Before I became Children’s Minister, parents and teachers being unable to get the support they needed for children with special educational needs (SEND) in Oxfordshire was one of the top casework issues that I was written to about – alongside housing and planning issues.
It remains a controversial topic, not least with the Labour Party having walked away from their coalition with the Liberal Democrats at Oxfordshire County Council after the Ofsted report into local provision.
I will stay away from that argument for obvious reasons but now that I am responsible for reforming the SEND system nationally, I thought I would tell Herald readers what we are doing in Government to change the national system.
Some of the issues are not about money - and parents and teachers regularly say this to me - but the Government has rightly increased the higher needs budget. In the coming financial year it will be £10.5 billion, which is 60% higher than it was in 2019-20. Not many budgets, under any Government or in any area, have increased by 60%, which shows the Government’s support for and commitment to fixing this problem.
Part of the problem is a lack of spaces in specialist schools, and we are investing £2.6 billion in funding new places and improving provision – with 106 special free schools already open and a further 78 approved to open in the future.
We are reforming the SEND system, which has too much local variation, to a national system with national standards, one which supports every child and young person with SEND from birth to age 25. As part of this, we are testing an Education Health Care Plan (EHCP) template that we hope can be used nationally and delivered digitally, which will improve the timeliness and quality of EHCPs.
While some children will always need specialist provision and/or an EHCP, we are working to get parents the support they need for their child at an earlier stage so that they do not always need an EHCP to get that support – and, where possible, can instead have their needs met early at a mainstream school.
Supporting teachers in mainstream schools is very important in delivering this and more than 11,000 staff have already accessed support to improve their SEND knowledge and skills. We are also funding the training of 7,000 early years staff with a level 3 special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) qualification to identify needs as early as possible – with 5,200 staff registering for that training.
This area was already a key priority for me, and I am proud to be overseeing these reforms for the Government.