Earlier this month, the government published its SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan. A follow-up to last year’s green paper on SEND reform which concluded the SEND Review, the Improvement Plan sets out which of the proposals in the green paper the Department for Education intends to implement.

The government announced the publication of the Improvement Plan with a press release featuring the headline “Transformational reform begins for children and young people with SEND”.

But there is nothing transformational about the government’s plans.

Although the green paper appeared to be laying the groundwork for a significant overhaul of the current SEND legal framework, actually nothing much is planned to change (or improve) the system now or even this year. Most of what’s in the Improvement Plan won’t be introduced before 2025, by which time we will have had a general election.

The law is not changing

The key takeaway from the Improvement Plan is that it contains no plans to change the law on support for children and young people with SEND. In the absence of any legislative change, the current SEND legal framework (set out in the Children and Families Act 2014 and The Special Educational Needs and Disability Regulations 2014) will continue to apply in its entirety. That means local authorities must follow the law, parents and carers can continue to rely on it and the SEND Tribunal will continue to apply it.

What does the Improvement Plan say it will ‘improve’?

The current legal framework will remain in place, but in the background the government will introduce a multi-year Change Programme, under which Regional Expert Partnerships will test various planned changes to the SEND system, including some of the more controversial proposals from the green paper like the introduction of mandatory mediation and changes to the process for choosing a school or other educational setting to be named in an EHC plan (via the introduction of a “tailored list”).  

The Improvement Plan states that up to nine Regional Expert Partnerships will be created. These will consist of a cluster of three to four local authorities in each region, including at least one lead local authority. These partnership areas will be used to “help test and refine the key reforms over the next two years”. This sounds suspiciously like the SEND Pathfinders Programme which tested the reforms proposed in the green paper that preceded the 2014 reforms.

The Regional Expert Partnerships will also be involved in developing and testing new National Standards, which the government will start developing in the Spring. The Improvement Plan contains little detail about the National Standards, but the green paper outlined the government’s intention for them to “make consistent the provision, processes and systems that should be made available across the country for every child and young person with SEND” – that includes those with EHCPs and those assisted under SEN Support.

But there’s a problem…

The government’s rationale for introducing new National Standards suggests that local variation in SEND provision is permitted when of course it is not. The existing SEND legal framework is very clear about what local authorities, education providers and others have to do. It may appear ‘variable’ because of an entrenched lack of compliance by local authorities, but there should be no confusion about what is required under the current law on things like needs assessments, annual reviews and transition planning.

These plans also have the potential to create significant confusion and misunderstanding. If the law says one thing and the developing National Standards or the proposals being ‘tested’ say another, the system will only become harder for families to navigate and understand. Although things like the introduction of a tailored list of schools will be tested by the Regional Expert Partnerships (so there will be no actual change to legal rights and entitlements), in those ‘test areas’ there’s a very high chance that parents, carers and young people will think (or be led to believe) that their choices are limited to the list they are presented with. They may also think that that the SEND Tribunal won’t have the power to order a placement that’s not on the ‘tailored list’. In fact, regardless of whether a local authority is part of a Regional Expert Partnership, it will still have to follow the law (and the SEND Tribunal will continue to apply it).

Where’s the ‘transformation’? 

The government has failed to tackle the real problem with the SEND system (or has chosen to willfully ignore it).

The absence of any specific plans to address the persistent non-compliance with the law by many local authorities – an issue that the government has heard about repeatedly and which lies at the heart of the SEND crisis – means that nothing is likely to improve.

This isn’t the only issue with the government’s plans. The Improvement Plan is described as a “multi-year programme” to deliver an improved SEND system. But this government doesn’t have multiple years. A general election will have to be held by January 2025 and most of the big ticket items (including the long-awaited EHC plan template) aren’t expected to be introduced until at least 2025. This begs the question, how much of this plan will actually be put into action?


You can find all our work around the SEND Review and the SEND Improvement Plan here.