20 October 2023

As a charity, IPSEA doesn’t engage in party politics or support any political party. But it’s very much part of our remit to provide political decision-makers with information about the impact their decisions have on children and young people with SEND and their families. We think it’s absolutely vital to let policy-makers know how policies affecting children and young people with SEND are implemented in practice, and what needs to change. 

Right now, with a general election due to take place in a year or so and opinion polls suggesting that a change of government is more likely than not, our focus is just as much on the Labour opposition as it is on the Conservative government. We’re doing everything we can to make sure that Labour politicians and behind-the-scenes advisers have all the information they need to come up with a credible, detailed policy on the future of the SEND legal framework. 

The magazine Schools Week reported this week that “Labour has little to say on SEND”. The shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, is reported as saying that the SEND system is “broken” and that the Government’s SEND reforms should be progressing at a faster pace. 

This is rather disappointingly lacking in clarity. One of the things it would be most useful to know is whether an incoming Labour government intends to keep the SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan and stick to the current government’s proposals for reforming the system. (Reforms that can only go so far without changing the law on support for children and young people with SEND.) Or whether Labour would take the opportunity to address the central problem – namely that following the law seems to be widely regarded as an optional activity, with very little requirement on local authorities to be accountable for this. 

Our main message to policy-makers is that the existing SEND system doesn’t need fundamental reform: it needs to be made to work as it should. 

The reforms enacted less than a decade ago were – and remain – the right reforms, underpinned by sound principles that continue to hold true. There have been many analyses of how the last set of reforms have been implemented, and consensus that implementation has been inadequate, with local authorities routinely failing to fulfil their legal duties to children and young people with SEND set out in the legislation and associated regulations. 

We understand that for parents and professionals who are at the sharp end of a system that’s failing to provide the special educational provision and support that children and young people urgently need, and for politicians who want to help them, “reform” seems the obvious solution: the system isn’t working, so it must be changed. 

But what needs to be reformed is attitudes to the law. The key to resolving the SEND crisis lies in finding a way to ensure that local authorities fulfil their obligations to children and young people and their families, not in enabling them to get around these. The current system works when parents enforce it. But that’s an option that isn’t available to every family. Families who are able to access legal advice (whether paid or not) are in a stronger position to secure their children's rights than those who are not able to do this, which means that some of the children and young people with the greatest needs don’t get the right support. This inequitable situation is created by unlawful decision-making, not pushy parents. 

What we would really like to hear from Labour spokespeople is that a Labour government will commit itself to protecting children and young people’s existing rights to support that meets their needs, and to making sure that these rights are delivered in practice. We’d like an end to all talk of “demand” in relation to children and young people with SEND who need support in order to achieve their potential. Above all, we’d like politicians to prioritise delivering on their promises.