Saturday, 13 December 2014

The unconference on inclusion in education: tell us what you would like to see covered. In ten words!

We are really excited to see so many people have already signed up for our unconference on inclusion in education. See our previous post here  for full details and book your ticket on Eventbrite here.

We would like to ask all those who have booked a place to let us know what they would like to see covered.

The challenge is to do this in ten words!

Let us have your ideas and we will post them here.

What you want to talk about

How do you achieve inclusion in a resistant community? 
Charlotte Buckby, parent, social worker and IPSEA Rep.

Inclusion into what? Normative assumptions, 'reasonable adjustments' and appreciating diversity.
Damian Milton, parent, academic, campaigner

Has the SEND reform given parents and young people any more control over their own education - or just more meetings?
Barney Angliss, SENCO

How can Special and Mainstream collaborate effectively to support inclusion?
Simon Knight, Special School Deputy Head, Associate Director at the National Education Trust and Director of Teaching School at the Oxfordshire Teaching Schools Alliance.

How do we make special schools redundant?

Jarlath O'Brien, Special school headteacher

How can children's rights and the UNCRC be utilised to promote inclusion and social justice in education?
Sophie Christophy, journalist, 'childrens' rights geek' social historian

Blog posts

For excellent contributions to the discussion about 'inclusion', you could also look at the following blog posts. We have listed the posts alongside the author's username so you can follow them on twitter.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Unconference on inclusion in education: come and share your views!

We have been actively following the SEN reform process.

The passing of the Children and Families Act has felt like little more than a fight to stand still.  'SEN issues' have not been mainstreamed: instead, they continue to be sidelined as if they were a topic of interest for 'experts' affecting only a few 'special' children. There has been scant talk of equality and human rights. Instead, the talk is usually about 'support' and 'signposting' which can feel like a rather patronising pat on the head.

This kind of approach impacts heavily on our children and young people as it affects the perspectives on disability we encounter in society generally.

We, at the ERA, feel it is time to change the conversation.

We would like a genuine and frank discussion about SEN, disability and equality in our schools. This is a massive topic so there are many issues which could be discussed. For example, what is 'inclusive education'? Does inclusion differ from equality? How? Does this matter in practice? How do we ensure people are aware of their equality rights and that they are enforced? What is the role of special schools? Do resource bases work? What is the state of evidence about inclusion? What do our children and young people think? Do we know? How should we plan for, implement, and fund inclusive education? There are many, many more questions to ask on this topic but we think we need to start somewhere!

What do you think?

We are a small, completely unfunded, parent-led organisation. We are not a charity. We are not connected to any charity or organisation. We have no power to decide anything for anyone neither do we have any desire  to silence or exclude. We are trying to create a space to give a voice to our young people's experiences. So, we thought it might be a good idea to set up a meeting to try and kick-start a debate about SEN and equality but we certainly don't want this to be a one-off.

We would really like to involve all those involved in the SEN system who can speak of the realities of practice: kids, parents, people with disabilities (especially those who have recent school experiences), teachers, lawyers, academics and organisations working on the frontline.

In raising this, we are very conscious that there are many different and complex views about inclusion in education. Our aim is to try to pull people together with potentially very different experiences and views and to try and find common ground. Our priority remains those who experience the system.

The event

Irwin Mitchell have very kindly agreed to provide funding for an event in London. We have set the date of 3 February 2015 for the meeting.  They are as follows:

Date: Tuesday 3rd February 2015 at 10.30 to 5pm

Place:  The Arc Centre, 98B St Paul Street, London N1

Nearest tube:Angel (Northern line)

Nearest rail:Essex road

Buses: 38, 73,56, 76, 141, 271,341, 476 (get off at the Packington Street stop on Essex Road near to Islington Green)

Parking: Pay and Display on surrounding streets

You can book FREE tickets event on Eventbrite here.

Online preparation and attendance

We are committed to organising this as openly and inclusively as possible. It is absolutely essential that the voices and experiences of disabled people are heard so please contact us to get involved. We would like to hear from YOU as there is much left to be discussed. We welcome your suggestions, ideas, advice, involvement, offers of help etc.

We intend to set up a blog so people can record their own views and raise issues publicly for discussion. In this way they can still contribute if they are unable to attend (or if they would prefer to contribute in this way).

If there is anything else you think we should be doing to make this project work, please let us know.

Hardship travel fund

Irwin Mitchell has kindly agreed to offer £250 towards travel costs for those who would not otherwise be able to attend.

If you are unwaged, disabled or have would otherwise find it difficult to attend without financial assistance, please contact us now at and we will see if we can help. The funding is extremely limited so a contribution rather than full costs may be offered. Assistance will be offered on a first come, first served basis.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Health Committee report into CAMHS confirms "serious and deeply ingrained problems"

In March, we asked for your experiences of CAMHS for an inquiry being undertaken by the House of Commons' Select Committee on Health.

Our report can be read here. And once again, we thank you all so much for participating.

The Select Committee has today published its report. You can read the report in full here.

The Select Committee has concluded:

"that there are serious and deeply ingrained problems with the commissioning and provision of children’s and adolescents’ mental health services. These run through the whole system from prevention and early intervention through to inpatient services for the most vulnerable young people".
Their conclusions are as follows:

  • There are major problems with access to inpatient mental health services, with children and young people’s safety being compromised while they wait for a bed to become available. Often when beds are found they may be in distant parts of the country, making contact with family and friends difficult, and leading to longer stays.
  • Early intervention services provide support to children and young people before mental health problems become entrenched and increase in severity. These services reduce the need for higher tier services including admission. However in many areas early intervention services are being cut or are suffering from insecure or short term funding. We welcome the announcement of the DH/NHS England Taskforce and recommend that it should audit commissioning of early intervention services in local authorities, and report the best mechanisms to provide stable, long term funding for early intervention services.
  • While demand for mental health services for children and adolescents appears to be rising, many CCGs report having frozen or cut their budgets. CCGs have the power to determine their own local priorities, but we are concerned that insufficient priority is being given to children and young people’s mental health.
  • The Committee is particularly concerned about the wholly unacceptable practice of taking children and young people detained under s136 of the Mental Health Act to police cells, which still persists. In responding to this report we expect the Department of Health to be explicit in setting out how this practice will be eradicated.
  • Concerns have also been raised about the quality of education children and young people receive when they are being treated in inpatient units. We recommend that OFSTED, DFE and NHS England conduct a full audit of educational provision within inpatient units as a matter of urgency. 
  • In community CAMHS services, providers have reported increased waiting times for CAMHS services and increased referral thresholds, coupled with, in some cases, challenges in maintaining service quality, as a result of rising demand in the context of reductions in funding. Not all services reported difficulties – some state that they have managed to maintain standards of access and quality –but overall there is unacceptable variation. Young people and their parents have described “battles” to get access to CAMHS services, with only the most severely affected young people getting appointments; they also described the devastating impact that long waits for treatment can have.
  • We recommend that NHS England and the Department of Health should monitor and increase spending levels on CAMHS until we can be assured that CAMHS services in all areas are meeting an acceptable standard. Service specifications for Tier 2 and 3 services should set out what acceptable services should be expected to provide, and NHS England and the Department of Health should carry out a full audit to ensure all services are meeting these.
  • A crucially important time for promoting good mental health is the perinatal and infant period, but there is unacceptable variation in the provision of perinatal mental health services, and the Committee recommends that these services must be available in every area.
  • It is clear that there are currently insufficient levers in place at national level to drive essential improvements to CAMHS services, including insufficient scrutiny from the CQC. There must be a clear national policy directive for CAMHS, underpinned by adequate funding. 
In addition, the report highlights further areas for action:

  • Problems persist in the commissioning of CAMHS. Despite the move to national commissioning of inpatient services over a year ago, many of the perceived benefits of national planning have not been realised, and we intend to review NHS England’s progress in address this this area early in 2015.
  • Out-of-hours crisis services, paediatric liaison teams within acute hospitals, and Tier 3.5 assertive outreach teams can have a positive impact, including reducing both risk and length of inpatient admission; however availability of services which bridge the gap between inpatient and outpatient care is extremely variable, and current commissioning arrangements act as a perverse incentive driving admissions as these are then funded by NHS England rather than CCGs. We call on the Department of Health and NHS England to act urgently to ensure that by the end of this year all areas have clear mechanisms to improve commissioning arrangements. We welcome the extra funding for early intervention in psychosis services and crisis care and recommend it is clearly set out how this will improve services for young people.
  • It is ten years since the last survey of children’s and young people’s mental health, and the lack of reliable and up to date information in this area means that those planning and running CAMHS services have been operating in a "fog". Ensuring that commissioners, providers and policy makers have up-to-date information about children's and adolescents’ mental health must be a priority for the Department of Health/ NHS England taskforce.
  • We heard from young people that while some teachers and schools provide excellent support, others seem less knowledgeable or well trained, and can even seem ‘scared’ of discussing mental health issues. We recommend the Department for Education looks to including a mandatory module on mental health in initial teacher training, and should include mental health modules as part of ongoing professional development in schools for both teaching and support staff. We also recommend that the Department for Education conducts an audit of mental health provision and support within schools, looking at how well the guidance issued toschools this year has been implemented, what further support may be needed, and highlighting examples of best practice. OFSTED should also make routine assessments of mental health provision in schools.
  • Children and young people also need to know how to keep themselves safe online. We recommend that as part of its review of mental health education in schools, the Department for Education should ensure that links between online safety, cyberbullying, and maintaining and protecting emotional wellbeing and mental health are fully articulated. We recommend clear pathways are identified for young people to report that they have been sent indecent images of other children or young people, and that support is provided for those who have been victims of image sharing. Pathways should also be established for children and young people who have experienced bullying, harassment and threats of violence. 
  • The Department of Health/NHS England taskforce should also report on the most effective ways of supporting CAMHS providers to help young people cope with the challenges of online culture, and also on how agencies can make better use of online means of communication for reaching out to young people.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The Department for Education and the Local Offer: Part Two

On 2 October, we provided an update on our attempt to obtain clear information from the Department for Education (DfE) about the implementation of the Local Offer.

The DfE's response, which you can read here, confirmed that 99% of LAs had now published a Local Offer or, perhaps, something which the DfE referred to as 'an initial Local Offer'.

We queried this figure. Did this mean that 99% of LAs had now published statutorily compliant Local Offers, e.g. had the Local Offers been published as a result of statutory consultation, or had LAs just been told to stick something (anything) on their websites?

We also queried the term 'initial Local Offer'. The term is, of course, entirely meaningless legally. The law recognises only one type of Local Offer: the Local Offer set out in the Children and Families Act,  its Regulations and the Code of Practice.

This week we received this further email response.

Dear Dr Sayers, 

Thank you for your email dated 25 September 2014 about the local offer. 

I am sorry not to have replied sooner.  As you rightly point out, there is not a separate legal definition of an “Initial local offer".  I can explain why I used the term in my earlier reply.  Under the statutory requirements in the Children and Families Act, local authorities are required, from September 2014, to consult children and young people with special educational needs or disabilities and the parents of disabled children and those with SEN in developing the local offer and publish it on a website. The implementation date is the same for both aspects of the requirements: the duty to consult and the duty to publish information, but you would expect publication to follow consultation.  Since a key feature of the local offer is that it should be developed, reviewed and kept up to date and local authorities have been required to publish different information about support for children and young people who are disabled or have SEN for some time, we encouraged them to publish information in a local offer in September and work with families to develop and update it.   Our initial check of local offers - and the basis of my '99% figure' - was a check to see that there was a local offer website up and running.  Of course, local authorities will be developing those local offers over time. 

I am happy for you to publish my responses to your queries - and there is no need to redact my name.  (I also agree that using the generic email address can seem rather impersonal - however, it has the advantage of ensuring that the correspondence is properly logged on the Department's systems.)

Your correspondence has been allocated reference number 2014/0063754. If you need to respond to us, please visit:, and quote your reference number.
Yours sincerely,

Stephen Kingdom
Childcare, Special Educational Needs and Children’s Strategy

We are grateful for this response. However, it seems clear to us that all the DfE has done is made sure LAs have something on their websites and  that it is simply hoping that compliance with the law may 'develop over time'. An approach which parents will be all too familiar with and which is unacceptable.

Then, today, we have noted a flurry of tweets from the DfE making wholly unevidenced claims about the reforms such as:

"'Parents are delighted, equipment is cheaper and their personal budgets are really successful' - LA Pathfinder #SEND"

We think a bit more Departmental time spent on protecting children's rights and a bit less on pumping out obvious spin is needed. There will be no long-lasting change to this dated 'SEN model' while the legally rights of children and young people can be so easily pushed to one side and given a lower priority than the needs of the authorities charged with their implementation.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

The SEND reforms: a case of the Emperor's new clothes?

Over the last month or so, we have seen so many conferences, so many speeches, and so many lunches. There has been much high-fiving and back-slapping about our brave new SEN landscape. So many consultants have been advising, marketing and promoting. The SEN industry is certainly alive and well.

Yet, in the land of the Emperor's New Clothes (the Children and Families Act) all is not contentment and joy. Those who point out the nakedness of the monarch are castigated for not 'playing fair' or maybe for 'not getting stuck in' or even worse for 'not making the best of things'. It's as if somehow, by not playing along with the whole charade, they are being ungrateful or they are letting some unknown (and unjoined) 'SEN team' down.

The Educational Rights Alliance does not speak for all parents. We do not represent the 'SEND community'. Indeed, we believe no such singular 'community' exists. We make no claims about being on any 'SEND team'. We have, however, committed ourselves to developing grassroots action where we can and to raising issues concerning transparency, accountability and equality (and it really is startling how threatening large, extremely well-funded organisations find simple questions). We certainly have no wish to join the noblemen who (to continue the Emperor's New Clothes analogy) "pretended to lift and hold the King's mantle high because they didn't dare admit they had nothing to hold".

Below are just a few of the ways in which we think it is very clear that the 'King' is in fact 'in the altogether'.

'Independent Supporters'

For example, we have had an unecessarily protracted battle to obtain basic information about 'Independent Supporters' - once-christened 'Parent Champions' by the Government (but remember no actual parents were included in the making of this initiative). Read our post here for example. 

It is now certain, according to a recent FAQ published by the Council for Disabled Children (CDC), that these 'Champions' are nothing of the sort. In response to a question we had raised about what Independent Supporters would do if they noted unlawful practice by LAs, the CDC says:

"The role of an Independent Supporter is to help parents and young people gather the information required to formulate a draft EHC plan. Advice on local authority practices that goes beyond this time limited task of an Independent Supporter would be best referred over to the Information Advice and Support Service, who are best equipped and trained to resolve any concerns of this nature."

So, there you have it. 'Independent Supporters' would not tell parents to go and seek independent legal advice or even tell them that the LA cannot do what they claim they can, they are simply advised to keep silent and suggest a parent sees IASS (formerly the Parent Partnership Service (PPS)). This is an 'arms-length' service funded by LAs which is not run by legally qualified staff. It has a highly variable record for consistency and willingness to take issue with LA practices. How is this acting in the best interests of families with disabled children? With a 'Champion' like that, who needs enemies? We believe the whole intervention may work primarily for the benefit of LAs: an extra 'pair of hands' to clear the bureacratic nightmare that is this new legislation. 

Similarly, as part of the 'Independent Supporters' (IS) saga, given the CDC's and Government's acknowledgement of potentially significant variation between the delivery of the services locally, we wrote to every single publicly funded IS provider on 9 September with this letter. The list of providers is found here. We believe that the information requested is of importance to parents and that good governance dictates that someone should have a clear idea of the disparity to services nationally.

Sadly, although there are at least FORTY-SIX individual oranisations listed by the CDC as providing publicly-funded IS services, after a month, we have had acknowledgements from only FIVE and no substantive responses to the questions raised. The organisations who have at least responded are:
  • Grapevine Coventry
  • Mencap
  • The Edge Consulting (who have offered to discuss this with us)
  • Amaze Brighton
  • VCAT
This is hugely disappointing. If these bodies were public bodies, they would be bound by the Freedom of Information Act and they would have to respond. We believe that this information should be readily available as the public is paying for these services. The information should also be capable of comparison by being available centrally. Otherwise, how can we prevent yet more 'postcode gaps' appearing in the variable geometry of our SEN system? 

Local Offer

The Local Offer was another intiative which drew significant praise, not least from the CDC itself (see their letter here).

The Local Offer is created by the Act and its rather messy accompanying Regulations. The legal obligations it creates and places on local authorities are very clear. Yet, post 1 September, it was obvious that many LAs simply had not created a Local Offer let alone consulted on one. See our letter to Mr Timpson here.

There appears to be much sympathy for the unreadiness of LAs which has not been fairly balanced by outrage at the denial of rights to children and young people. Those who plead for LAs to have time and 'support' to produce basic 'initial offers' (whatever they are - see our post here) were silent when we were demanding a moratorium on the legislative procees to ensure it was implemented effectively and to children and young people's benefit. This Act was very clearly railroaded through Parliament, yet the lack of criticial analysis of the consequences of this from those with the weight and power to do so has been shameful.

Section 19

Another cause for rejoicing, at varying levels, has been the introduction of s 19 of the Children and Families Act, specifically s 19(d). This says that in exercising its functions, a local authority must have regard to the following matters in particular:

"the need to support the child and his or her parent, or the young person, in order to facilitate the development of the child or young person and to help him or her achieve the best possible educational and other outcomes."

Let us be very clear. This is not a duty of substance but one of procedure. This section does not mean a child is legally entitled to the best possible educational outcomes but that, procedurally, when making decisions the LA must 'have regard' to this goal. What LA is going to say that it hasn't, or fail to record that it hasn't, considered what the 'best possible educational' outcome would be?

The 'regard' duty has been compared to the duty on public bodies under the Equality Act 2010 (the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED)) to pay 'due regard' to certain goals  (e.g.eliminating discrimination) in all their actions and functions. The fact that this is a procedural duty and not a substantive one (i.e. it does not require a particular outcome) is confirmed in the lead case on the Act which gave rise to the  so-called 'Brown Principles'. The court clearly stated here (at para 81):

"it is important to appreciate........that the imposition of a duty to have "due regard" to the various identified "needs" does not impose a duty to achieve results. It is a duty to have "due regard" to the "need" to achieve the identified goals. This is a vital distinction".

The PSED has been very important in challenging the practice of public bodies who would otherwise not even think about the duties under the Equality Act as it compels them to record their consideration of equality related issues when undertaking their decision-making. Yet, in the SEN process, LAs are already required to consider the individual needs of the child and the appropriate provision to meet those needs. The SEN process is also already dominated by written procedures: assessments obtained, views sought, evidence considered. Even if the whole process largely seems like a charade, from a legal perspective, the procedure already exists for LAs to argue that they are taking account of what the 'best educational outcomes' are for this individual child when making a decision. Under s 19, you can't challenge that in court just because you feel it is untrue. You can only mount a challange when you can show, procedurally, that it hasn't happened. Even then, if you win, the court will simply send the case back to the LA for them to rubber-stamp their initial decision using the right language.

So we must be very honest with parents. On an individual case level, only in cases where glaringly unsuitable decisions are made, with no evidence that anyone thought of the outcomes for the child, will this provide any opportunity for legal challenge and even then challenge is likely to be by way of appeal before the Tribunal rather than judicial review before the courts. This is because the availability of appeal to the SEN Tribunal means that judicial review is often not considered appropriate (if it is thought of at all by solicitors) in cases concerning the quality of provision. Judicial review is a remedy of last resort (all other options must have been tried). If you can appeal to the Tribunal about the inadequacy of provision you have not exhausted all other options.  If a judicial review is available (perhaps because the Tribunal route is ineffective), it is more than likely that a judicial review could have been taken on existing legal grounds irrespective of the existence of s 19(d).

Post the Children and Families Act, the duty on LAs is still to ensure that the child has the provision 'appropriate' to their needs. This is at least a substantive one. So what does a procedural duty to have 'regard' to the 'best possible educational outcomes' add to this? LAs will simply say that they have taken this into account in providing what they believe to be the most appropriate provision. Only in glaring cases of irrationality (the sort of case which would allow challenge on basic public law principles anyway) would this be challenged by judicial review. In reality, such issues are most likely to end up before the Tribunal again who may well feel this procedural duty adds very little to the substantive issues they are being asked to decide. It can only be hoped that it at least makes LAs more transparent in their decision-making when they make and record their decisions.

Of course, if we are wrong on the law on this, we would be happy to be put right with clear examples of what it is felt that s.19 adds to the law as it stands. We think there is certainly a need for further discussion on this. But we also think that caution should be exercised before making claims about the nature and impact of this particular reform.


So taking up from where we started, what has the rejoicing been about? Yes, it is early days but we owe it to our children and young people to remain rooted in reality when we consider what is happening. 

We inhabit a country where swingeing cuts are being made to public services, where teachers are being blamed for everything that goes wrong, where an oversight body (Ofsted) does not even mention SEND when producing a report on behaviour (see our post here) and where equality is never mentioned as a goal of SEN reform.

The reform process has not seriously attempted to reach out and engage with parents, carers, children and young people in any systematic and egalitarian way. It is no slight on Parent Carer Forums (PCFs) to say not all parents are part of them, want to be part of them or are even aware of their existence. Genuine engagement has to go beyond this and down to grassroots level. It has to engage those who are battling with multiple disadvantages, those whose views are generally not sought out or considered. There is a need to look at the problem from the bottom up. This means fewer highly-paid consultants, quangos, and charity consortia and more grassroots advocacy and community activism.

Until this happens, with our limited resources, we shall continue to shout loudly:

 "But he isn't wearing anything at all".

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Parental engagement with the DfE on law-breaking and the Local Offer

On 3 September, we wrote to Mr Timpson about what looked like catastrophic non-compliance with the law relating to the Local Offer.

You can read our post and letter here

You may remember that the Minister had previously claimed that 95% of LAs were ready for the introduction of the Children and Families Act and that he had made the following promise: "for authorities who are further behind the curve, I’ve made it my business personally to follow up on their progress".

Our letter asked the Minister to confirm what action his department intended to take to ensure full compliance with the law and whether he could confirm that the Department for Education (DfE) was are prepared to receive information directly from parents regarding problems with the implementation of the Local Offer in their area.

On 24 September, we received a response. We should say at the outset we immediately asked by email and twitter whether the DfE had any objection to the publication of this response but that we have received no reply. We have decided to publish it so that parents can share this important information.

Deputy Director Mr Kingdom wrote:

"Dear Ms Sayers, 

Thank you for your letter of 3 September addressed to Edward Timpson. I have been asked to respond as I am the Deputy Director in the 0-25 Special Educational Needs and Disability Unit.

I was pleased to see the Educational Rights Alliance taking part in the Special Needs Jungle twitter chat last week. As you’ll have seen, some of that discussion covered similar ground to your letter. I am hoping that Special Needs Jungle will publish a follow-up blog from me expanding further on some of those issues.

With regard to the specific points in your letter on the Local Offer it is, of course, a key component of the SEND reforms. Under the statutory requirements in the Children and Families Act, local authorities are required, from 1 September 2014, to consult children and young people with special educational needs or disabilities and the parents of disabled children and those with SEN in developing the Local Offer and to publish it on a website. Local authorities have been required to publish different information about support for children and young people who are disabled or have SEN for some time. That is why we have encouraged local authorities to publish an initial Local Offer in September and work with families to develop and update it.

We are monitoring the implementation of all the special educational needs and disability reforms, including the Local Offer, and providing a package of support to local authorities. Our latest information shows that 99% of local authorities have now published a Local Offer and we are actively pursuing the remainder. Over the coming months, we will look carefully at the continued progress of local authorities in developing their Local Offers and provide further support where appropriate.

If parents have concerns about the Local Offer drawn up by their own local authority, their first point of call should be to discuss their concerns with the local authority.  However, if that does not resolve the issue, then we are, of course, prepared to receive information from them.

Your correspondence has been allocated reference number 2014/0059226. If you need to respond to us, please visit:, and quote your reference number.

Yours sincerely,

Stephen Kingdom
Deputy Director
Childcare, Special Educational Needs and Children’s Strategy"

There are several points to note arising from this. 

Firstly, the DfE uses the term "initial Local Offer" as if it has some meaning and significance separate from the Local Offer required by the Children and Families Act - a 'Local Offer Lite' perhaps?

Secondly, the claim is that 99% of LAs have now published a Local Offer. The evidence to support this claim is not referenced and there is no information confirming that what has been published actually complies with the law. Is the DfE concerned that a legally compliant Local Offer is published or just that LAs get 'something' (anything) published?

Thirdly, it is good to know that LAs are getting a package of 'support' but this doesn't explain why the Government has railroaded these reforms through when there is clear evidence LAs were not ready or why supporting LAs seems always to take priority over enforcing children's rights. 

Finally, the DfE has confirmed that, if you cannot get any joy out of discussing the Local Offer with your LA, you can contact the DfE. 

With these concerns in mind, we responded immediately via the 'contact us' box at the DfE (with our duly allocated reference number) as follows:

Dear Mr Kingdom,

Thank you very much for your response.

We are not sure the law recognises the term 'initial Local Offer' so perhaps you could explain what the DfE believes it to mean and whether it is to be distinguished from the Local Offer required by law. Following on from that, in relation to your figure of 99% compliance, is that compliance with publishing what you describe as 'initial Local Offer' or are you asserting that 99% of LAs have now completed the statutorily required consultation and have a produced a Local Offer which is compliant both with the Act and its Regulations? In either case, could you confirm how you have ascertained this?

We would be grateful if you would also confirm that you are happy for us to publish your response. We are, of course, happy to redact your name if you would prefer.

We will send this email to your generic email address as suggested but we have replied  to this address also as a generic email address seemed a potentially unreliable way of communicating on an issue of such acute importance to parents.


Debbie Sayers

We shall let you know if we receive a response but we wonder whether a Government which was serious about ensuring compliance with the law to protect children's rights would boot the issue into the long grass in this way without any genuine attempt at engagement.

Dear Ofsted, don't let SEN fly 'below the radar'

On 25 September, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI), Sir Michael Wilshaw, raised concerns about 'low-level disruptive behaviour' in schools in a report entitled 'Below the radar: low-level disruption in the country’s classrooms'. You can read that report here.

We were extremely concerned at the tone of the report and its failure to mention the need to support and include disabled pupils and those identified as having special educational needs. So, we drafted the following letter:

We write to express our serious concern about Ofsted's recently published report, 'Below the radar: low-level disruption in the country’s classrooms' .

The report makes no mention of disabled pupils or those identified as having special educational needs, yet much of the 'low-level disruptive behaviour' listed reads like a checklist for some of the behaviours exhibited by such pupils, especially those who lack effective support. For example, Ofsted's report lists; "talking and chatting", "disturbing other children", "calling out", "not getting on with work", "fidgeting or fiddling with equipment", "not having the correct equipment", "purposely making noise to gain attention", "answering back or questioning instructions" and "swinging on chairs". The failure to note the link between these seemingly 'non-normal' behaviours and SEND is a startling omission which could undermine efforts at inclusive practice and encourage schools, parents and children, to view pupils with different needs as being inconsistent with a productive learning environment.

This would be a hugely regressive step which could encourage unlawful and discriminatory practices. It is notable that Ofsted's report makes no reference to the Equality Act 2010, although the law requires that reasonable adjustments be made to ensure that disabled pupils are not placed at a detrimental disadvantage because of their disabilities. There is clear evidence that a failure to adjust the educational environment may significantly affect pupils with SEND such as autism. Behaviour which is linked to a child's disabilities should never result in a situation where a child is punished and treated less favourably because of that disability. Further, the Equality Act also requires schools to pay due regard to the need to eliminate disability discrimination in all their policies and practices: this includes behaviour policies. Ofsted entirely overlooks the clear, statutory requirement to ensure that blanket policies do not directly/indirectly discriminate against disabled pupils.

Ensuring that all pupils are effectively included and not discriminated against is of vital importance to the development of an inclusive society. Ofsted has itself previously noted that "pupils currently identified as having special educational needs are disproportionately from disadvantaged backgrounds, are much more likely to be absent or excluded from school, and achieve less well than their peers, both in terms of their attainment at any given age and in terms of their progress over time". [1] It also found in the same report that "despite extensive statutory guidance", the consistency of the identification of special educational needs varied widely and that "children and young people with similar needs were not being treated equitably and appropriately".

Ofsted clearly intends this report to be scrutinised and followed carefully by schools so the failure to acknowledge the rights of disabled pupils in such a context may impact adversely on the inclusion and understanding of pupils with SEND, particularly in schools which lack the training and understanding to ensure disabled children are supported.

We need a society which values difference. We, therefore, urge you to consider issuing clear guidance to schools on the link between SEND and behaviour and the importance of ensuring that disabled pupils' rights to education are met in accordance with the law.

[1] Ofsted, ' The special educational needs and disability review: A statement is not enough', September 2010

We put the letter on and tweeted. Over 150 signatures have been collected in less than a week from parents, teachers, lawyers, academics, activists and other concerned individuals.

You can read the final letter with the attached signatures here. It has now been sent to Sir Michael Wilshaw and we will let you know what response we receive.

Thanks to everyone who stood together to raise this issue.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Independent Supporters: can anyone answer some very basic questions?

We have had great difficulty in obtaining basic information about the finer details of the Independent Supporters' (IS) initiative. See our last post here.

It seems all roads lead back to the Government's funded Strategic Reform Partner, the Council for Disabled Children (CDC). However, obtaining information from the CDC has not always been easy. One of the big problems with charities taking on work for the state is that they are not covered by the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and we are reliant on their sense of public accountability and transparency to obtain information. For such organisations, publishing the information they want to share and answering other people's questions are, of course, very different things.

Currently, we await a response from the CDC to the questions set out in a letter to the charity SENSE. SENSE are the charity who won the contract to organise the legal training for IS. You may remember that, in respect of 11 of our 19 questions, SENSE referred us back to the CDC. You can read SENSE's response here. We understand SENSE has discussed the letter with the CDC so, hopefully, the CDC will be able to reply promptly given the importance of this information to parents.

In the meantime, we note that the CDC has published some details of the timetable to train Independent Supporters. You can read this here. It appears that IS will receive both legal training and training on their role and remit (including what to do when issues arise which are outside their remit). We also note that training on the role of IS may be made available by the CDC to local authorities but not, it seems, to parents.

We think information about the role and remit of the IS should be within the public domain and that there should be consistency nationally on the operation of this service. We think the 'local protocols' and 'Memoranda of Understanding' referred to by the CDC here should be published. We should know who is signing these agreements and what they say.

We have now written to every organisation who won a contract to deliver the IS service (save for Birmingham Parent as the link on the CDC's website is to Birmingham City Council - surely some mistake?). The list of organisations involved is set out hereOur letter can be read here and we will post all responses.

Why are we so concerned about this intiative? The lack of parental involvement is one issue but the lack of certainty about the true nature of these 'Parent Champions' is also very unfair to parents. Our concerns about IS increase when the CDC make comments like this (read here):

"There was a concern that IS may lead to an increase in tribunals. CL (Christine Lenehan, Director of the CDC) reassured the board that Independent Supporters will be working with and  not against LAs and that legal training is provided to give Independent Supporters an understanding of the legal framework of the reforms, not advice on how challenge LAs on the law."

The fact that this could actually be a measure to provide additional staff for LAs during the 'transition' seems to be supported by comments found here which again appear to be from Ms Lenehan:

"It would be unrealistic to expect Local Authorities (LAs) to continue to meet the costs for all Independent Supporters, once central Government funding expires in 2016."

And again:

"TP (Toby Price of the London Borough of Sutton) mentioned the importance of marketing the IS service to LAs to ensure that they co-operate and work collaboratively with Independent Supporters. MB (Martin Bull of Independent Support) informed the board that bids for phase 1 of IS required a reference from an LA (or if multiple bids at least 1 LA). CL (Christine Lenehan) mentioned that it would be a good idea to put together a piece of work to help Independent Supporters broker good relationships with LAs and that this work should be endorsed by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS)". 

We think that there needs to be clarity about the role and remit of Independent Supporters. We hope the organisations we have written to will agree.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Taking grass roots action: how do we plan for inclusion in practice? The ERA to meet Wiltshire Council

In January, we wrote to Wiltshire Council about their intention to establish an ASC resource base at a school in Salisbury. 

We wanted to know more about how Councils consult and plan for inclusion in practice. It is doubtless true that many local authorities see resource bases as a cost effective method of securing 'inclusion' in the mainstream so we were very keen to see what evidence the Council had to support its decision and how it was involving parents and children with autism in its planning.  Obviously, if inclusion is to have any meaning beyond the mere physical presence of disabled pupils in mainstream schools, it requires careful and widespread consultation and engagement. We think this is certainly required by the Public Sector Equality Duty set out at s.149 of the Equality Act.

You can read our letter here.

The response was very disappointing. The Council said the proposal was “a central part of the drive to develop a more inclusive education for pupils with SEN” but it provided no detailed information to support its plans. We were concerned as the genuine inclusion of pupils with ASC is a highly complex matter requiring advice, research and in-depth discussion with parents and children. See the Council's response here.

After pursuing several requests for further information under the Freedom of Information Act, we were very disappointed to note that the Council's final response seems to confirm:

(i) Wiltshire Council has undertaken no consultation with any group or person with autism about the planning for this particular base.

(ii) Wiltshire Council has no records of its decision-making. This means it has no records supporting the choice of school for this base and it has obtained no written advice from any professional with expertise in autism to assist with its planning to support children's inclusion.

(iii) Wiltshire Council can provide no detail about the nature of the proposed base e.g. it can provide no detail of the numbers of chilldren, the complexitiy of their disabilities, the planned training of staff in the mainstream, the therapies on offer etc.

We think children deserve better than this haphazard planning. As we have noted, inclusion means far more than simply being physically present at a school and it is unacceptable that those with expertise in autism, including parents and children, have not been consulted, or that if they have, no records have been made of their advice.

So, we wrote to all elected members to raise these issues as it is important that democratic representatives are able to excercise democractic accountability. You can read our letter here.

We are extremely pleased to confirm that Councillor Richard Gamble, Wiltshire Council's Portfolio Holder for Education, Skills and Youth, immediately offered to meet us to discuss these matters further.

Our meeting with Mr Gamble will take place tomorrow and we will report on its outcome. We intend to raise all the points above and to ask how the Council can better include parents and children in their planning. Such inclusion should not, of course, be limited to a quick reference to the local Parent Carer Forum but it should be genuine and attempt to access the widest range of voices.

The ERA aims to act openly in all its activities so we will report back on the meeting as soon as we can.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

'On the issue of evidence ...we will have to agree to differ'. On that, at least, we can agree!

This is probably the final instalment in the long running saga of our attempt to engage the Government's Strategic Reform Partner, the charity consortium the Council for Disabled Children (CDC), in open discussion about the evidence supporting the Children and Families Act.

You may remember that their Director, Christine Lenehan, had welcomed the CFA calling it an "important step to getting better outcomes for children and young people".

We wrote to Ms Lenehan about this in March asking her if she had any evidence to support this statement. We received a reply on 28 July. You can read more about this here and here.

We were grateful for Ms Lenehan's response but we wrote back as we felt she hadn't answered our question. You can read our letter here.

Ms Lenehan  promptly replied to our further letter setting out the changes the CDC had 'championed' (i.e. joined-up working, 0-25 approach and the Local Offer). Her response can be read here. Ms Lenehan concluded:

"We believe therefore that the new reforms mark a real opportunity for change and through our networks and partnerships we will be challenging government to ensure they deliver."

It was helpful of Ms Lenehan to share her opinions but the question of evidence had, we felt, still been ignored.

So, we wrote to Ms Lenehan again noting the continued failure to supply examples of any evidence to support her contentions that the reforms are an "important step to getting better outcomes".You can read our letter here

In the letter we noted that we saw no evidence supporting that contention that the legal changes introduced by the CFA will make any discernible difference to most of the day to day struggles parents face (e.g. evidence from pilots, research etc). We also noted the consistent use of rhetoric rather than evidence: e.g. 'parents' champion', 'parents feel more supported than ever', 'co-production' etc etc.

Ms Lenehan has responded with this letter.

It helpfully informs us that disagreements in the disabled children's sector are not uncommon but it confirms that:

'On the issue of evidence ...we will have to agree to differ'

We agree. We will have to disagree because we have asked for evidence and none has been forthcoming. This is disappointing. We can only conclude that the comment was an opinion or a hope rather than a statement supported by concrete evidence. 

Of course, if we are wrong in our conclusion, we are happy to be be put right by public reference to the evidence we have been asking for over the last 6 months.

SENSE responds on Independent Supporters' legal training:"The Educational Rights Alliance need to address this question to CDC"

Ever since the surprise announcement in January that the Government would be providing funding for so-called 'Parent Champions' in the SEN system, we have been asking questions about these 'Independent Supporters' (IS), their role, their mandate and the contract governing their selection.

This has not been an easy task. It seems it has proved challenging for the organisations implementing this proposal to set out the detail of how it will operate in practice. You can read our previous posts and our attempts to obtain information about these 'Champions'  here and here.


We have pursued this issue because we feel that the lack of transparency, consultation and clarity of purpose accompanying this proposal typifies some of the key problems with the Children and Families Act reform process: the exclusion of parents' views, announcements made without evidence or planning, an unwillingness to engage beyond selected groups or individuals and lots of rhetoric and fine words which don't translate easily into practice. As a result, we have several key concerns about the implementation of the 'Independent Support' project:

1. Lack of transparency

£30m was alloted to this time-limited initiative (it lasts until 2016) without any open consultation. It is clear that there were discussions but only with a hand-picked group of organisations (see here), some of whom have since bid for, and won, IS contracts.

This lack of transparency could be said to undermine claims that the Government has been working exclusively in the best interests of children and young people. The exclusion of parents' views from the development of this initiative is also clear from the National Network of Parent Carer Forums' (NNPCF) Position Statement in July. The NPPCF claimed that it had barely been consulted and had not been "involved in strategically developing the programme".

2. Lack of independence

The independence of 'Independent Support' is a clear concern. How independent of local authority (LA) control and influence will they be?

When we wrote to the Department for Education (the DfE) we were told:

“The role of Independent Supporters is not to challenge local authority decisions”

You can read that post and correspondence here.

SN Jungle posted some interesting information on their blog in July quoting from the minutes of an Early Support and Independent Support Programme Board Meeting. In it, they said the Council for Disabled Children's Director (CDC), Christine Lenehan:

"reassured the board that Independent Supporters will be working with and not against LAs and that legal training is provided to give Independent Supporters an understanding of the legal framework of the reforms, not advice on how challenge LAs on the law.”

You can read this post here.

Additionally, some parents have reported that there is a close connection between the proposed 'Independent Support' service in their area and the existing Parent Partnership Service (now renamed the Information, Advice and Support Services Network). Parents have historically reported mixed experiences with Parent Partnership Services. The close ties between PPS and their Local Authority has led to questions about the impartiality of some services and the blurring of lines between local LA policies and the law.

Put bluntly, 'Independent Supporters' who can't provide accurate, impartial and independent advice to parents and who aren't able to help parents challenge local authorities (LAs) are doing them a grave disservice. Indeed, they are potentially increasing the significant barriers parents already face to obtaining accurate legal information to enforce their children's rights. This is because if 'independent supporters' fail to challenge and advise impartially and in accordance with the law, parents (and their children) will be credited with a benefit they have simply not received. Parents may also rely on advice from 'Independent Support' when they might otherwise have sought independent and impartial legal advice from lawyers or organisations like IPSEA.

3. 'Support' not rights

We are concerned at the intention behind the intitiative. The rhetoric is patronising not empowering e.g. from the CDC's press release here:

"Independent Supporters will help to build resilience in families"


"At its heart, Independent Support is intended to build family resilience and not encourage dependency."

We seriously object to the language of 'dependency' being applied to the parents of children and young people with SEN and disabilities. We have been unable to get any kind of explanation for its use by the CDC.

Also, we believe that the term 'independent support' reflects a culture where parents are belittled and patronised by a system operated by "those who know best". It suggests that what parents really need is 'handholding' and 'signposting'. In reality, what parents and young people urgently require is access to impartial, free and effective legal advice so that they can understand their rights and enforce them. It appears that this is simply not what 'Independent Supporters' are here to provide.

4. The organisations delivering Independent Support

In July, the CDC issued a list of organisations who had won contracts to deliver 'independent support'. The list can be accessed here.

We approached all these organisations on twitter (if they had a twitter presence) asking them what experience they had of SEN law and SEN advising and what they understood the mandate of an 'independent supporter' to be. We got very few replies.

It is notable that some organisations, like the education advice charity IPSEA, are absent from a list which contains the names of many groups parents may struggle to recognise.

5. Legal training

In July, CDC also announced that it had awarded the contract for designing and delivering the legal training of 'independent supporters' to the charity SENSE, Details can be found here.

SENSE are supported in this project by Irwin Mitchell and the barrister Steve Broach.

Effective legal training is obviously vitally important as so many local authorities implement policies rather than the law. Unsurprisingly, we had some further questions to ask.

On 14 July, we wrote to Irwin Mitchell solicitors with some questions. You can read our letter here .

On 29 July, we received a response from Irwin Mitchell which you can read hereIt recognised the significance of effective legal training in enabling parents to access the new system and understand their rights. It also notes the importance of the questions we have raised. However, it confirmed that Steve Broach, Irwin Mitchell and SENSE had agreed that SENSE were best placed to answer the letter because they are leading the project.

In August, we had contact from SENSE after a few chase-up tweets and they confirmed they were liasing with the CDC about answers to our questions so they could provide us with a "full response".

Yesterday, on 3 September, we received this letter from SENSE which they have permitted us to share.

The following points are important:

1. The response to 11 of the 19 questions is simply "The Educational Rights Alliance need to address this question to CDC". This is despite the earlier promises of a 'full response'. We have since been told that the promise of a full response was "misleading". We have, of course, now forwarded our letter to Ms Lenehan of the CDC but it is very disappointing for a parents' group to have to chase for information in this way.

2. It is concerning that the organisation contracted to deliver legal training cannot answer questions about the experience, role or mandate of the individuals they are designing legal training for.

3. The legal training consists of (and this has been clarified): "one day of face to face training (including speaking notes), one day of on-line training and a raft of fact sheets and precedent letters" developed by SENSE, Irwin Mitchell and Steve Broach. It has been confirmed that Irwin Mitchell has already delivered training not to 'Independent Supporters' but to 'trainers' who will then deliver the training to 'Independent Supporters'. Thus, the legal training delivered to 'Independent Supporters' will not necessarily be delivered by lawyers. In fact, we have been told "the trainers are not from Sense and partners – they have been recruited by CDC and you will need to liaise with CDC about their qualifications."

We think that parents could have designed and delivered an independent and impartial legal advice system for far less than £30 million but then we were never consulted or asked if we needed 'independent supporters'.
You can decide for yourself whether this is good enough.

Postscript: the ERA intends to write to all those organisations with IS contracts to inquire about the detail of the service they will offer to parents. Watch this space.