SEND: It’s not about proof, but dialogue!

I’m not a reactive person, by nature.  I tend to ponder over what I hear/read and weigh it up before responding.  Over the years, I have (more times than I care to remember) been openly criticised for not joining in an emotional reaction to something that has happened in the world of SEND.

Our experience defines us!

So before proceeding with this blog, I felt it would be useful to highlight my background; which in turn reflects my perspective.  I do this not to boast, but in humility. I consider it a great privilege to work in education – it has been my dream since I was 14 years old.  At 16, I undertook my work experience placement in a special school.  Education & learning is in my DNA.  So for me, every opportunity is a gift, I value.

My professional & personal history will show that:

  • I have taught early years to postgrad in England and overseas; supporting a wide range of needs of children and making full use of my first degree in psychology
  • I have been a SENCO and senior leader in school with aspirations and qualification pathways to be a head
  • I have led support staff, trained them & trained others in maximizing the impact of teaching assistants
  • I have been an SEN Advisory Teacher; working with schools and individual children/families through the assessment process and annual reviews
  • I have sat on multi-disciplinary/multi-agency panels reviewing SEND assessments
  • For 10 years, I was an active member of nasen, supporting both local and national initiatives
  • In 2007, I was part of the advisory panel, assisting the The Audit Commission develop the AEN/SEN VfM Toolkit
  • As a member of a local authority school improvement teams, I have supported settings (mainstream including academies/federations, special schools and alternative provision), as well as been part of local authority inspection teams for settings in difficult circumstances
  • In a consultative role, I have worked with numerous local authorities (Pathfinder and non-Pathfinder) undertaking provision and finance audits and driving strategic change processes for greater efficiency
  • I have been external examiner, a lecturer and assessor on the National SENCo Award with a number of providers
  • I have led & delivered the MA in Inclusion for three years, taught trainee teachers about SEND and contributed to the development of an undergraduate degree in SEND (covering education, health and social care)
  • I have co-led with a head teacher national briefings on SEN finance and funding
  • For two years, I have been an Achievement for All Coach and Pupil Premium Reviewer focussing on 20% of our most vulnerable pupils
  • I have delivered parenting workshops and governor training on SEND
  • For nearly 10 years, I have been a SEND Online Facilitator/Tutor
  • I have completed my SEN Foundation Legal Training with IPSEA scoring an overall 85% and over 85% for the modules on Duties on LAs, schools & FE as well as Mediation and SEND. 100% on EHC Plans.
  • I have created and published several tools to support stakeholders embrace and implement the SEND Reforms
  • I have also co-written and independently written numerous articles, publications on SEND; some of which have been translated into 5 languages
  • I have led and sustained SENCo Networks in three local authorities and developed the first SENCo Masterclass
  • In the last 10 years, I have probably worked directly with over 350 schools/school leaders across the nation
  • I come from a family, where we have experienced fatality and developmental disability

My point is:  I approach SEND and the main issues that arise during a period of change from a well-rounded perspective.

To the matter at hand.

Recently there has been an unfortunate spate of inappropriate social media messages by a solicitor’s firm, that rightly so, has led to many parents questioning the intentionally of solicitors in the SEND system.  This is not the first time, a solicitor’s firm has posted inappropriate tweets and I have been arguing for a while now for greater regulation over the professional conduct of solicitors.  What makes this recent round of tweets intolerable is they appear to have been explicitly directed in a negative way to parents and families.  On previous occasions, solicitors have taken out-dated and inaccurate information and used it to incite parents against the system and local authorities.  Whether the negativity is directed towards local authorities or parents, I consider it unprofessional, lacking in sensitivity and integrity.

Special Needs Jungle (SNJ) has put forward a ‘Call to Action’ following the recent incident.   The spirit of the call is valid; however, I do wish to raise a number of points in response:

  1. Solicitors already have a Code of Conduct; which has clearly defined principles and outcomes. More information can be found about this at http://www.sra.org.uk/solicitors/handbook/welcome.page Therefore we need greater clarity on how this new proposed voluntary code will work in tandem with the SRA.
  2. The main thrust of SNJ’s motion is to:
  • Stop local authorities using tax payers’ money to buy in law firms to represent them against parents at the SEND Tribunal and;
  • To also ask why so many cases are ending up at Tribunal in the first place.

I agree, I have always advocated more efficient use of public funds ensuing provision is put in place for children, young people and those who need it.  I also appreciate most parents do not want to go to Tribunal and therefore the point 7 put forward by SNJ (What’s the thinking behind this?) is something I wholeheartedly support.  In areas, where active participation in mediation is undertaken by both parties with a view to finding a comprise, the outcomes have been amazing and the number of cases going to Tribunal has reduced.  In some areas, however, there is a tendency to opt for the tokenism certificate of mediation, without engaging in the process.  We will need to continue to watch the statistics on this; especially families who initially opt for a certificate, but then engage in mediation at a later date.

If Tribunal is sought, then local authorities have a responsibility to represent themselves in court and this costs money. So my question would be: if SNJ is advocating they do not use public funds for this – where would the funding for legal representation come from?  In Point 11, SNJ advocates paying fines and parental costs; again the question I pose – how would this be funded?  My understanding is that, parents and local authorities are able already to make application costs against either party, though the process could be made simpler/easier.

What is needed?

I have already stipulated my support for a greater emphasis on Dispute Resolution and Mediation.  Many of us nationally are already working on these discussions.

I think, though the biggest shift from an adversarial system is going to come through a change in culture. The Lamb Inquiry (2009) did highlight the lack of parental confidence in the system.  However, when parents received the provision they required, there was high parental satisfaction.  We need to distinguish parent confidence and parental satisfaction to measure true impact.  Similar comments of high parental satisfaction came through many of the Pathfinder Trials, when children, young people and their families were listened to.  The principles of the 0-25 SEND Code of Practice 2015 (p19) are pivotal and we do need to raise their profile more.

As an SEND Advisory Teacher, each case I was involved started with me accepting what was presented before me and adopting an investigative approach.  I never expected parents ‘to prove’ their child had SEND, but to share with me their reasoning and experience.  This for me, is the true spirit of implementing the SEND Reforms.  Assessment applications should not be about proving a need, but sharing and explaining a rationale.  Proof implies judgement and inevitably leads to a legalistic approach.  Investigation implies “We’re listening”.  In all my years of being involved in SEND, I have only come across one case of Munchausen by proxy; which did go to Tribunal.  So my underlying belief is if an assessment application is made; we need to investigate – not expect individuals to prove.  No one submits an application on a whim.  This shift in mind-set and approach opens up relational dialogue.  I have met many parents, who have come into the room (having surfed the web) and told me ‘My child has X’ (self-diagnosis). I have always made it a point to listen and understand why they thought that.  Further investigation follows, and in some cases their perspective has been accurate and in others my investigations has helped them to see it is not what they perceive, but something else.  SEND is complex. Either way, there has always been a sense of mutual respect and open listening.

I am aware, that whilst we are in process of change, an investigative approach that characterises the spirit of the SEND Reforms isn’t fully in place across the nation.  This is a work in progress and I genuinely understand the frustration parents have experienced/are experiencing. Change is complex.

So what I would like to advocate is:

  • A more investigative approach by all involved. Valuing and respecting children, young people and their families as stipulated by the principles in the SEND Code of Practice (p19).
  • A more authentic engagement in dispute resolution and mediation.
  • Greater use of the Local Offer/SENDirect to consider choice during the process – possibly through a split meeting model and time to reflect. Already in discussion with SENDirect & the NHS about this.

I would like to end with a phone message, a parent left for my line manager; when I was an SEND Advisory Teacher. This was in the era of SA, SA+ and Statements:

“I just wanted to say how much I appreciated Anita listening to my concerns and discussing a way forward in a positive, realistic and constructive way.  Anita observed and evaluated my son in a manner that my husband and I agreed with and felt was beneficial to him.  Prior to Anita’s involvement, most people had brushed my son’s problems under a carpet.

 The investigative approach works every time.  Let’s embrace it!