New children and families minister must continue to implement SEND reforms

With Edward Timpson a shock casualty of the election, we can’t let his SEND overhaul drop off the agenda, says Clare Howard

Edward Timpson, the minister overseeing a complete overhaul of the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) system, lost his seat at the election. Widely respected for his dedication and passion, he will a hard act to follow.

It remains to be seen how a new minister will affect the future policy, but what lessons can those working to implement the SEND reforms learn from the election itself?

1. Negative campaigning doesn’t work

Those that ran the Remain campaign during the EU referendum admitted their biggest mistake was to focus on the negative consequences of Brexit.

But Theresa May’s general election campaign made the same mistake, and voters – especially the young – ignored the screaming headlines.

Those of us implementing reforms must take heed. Dame Christine Lenehan and the team working on the review of independent specialist schools and colleges have already indicated there is too much criticism and negativity from all sides, and more should be done to focus on common ground, to produce the outcomes we are all working towards.

2. Leaders need to be inclusive, approachable and visible

One of the many talking points of the campaign was Ms May’s leadership style: the repetition of “I” rather than “we”, the no-show in the debate, the closed inner circle, and the lack of consultation with cabinet ministers on key policy lines. Contrast Jeremy Corbyn’s open rallies and straight-talking leadership style, which caused even his fiercest critics inside the Labour Party, who believed him to be unelectable, to eat humble pie by the end of the campaign.

With a disparate and uncoordinated SEND system involving 150 LAs handling high-needs budgets, mainstream and specialist FE providers barely coping with increased administrative costs and reduced budgets, increasingly frustrated parent and community groups, and around 25,000 FE students in the middle of it all, the question is: do we have the leaders across the system with the skills to bring people together, inspire and motivate?

3. Confidence can become a weakness

There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance. Ms May displayed both during the course of the campaign, and the electorate refused to be told what to do.

Let’s make sure we do not fall into the trap of repeating mantras and soundbites from the SEND code of practice, without clear action. The latest SEND data shows that there is a long way to go before the system is truly person-centred, transparent, easy to navigate, and efficient.

4. Beware assumption and echo chambers

With social media now the main source of information for many, we are all guilty of confirmation bias: surrounding ourselves with views, memes, articles and videos we agree with, and ignoring contrary evidence.

There are too many assumptions and false perceptions driving SEND policy, particularly relating to post-19 provision, and these need to be challenged.

5. Don’t mess with the young, the old or the vulnerable

Whether the issue was school budgets, student fees, FE and skills, the dementia tax or the future of the NHS, the Conservatives underestimated the capacity of people to register a protest. For SEND policy and funding, now could be the time to work out a new approach to joining up health, education and social care budgets so that post-16 and post-19 students can receive integrated programmes that result in savings in the longer term.

6. Protect core values

Any reflections on the campaign cannot ignore the atrocities in Manchester and London. The response of everyone involved demonstrated courage, unity, and determination not to allow these events to interrupt the democratic process.

The young people we work with demonstrate a similar unbreakable sprit, and whoever takes over from Edward Timpson must show courage of convictions, work hard to protect the principles of the Act, and finally achieve the vision that he set out.


Clare Howard is CEO of Natspec

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