when it is needed most. It is for this reason that all of those who are participating and collaborating with the government in implementing  and delivering its reforms have a right to feel proud of what they have been able to achieve, but they must also become champions of the children, young people and parents who will be ill-served by the reforms and by politicians, local and national,  who will pretend that they are delivering when they are not.