Ministers finally published their special education needs and disabilities improvement plan today, three years after the SEND review was first launched.
The government has pledged to go ahead with most major reforms it set out in its green paper last March but had very little new to say on post-16 SEND education and training.
Further education leaders were left disappointed by proposals in the green paper, which they didn’t go far enough in addressing complex bureaucracy, under-funding and inconsistencies in the system.
Today’s implementation plan provides some clarity that was missing in the green paper about the role of specialist colleges and post-16 settings within the government’s proposals for a coherent national system.
Plans for national standards to hold local authorities and education settings to account won’t be introduced in full until 2025 at the earliest.
Proposals to standardise and digitise education health and care plans (EHCPs) will go ahead, but again won’t be rolled out fully until 2025.
The Department for Education has kept its pledge to double the number of supported internships by 2025 and commits to continuing to pilot English and maths “flexibilities” within apprenticeships which allows some apprentices with an EHCP to achieve with a reduced level of English and maths.
Natspec, the representative body for specialist colleges, said it welcomed greater commitments to work with post-16 SEND providers but the plan fails to deal with the sector’s urgent staffing and capital needs.
Clare Howard, Natspec chief executive said: “We support the government’s aim to create a more inclusive system where children and young people’s needs are more swiftly met. However, we cannot fully endorse a plan which fails to make much-needed commitments to support the FE sector.
“Whilst the improvement plan acknowledges some of the issues for FE, it still fails to include concrete solutions or new proposals, and does not provide the urgent funding for specialist staffing and facilities required by both general FE and specialist colleges.”
One of the headline announcements from today’s implementation plan is for 33 new specialist free schools in 30 local authority areas, mainly those with large high needs deficits.
But there are no plans for capital investment for post 16 specialist colleges. SEND leaders highlight that specialist colleges are often not eligible for funding under the government’s existing capital programmes for colleges, such as the further education capital transformation fund.
“We are pleased to see more capital funding for special schools, but the children who benefit from new buildings at school also deserve quality facilities when they reach college. Many specialist colleges are now in desperate need of capital funding but there are no new resources for refurbished or extended facilities at specialist colleges,” Howard said.
David Holloway, senior policy manager for SEND at the Association of Colleges, said: “The plan acknowledges critical issues faced by college students with SEND – like the muddle around the status of specialist colleges and the lack of distinct funding for those who do not qualify for high-needs support. But the plan offers no solutions to these problems, nor even a timescale for review.
“Some issues, such as investment in college buildings for students with SEND, are not addressed at all.”
Here’s what you need to know about the “new” policies announced in the government’s improvement plan.
National standards (not until 2025)
By the end of 2025, new national standards will be introduced which outline what provision young people and their families should expect to be made available for them from early years through to further education. The standards also aim to clarify who is responsible for making provision available and which budgets should be used to pay for support.
The standards will be underpinned by legislation to “facilitate intervention in education settings if standards are not met”. But the department confirmed that there won’t be legislation this parliament.
From this spring, parents and “frontline professionals” will be among those ministers talk to on how the standards could look.
By the end of this year, government will “start testing some elements” of the standards with the regional expert partnerships.
Then by the end of 2025, “a significant proportion” of the standards will be published, “with a focus on those that are most deliverable in the current system”.
Accountability to ‘ensure expectations met’
Ministers will also look at designing accountability mechanisms “to ensure the government’s expectations are met, including considering the role of Ofsted and Care Quality Commission”.
The new national standards could set out how colleges must adapt physical and sensory environments to enable students with SEND to learn alongside peers, as well as the council’s role in supporting this.
Clear standards for universal and SEN support provision (so those without an EHCP) will enable “better accountability at this stage”.
National SEND tariffs to come alongside standards
The SEND review also proposed a national system of funding bands and tariffs for students with special needs to ensure more “consistent” funding.
This will go ahead, with bandings clustering “specific types of education provision” and tariffs setting the rules and prices that commissioners use to pay providers.
No specific dates for implementation were provided, just a pledge it will be “alongside our broader changes to the national funding system and the development of national standards”.
The new system will give providers “clarity on how much funding they should expect to receive in delivering support or a service and enable commissioners to determine the funding required”.
EHCPs go digital – but trialled first
DfE is going ahead with plans to create a standardised EHCP template, but guidance won’t be in place from 2025. It will “consider the case for mandating its use through legislation”, but will “encourage” councils to adopt the template.
On plans for a digital EHCP, this year DfE will work with councils, suppliers and families to test how “digital solutions might best improve their experiences of the EHC process”.
In 2024 they will design digital solutions and testing drafts, before beginning “rollout of requirements” across councils in 2025.
Inclusion plans in, but no council admission powers
Government is going ahead with “local inclusion plans” (LIPs), created by local SEND and AP partnerships. Non-statutory guidance will be published this autumn on expectations for the partnerships, alongside a “self-assessment tool”.
In 2024, the change programme’s regional taskforce teams will target support to areas most in need. The DfE’s regions groups will work with the local partnerships to develop and agree LIPs by the end of 2024.
From 2025 onwards, government will introduce primary legislation at the “next available opportunity” to put make partnerships statutory.
Transition to post-16 and employment
For students with an EHCP, local authorities are supposed to specify post-16 provision by March 31, though “this deadline is regularly missed” according to the plan. Information about students’ needs isn’t shared early enough, which means transition to post-16 settings is often hampered late decisions and poor planning.
The government’s answer is to develop new good practice guidance for each transition stage from early years through to employment and adult services. Key partners, including students and the Association of Colleges and Natspec, will be involved.
There’s also a commitment to research the experiences of young people applying and enrolling in post-16 settings “to improve the sharing of information”.
The plan restates the government’s commitment to spend £18 million over the next three years to double supported internships by 2025. Internships Work have been appointed as “delivery partner” and are tasked with “levelling up the quality of internships across the country”.
There were 2,500 supported internship starts in 2020/21, but an investigation by FE Week that only one in foursupported interns achieved sustained employment.
Mandatory mediation to be scoped out first
Ministers had controversially proposed to make mediation between councils and families during the EHCP process mandatory. Currently thousands of appeals go to the first-tier tribunal with some parents waiting up to a year for help.
The move will be tested through the change programme to ensure there are no “unintended consequences for families”. It will look at options to “strengthen mediation” before deciding whether to bring forward legislation.
This year it will work with organisations such as the Civil Mediation Council, the College of Mediators as well as families to review and build on professional standards for mediators.
It will improve mediation advice for families and evaluate the outcomes and impacts of the process.
Next year, it will “clearly set out” what processes should be followed locally and say how the mediation process “will be monitored to give families confidence in it”.
Workforce support for schools, but not for FE
Ministers will go ahead with plans to introduce a new leadership level SENCo National Professional Qualification. The Department confirmed to FE Week that the implementation plan did not contain any new workforce development measures for post-16 settings.
Instead, the Department pointed to three new practice guides, to be introduced by the end of 2025, which “will equip frontline professionals with the skills and expertise to make best use of provision and to identify needs early, accurately, and consistently.”
Inclusion dashboard demo next month
The SEND review pledged new “inclusion dashboards” for 0 to 25 provision to offer a “timely, transparent picture” of how the system is performing at local and national level for “strengthened accountability and transparency to parents”.
A prototype will be tested from this April “with a view to making a fully public version available in autumn 2023”.
However, where new mandatory data collections are proposed, they will be assessed to check if they are “genuinely necessary, non-duplicative, comparable and coherent with all other data collections”.