What is the SEND system for?

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Date published 12 December 2022

At a recent SEND roundtable, hosted in partnership with Ambition Institute and The Confederation of School Trusts, Nicole was asked to reflect on what the SEND system is for by our Executive Director, Tom Rees.

Working towards an education sector that doesn’t need a defined separate Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) system is my hill to die on. True inclusion is no inclusion. But I’m not so idealistic that I think we can do without it just yet. It needs to be a work in progress.

We are not ready, but we are ready to start.

There are glimmers of hope in the current SEND Code of Practice, while upcoming reform is also an opportunity to better capture the process of inclusion.

The SEND system is needed because the education system does not meet the needs of all learners who are entitled to and who access it. In a social model of inclusion, the SEND system is the reasonable adjustment: the gap bridged. It is for the inclusion of children into a system they would otherwise be more excluded from.

We know that the SEND system is riddled with problems. It may be fair to say that the failures in implementing the 2014 reforms, and being just ahead of proposed changes based on the government’s SEND review, means that the current system actually remains untested. But even if this is the case, and even if we were able to run it optimally, this wouldn’t be the end of this story.

Because the SEND system (underpinned by the Equality Act, and diversity and inclusion in society as a whole), is based on inclusion through adaptation, annexes, add-ons, exceptions and afterthoughts but then formalised through laws and codes, it is legitimised. It avoids discrimination by exclusion, in favour of discrimination by internal and intangible forms of segregation. These have come to be accepted and, in light of unconscious ableist bias, even celebrated as a sign of societal or institutional kindness to those perceived as less fortunate. Those subject to our sympathy but not necessarily our highest standards.

For inclusion, this has become the definition by reality in our education system. The SEND system, for those identified as SEND, is a barrier to being fully included. Inclusion, as it currently manifests, is the barrier to learning. The norms of school life inform the future decision making in society. The decisions set the norms and then the norms inform the decision. These are the conditions in which our schools evolve. And they are also the conditions in which the recent SEND and Alternative Provision review has taken place, and in which the Green Paper has been written. Any subsequent reforms will inevitably be framed in this way too.

There are glimmers of what the SEND system should be buried within the current Code.

"There are glimmers of what the SEND system should be buried within the current Code."

The first promising nugget is in the description of SEN provision where it is defined (in paragraph 1.24) as provision that is additional and different to an already “differentiated and personalised” main offer. By far, the weight of information, structure, security, ring-fenced money and statutory obligation, including the bulk of the Code itself, is at the thin end of the SEND wedge. It fosters a system that drives upwards, instead of back down into the main offer.

I am not saying that the quantity of information and legislation around education, health and care plans (EHCPs) is the wrong thing. But I question where the equivalent clarity for the SEN support stage is. Or the clarity on how to ensure a main offer that is flexible, responsive and fair enough to meet a broad range of needs as the norm. An offer that learns from the diversity of the cohorts it serves and forms the solid base on which a high quality additional and different offer can be built.

Another glimmer of hope in the current Code is in the definition of inclusive education, as close as we have anyway, in paragraph 1.26 – the “progressive removal of barriers to learning and participation”. The problem isn’t that we are here at this definition, the problem is that we are stalled here. It is the process of inclusion that has become the missing link in our practice.

The SEND system is for protecting a particular group of learners from adversities in the wider system. But the current set-up is too quick to separate and escalate, and it does this against a backdrop of allowing education to languish in its in-inclusivity.

"Reform is an opportunity to better capture the process of inclusion and drive inclusive practice down into an expanding and improving main offer where it belongs."

As we are probably on the verge of reform, I think the next iteration of the system will be for that purpose too. Reform is also an opportunity to better capture the process of inclusion and drive inclusive practice down into an expanding and improving main offer where it belongs. By its very nature, this cannot entirely exist within the SEND system. It must be delivered through the systems that drive education at large – initial teacher training, early careers framework, national professional qualifications, all Department for Education guidance, accountability measures, and how we understand what success looks like for us and for our students.

Wherever we are currently attempting to do this through a day or two of training on inclusion, a paragraph on SEND, or any other of those old habits of add-ons and exceptions, we are still getting it wrong.

Embedding it into the main routines – more than that – the very essence of who we are and what we do every day, and how we measure a school’s progress against the process of inclusion, are the first real hurdles we face. These are the changes that could make a difference, and maybe it isn’t as difficult or disruptive as it seems.

Ultimately, everyone benefits from being part of a fairer, more flexible, more responsive and equal community.

The high quality, expectations, accountability and drive we offer for most of our students is the right of all students, but the individualisation, responsiveness and care that is often reserved for our SEND students is the right of all students too.

Go further. In collaboration with the Confederation of School Trusts (CST), Ambition expert Tom Rees and Vice Principal Ben Newark have published A GOOD LIFE: Towards greater dignity for people with learning disability. This paper responds to the government's consultation on SEND reform and is free to read here.

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Nicole Dempsey
Director of SEND and Safeguarding at Dixons Academies Trust.

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