Is the DfE deliberately ignoring pupils with SEND?

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The experiences of pupils with special educational needs and disability are consistently overlooked – there’s no greater disadvantage than being ignored, says Christopher Rossiter

The latest research from Ofsted on the experience of young people with special educational needs and disability (SEND) and their families through the pandemic has a familiar air.

Children and families have once again told us about missed and narrowed education, the absence of essential services, and the long waiting times for assessment and support. The research tells us that identification of these young people’s needs remains poor, and that some have new or different needs that have emerged over the course of the pandemic.

The conclusion is clear. Young people with SEND are way behind their peers. The pandemic has exacerbated these issues but the continued lack of a high-quality education is the true culprit.

These messages come with disturbing regularity. The frustration, exhaustion and, sometimes, despair of too many families, young people and their teachers continues unabated.

SEND: where is the additional support or the vision?

Given these repeated messages, where is the grand plan, the additional support or vision within the government’s recovery plan? Something additional to – or different from – the national tutoring programme, perhaps. Why are these young people being given over to tutors who are unlikely to have relevant expertise in SEND and know much less about these young people than their own teachers?

In early versions of its catch-up premium guidance, the Department for Education did not include specific reference to SEND specialists, which might have prompted schools to bring these professionals in earlier. Only after a prompt to Vicky Ford MP, minister for children and families, was this confirmed.

The government also continues to drag out its SEND review – the one promised as the answer to so many of the questions raised by the education select committee. Two years on and, despite regular assurance of its imminent release, systemic failure continues to be the norm. The delay – and the failure to call out this lack of action – is damning.

Desperately short supply of leadership

What seems clear is that the sector is in desperately short supply of leadership. I applaud the work of Ofsted and its chief inspector Amanda Spielman’s position, as something remarkable. Too many other public figures across the sector are silent on the professional challenge that has stained our education system for a decade or more.

Ofsted’s recent record on considering the 1.5 million young people with SEND is by no means perfect. The recent report on sexual harassment contained not a single mention of this group, despite clear evidence that these young people suffer higher rates of bullying in school.

The higher number of vulnerable young people in alternative provision would surely warrant greater attention than this, so one wonders whether their exclusion was by choice rather than a lack of evidence that these young people might be affected. There is no greater disadvantage than being ignored.

On the other hand, the government has barely commented on the issues relating to the experience of young people with SEND over the past 16 months. Yes, Covid has thrown up so many seemingly impossible challenges. But is it too much to ask the government to remember the young people and staff in special schools and alternative provision?

We must look to school leaders in mainstream and specialist settings – often unheard rather than silent – to call out a lack of resources, funding and effective professional development for their teams, while still providing an education to the most disadvantaged pupils.

So, let us applaud the leadership of Her Majesty’s chief inspector, lament the woeful action of government but not forget our leaders in schools – because it really is over to you.

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