Guerrillamum's Blog


In which Guerrillamum ponders the impending Green Paper on Special Educational Needs and Disability

Ever since our oldest son first went to school and I became embroiled in dealing with the system for identifying and meeting special educational needs, and the associated legislation, I have wanted this system to be reformed. I had hoped that this would happen through a truly transparent process where interested bodies and other stakeholders would be asked for their views through a robust process of consultation and open debate. Instead on the very cusp of the proposed reforms, when I should be trembling with expectation, I am instead trembling with fear for what these changes might mean for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

So why am I worried? Although Sarah Teather is nominally the Minister responsible for this process, it is possible to detect the Hand of Gove everywhere! Almost unnoticed in the Academies Act is a section which removes the right of appeal for parents to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal (SENDT). Instead, all routes of appeal lead only to HIM. And we all know how ‘flexible’ he is, don’t we? Previously it was a more open process adjudicated by independent educationalists who spoke from experience of dealing with all of the issues presented to them in a child’s case.

Why is this so important? We and thousands of ordinary parents like us have been forced to take the extraordinary step of going to a tribunal to make sure that our children can access the curriculum in the same way as every other child. I am worried that the Green Paper will propose new ‘designations’ placing children with challenging or complex needs in a category attracting only a minimal amount of intervention which is delivered at the discretion (or not) of a school or academy. In academies, where parents disagree with the level of help given to their children, all routes for appeal will lead to guess who – the Minister of State for Education. With financial incentives for conversion to academy status more and more schools will seek it and more children with special educational needs will be left without the right of appeal to an independent body.

This government has already demonstrated some very strange attitudes towards disability. On one hand it has produced workable guidance for the Autism Act (though has yet to come up with the money), and on the other some truly dreadful attacks have been levelled at Disability Living Allowance. Maybe this inconsistency is because this government IS a coalition. It’s really frightening to think what the combination of Gove’s ideology and Tory cost cutting could do to this Green Paper.

However, I am still hoping for the best. Hoping for a considered, fair, and most importantly, fully funded system in which children with SEN & Disability have their rights to access to an appropriate education recognised. In a Big Society this would happen because these children can also make valuable contributions. We just need to value them first. Oh, and ‘SHOW ME THE MONEY!’



Guerrillamum’s wish list for the Teather Green Paper on SEN and disability

Over the last two or three weeks you could not miss the dispute over student fees. It has been on our streets, on the radio and on the television. I don’t want to comment on the rights and wrongs of this, but another vital issue in Education is being missed. Nobody has yet marched through Whitehall, occupied buildings or caused a split in the coalition over the issue of Idayah Miller and her disgraceful treatment by the Harris Federation.

Idayah is a symptom of wider principles which are endangered at present. I’ve written before about the lack of safeguards and checks and balances for academies, particularly where it affects SEN. Idayah has been denied a place at the Crystal Palace Harris academy and was told (amongst other things) that in her wheelchair she would take up too much space in the corridor in the event of a fire. The Harris Federation have apologised for the ill judged words of the Head (though I note he hasn’t been disciplined) but crucially Idayah still does not have a place. The only options available to her Idayah are to appeal to the academy itself or to the Minister of State for Education. A recent article from the London Evening Standard can be seen here: http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-23903236-idayah-is-a-bright-child-one-of-a-spurned-minority.do

The academy cancelled the appeal and referred the family to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal (SENDT). Regular readers will know that I warned some time ago that academies do not have the same legal status in SEN Law as Local Authority controlled schools and that SENDT does not have any jurisdiction over them and they could not help Idayah. This leaves Idayah with a right of appeal either to the school, which has already made its views clear, or to the Minister of State for Education. If I were in her shoes I think I would far rather go to a SENDT tribunal (regular readers will know how harrowing I found SENDT!) than go to an appeal with a man who makes dodgy ideological decisions and changes laws he doesn’t agree with using terrorism legislation.

I don’t have first hand knowledge of Idayah Miller or her family and I don’t know about her particular circumstances. All my sources have come from the Press. However, I do have first hand knowledge of what it feels like to be a family with a disabled child or children. You can quite often feel that you are not a part of society and that some of the agencies that are there to help you are actually obstacles to getting the provision you need for your child. I did, however, see some real improvements under the last Labour administration and greater protection for the rights of disabled people i.e the Autism Act, the Equality Act and excellent initiatives such as Aiming High. It’s really worrying to hear the Prime Minister say he wants to get rid of the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Act reflecting our values. The evidence since his government came to power is that their values include ignoring, marginalising, and removing benefits from those who have disabilities. Social mobility? Not if you are disabled, it seems.

I wish that Idayah had had one percent of the coverage given to the university fees debate. I wish that we could also see the same degree of pressure put on the government as has been used to argue against the schools sports partnership cuts or child benefit. Is it that people don’t care? Or that in financially straitened times people look only to their own needs? What about the Big Society? Or does it not apply to people with disabilities?

The government have a chance to prove me wrong. The Green Paper on SEN is due soon. (Transparency website!!!!!). Sarah Teather has a chance to put some of these wrongs right and lets hope she does.

In the meantime, please re-tweet. Please try to raise the profile for the issues I have raised. If you know somebody famous, or anyone with influence, or who has a big Twitter following (even better!!!) then send this post on to them. Next time this could happen to somebody you love. This is the thin end of the wedge.

At the moment the government is not doing anything about this case (or others like it) because they think nobody cares and they can get away with allowing these organisations to fail disabled children. It’s cheaper.

The Green Paper for SEN and disability is due to be published soon and my wish list would be:

• Inclusive schools admissions policies – schools should not be able to socially engineer their intake, and children with SEN and disabilities should be able to attend mainstream schools or special schools according to their needs
• An independent appeals procedure – independent of the school heads, governors, and of the Minister of State for Education.
• Retain SENDT and widen its scope to deal with appeals from Local Authority controlled schools, academies and free schools (when they come in).
• Retain the statement of SEN and the rights it confers on children. Widen availability of process to identify and make provision for children with SEN because appropriate assessment is currently far too difficult to obtain.
• No selection in state funded schools – (do realise this is a more general wish, probably beyond remit of Sarah T…)
• No devolved funding for statemented children – all statements should be funded properly by the State.

The lack of comment from the Opposition is also a worry and I would like to see some of our Shadow Cabinet getting involved in this very important debate.



Why is this article not front page news?

Well, it seems we can’t comment on this article yet – ‘Almost one in four primary school boys ‘have special educational needs’ – Guardian, 18th October
http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/oct/19/primary-school-boys-special-educational-needs – so I have decided to do so on my blog.

It is no surprise that boys are found to be more likely than girls to have SEN, nor that more boys are affected by autism, learning problems and social difficulties. This really is not news, at least, not to me.

However, what is newsworthy is that Ms Teather, Minister of State for Children and Families has made a commitment to getting right the provision for children with SEN and disabilities: “Pupils with special educational needs are not getting the support they need to succeed and are falling behind as soon as they start school.

“It is not right that only five per cent of young people with statements go on to higher education. We must change the system so that having special educational needs or a disability does not predetermine a child’s future.”

One of the difficulties I have always had with the way in which SEN are identified and provided for is the system’s willingness to see children start school and then fail badly before the right help is put in place. Even children with diagnoses have to go through this process before they get the right help at school. What is provided without a statement of SEN is so often ‘too little, too late’, and it can be tremendously difficult to get a statement for a child. It is not rocket science to know that it is necessary to put help in place as a child with known difficulties starts school to prevent them having to go through the process of failure. Why make them go through this before they can begin to access the right help and only then begin to experience success? It is so damaging to a child’s self esteem and eventual achievement at school and in life.

I hope the findings in this article will provide a much needed antidote to the current rhetoric stemming from the recent media coverage/circus of OFSTED’s report (A statement is not enough – Ofsted review of special educational needs and disability), about SEN children being ‘misdiagnosed’ with SEN. I also hope that Ms Teather will be able to make good on her commitment to prevent children with SEN from falling behind from the moment they start school and their future being predetermined by an accident of birth – their SEN or disability. I hope she is able to protect the interests of children with SEN and disabilities. I know she has a fight on her hands.

One final comment before I leave this post – a few weeks ago OFSTED issued a report saying that too many children were being diagnosed with SEN, and this was big news. You couldn’t move for media stories that vilified children with SEN, their parents and teachers. Sarah Teather says that children with SEN and disabilities are not getting the right help in school, and there is much less interest. This particular article came out yesterday in the late afternoon, you can’t comment on it and it is now off the front page of the Guardian Education section.

I will ask this question again – ‘Why is this article not front page news?’



Fair’s fair, or is it? Good news but I’m still worried

We’re going to have to stop meeting like this, me and top policiticans… There I was – again – in bed, minding my own business, when the radio came on and I heard another government announcement about Education and spending. This time it was not the Education Minister or reporting on OFSTED, it was the Deputy Prime Minister announcing a “fairness premium” worth £7bn for children who are disadvantaged or deprived.

I think this is an excellent policy, which is long overdue, although it could be seen by some as an extension of Sure Start which is now under threat by the DfE.

BUT, the DPM has not extended what seems to be an excellent principle to children with special educational needs (SEN), disability, or those in deprived areas whose schools are falling down around them. Nor did he say how this will be paid for. It also seems a bit like making policy on the hoof. The Green Paper consultation on SEN and disability closes today, and I would certainly have made more mention of early years provision for SEN and disabled children and early diagnosis had I known this was on the cards. Why have the Education Minister or the Minister for Children not mentioned it? Perhaps they did not know about it, and this is another example of an Instant Policy, this time in the face of public anger about university tuition fees. We were ‘due’ some good news to keep some of the Public on board.

Don’t get me wrong, I am in favour of this, but I can’t help feeling manipulated by a cynical government. This policy needs to be properly thought out, properly funded with long term prospects. It needs to apply to any child who may be disadvantaged so that when they start school they can then all have the same opportunity to learn. It is also essential that this applies throughout their life at school. It would be worse to give to preschool and primary school children extra support and and then take it away later. (I feel a bit like that about what might happen after the Green Paper).

Fairness is the new coalition buzz word. It usually means they are going to be fair to one particular group, at the great expense of another. The public can’t object because to do so would be ‘unfair’. It feels to me that children at school are being split along Victorian lines of ‘the deserving poor’ and the ‘undeserving poor’. Anyone who falls into the perception of ‘undeserving’ be you a public servant or SEN child or benefit claimant is in trouble because we are told that there is no money for them.

And THAT’S not fair.



Big Yellow Taxi

‘… Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot…’

Big Yellow Taxi, Joni Mitchell

I was busy cleaning my windows the other day and I found myself singing the words to ‘Big Yellow Taxi’. These days the issue of Special Educational Needs (SEN) education is never far from my mind and I moved quickly on to considering the ‘Green Paper: Children And Young People With Special Educational Needs And Disabilities – Call For Views’. This was launched in September by Sarah Teather, Minister of State for Children and Families. She has asked for the views of everyone with an interest in the needs of children in England with special educational needs (SEN) or disabilities and she says that views and perspectives will be considered in drafting a Green Paper on SEN and disability to be published in the autumn. We have until 15th October 2010 to contribute.
You can respond online on the Dept for Education website. Here is the link.
http://www.education.gov.uk/consultations/index.cfm?action=consultationDetails&consultationId=1736&external=no&menu=1

I have been thinking about this a lot, not only of the possible positive outcomes of such a Green Paper, but also what children with SEN might lose as a result of it. I am still writing my response. I have the document tucked away on my desktop and keep going back to it as things come to me. I hope I can make a small difference. If more of us reply then we will make a slightly bigger difference. If lots of us reply, then the impact will be yet greater, and so on.

Based on my feelings and views about the behaviour of the Coalition government since it came to power, and how it has dealt with Education issues, I find it difficult to decide whether the Green Paper is in fact a genuine call for views. I have watched the Coalition rush through Parliament the wildly ill thought out and controversial Academies Bill to expedite the Tory vision for Education for all. They did it in the face of some stiff opposition from the general Public, the Labour Party and some Liberal Democrats. The Minister for Education has expressed reservations about the quality of trainee teachers, but then veers off at a tangent, saying that Free Schools might not have to employ fully qualified teachers. Extra money has been given as a golden Hello to schools that are already doing well and have become academies. On the sidelines, poorly performing schools are to be run into the ground until competition from Free Schools and academies lure their pupils away and they have to close (I wonder what will happen to those who can’t for whatever reason get to an alternative school that is further away). I have to question the motives of a government that would do all of these things and wonder if it is really interested in what people think.

Just when I felt I had heard it all, the Coalition issued the results of OFSTED’s ‘Special Educational Needs and Disability Review – a statement is not enough’, to a fanfare of alarmist headlines that trumpeted about how half of SEN children are misdiagnosed so that parents can cherry pick schools and schools can claim extra funding that children without SEN can’t access. Apparently a statement is not enough – they don’t work, the teachers simply need to improve their skills and specialist placements are of apparently little benefit. Why on earth would the government place such a media spin on a document like this? It is a good question. The answer can be found in the headlines themselves – they were like propaganda, sowing the seeds of doubt about the legitimacy of the financial cost of supporting children with SEN. SEN children are now in danger of becoming the ‘Benefit Cheats’ of the Education world, who may well lose out when the results of the Green Paper are published, as an apathetic and accepting public looks on.

Do the general public care about children with SEN? I don’t know. I do know that they are suffering from CCCF (Collective Coalition Cuts Fatigue) worn out, tired by the election, the changes this wrought and with struggling to make ends meet in the down-turn. For all they know, the media and OFSTED may have a point about SEN children and their ‘sharp elbowed middle class parents’ trying to gain advantage and get access to provision those children without SEN (their children!) can’t have! How do I know this? I don’t really, but if you ask me, last week’s Conservative conference is a good indicator of public feeling. Families in higher income brackets found out last week that they will lose their child benefit in 2013. Now the Public was listening… and they were hopping mad! The views of the ‘sharp elbowed Middle Classes’ were very suddenly very much in evidence in the media, talking about how they could not manage without child benefit. They weren’t rich; they had obligations and had mortgages to pay.

The point in question in this discussion is not really about whether universal child benefit should go or not. The really significant part about these events was the way in which, in the face of opposition the government buckled and changed their policy. Faced with a backlash from the public, Mr. Cameron was soon saying that the Child Benefit cuts would be given back by a married couple’s tax allowance and that any plans to take away Child Benefit would obviously have to be reviewed… Suddenly money could be found and an instant policy was produced to try and sweeten the deal and give money back to the higher tax bracket earners with the other hand.

Well, our SEN children can’t manage without an education system that delivers help to those who need it, help that must be delivered and must be upheld. The statement of special educational needs gives them the security of a legal right to have their needs met and provided for in school where the provision is free at the point of access. The system for identifying and making provision for children with special educational needs is a flawed system but its saving grace is the statement of special educational needs. I will be looking to the Green Paper to strengthen a child’s legislative rights to support for SEN, not weaken them. Based on recent government behaviour, the more people who speak up and respond to the Green Paper the better chance we have of coming out of this process with a system that effectively meets the needs of children with SEN and disabilities.

This is the Big Yellow Taxi of our education system – all of the above is up for discussion and/or dismissal. These are the things that our SEN children stand to lose if we don’t participate with a loud voice in the democratic processes to canvass our views on SEN education reform. If we lose them, we really will find that we did not appreciate what we had until we lost it – difficult as it might have been to access it! It is so difficult I was moved to write a book about it! The Government is going to have its Green Paper, whether we like it or not, and it will probably make changes whether we like them or not. If we take a stand as parents or supporters of children with SEN and disabilities who actively wish to participate in the devising of new Education legislation to ensure all children with SEN can have their needs met, we have the best chance of our views being heard and acted upon.

Saba Salman commented on my recent blog post ‘Oh the times they are a-changin’ – but not yet’, saying: ‘so often the powers that be assume that public apathy or ambivalence will allow them to push through changes because no one other than the usual high-profile suspects can be bothered to read the small print. Hopefully not this time.’

Please don’t let our children with SEN lose their legal rights to an appropriate education, or allow the government to deliver a cheaper, watered down SEN strategy because people did not stand up to be counted. The consultation closes on Friday. If you have some time and you care about children with SEN and disability, or I have successfully pestered you or otherwise made you feel obliged, please make time to contribute.

Please share this post with as many people as you can think of who might wish to have a voice on this consultation.



Oh the times they are a-changin’ … but not yet!

In this peculiar phase of cuts and anticipated change most of us expect to see alterations to the way our children’s SEN are provided for in the coming months if not years. However, I think it is in order to pause to think that in terms of SEN provision, very little has actually changed yet. If your child has a statement, please make sure you have an up to date copy of it, and check that it matches your expectations. Talk to your child about what they do in school. Get out the paperwork from your child’s last annual review and any letters you received about this. Look at your child’s Individual Education Plan and make sure that the provisions within this match those indicated by the statement.

Depressing media coverage of anticipated cuts and negative headlines about SEN have primed us all to expect less. But it is well worth bearing in mind that your child’s SEN provision is still protected by the 1996 Education Act, and no changes have yet been made to affect that. If any changes to your child’s provision are proposed to you make sure that you get them in writing and check them against the statement. Be prepared to object if necessary (some changes might be appropriate!) and remember that as of September you are now allowed to appeal through the Special Educational Needs and Disability panel if a local authority refuses to amend a statement following annual review and you disagree with that.

Remember also that Sarah Teather, Minister of State for Children and Families, in September launched her Green Paper: ‘Children and Young People with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities – Call for Views’. We have until 15th October to reply. We should all try to contribute if at all possible. You can respond online on the Dept for Education website. Here is the link.
http://www.education.gov.uk/consultations/index.cfm?action=consultationDetails&consultationId=1736&external=no&menu=1

Remember the Guerrilla Mum Mantra: Don’t take no for an answer; never give up. If in doubt, telephone, email and write letters’.



Is this an OFSTED report or an OFST£D report?

I am sure that there is a science to reports and reviews of the type of OFSTED’s ‘Special Educational Needs and Disability Review – a statement is not enough’.  One would hope that a government body would conduct an efficient survey of SEN and Disability when tasked to do so.  It does point out some things I recognise:  the inconsistency in the quality of interventions, inconsistency in the threshold at which this intervention is given, and it also says that the parental perception of inconsistency in this respect is well-founded.  Apparently the system for identifying and meeting special educational needs in the UK is in need of major overhaul.  It says ‘The pattern of local services had often developed in an ad hoc way, based on what had been done in the past rather than from a strategic overview of what was needed locally’.  I do recognise these things in my experiences of trying to access appropriate services for my children.  These observations are to be welcomed.  So why am I not jumping for joy at the prospect of a shiny new system for identifying and meeting the needs of those with disabilities and SEN at school? 

Let’s be absolutely clear about something.  It is one thing to make these conclusions and then using the report findings to do something to improve educational provision for children who have SEN and/or disabilities – this is what I am hoping will happen.  It is something else again to make observations that focus on apparently ‘failing’ or ‘ineffective’ services with the aim of being seen to make ‘legitimate’ cuts.  This is what I fear this report will lead to.

I am not helped in forming a positive view of the OFSTED report when I read:  ‘The review found that no one model – such as special schools, full inclusion in mainstream settings, or specialist units co-located with mainstream settings – worked better than any other’.  This is something about this report that I do not recognise.  Both of my children have at some time in their lives been taught in mainstream settings and in specialist units co-located within specialist schools.  They have accessed services that were  provided to them within the context of a special school, even though they were not actually pupils at the special school.  A range of teachers and professionals have worked with our children both in mainstream settings and in specialist provision.  They have only been able to access specialist provision as part of, or following a statementing process, and after experiencing significant failure in a mainstream setting.  Without specialist intervention I have no doubt that failure would have simply become more entrenched.  Once in a specialist placement, their access to appropriate services and specialist teaching made their levels of achievement soar.   Access to specialist teaching and therapy has been central to this progress being made.  I just do not recognise the claim ‘that no one model – such as special schools, full inclusion in mainstream settings, or specialist units co-located with mainstream settings – worked better than any other’.  I fear that this is a precursor to big cuts in SEN provision.  It is my own view that this report is indicative of OFSTED being a public body that is out of touch with the general public.  I base this on my own experiences of trying to obtain support for my own children, and what I know of the experiences of other parents in the same position.   

The dedicated teachers, therapists, Teaching Assistants etc that one finds in specialist placements have chosen to work in these settings with children with special educational needs.  They are highly trained and experienced.  Should something happen to reduce the availability of specialist teaching placements, this would be an enormous loss to many children with SEN who cannot be accommodated within an inclusive mainstream setting.  Teachers in specialist placements are committed to improving the outcomes of these children:  it is a failing of teacher training that most teachers do not have the right training to meet the needs of some children with the most severe special educational needs who require specialist teaching.  It is essential that we do not lose the opportunity for our children to access special schools or teaching within specialist settings should they need it.  

I would be interested to hear what other parents make of this comment: ‘no one model – such as special schools, full inclusion in mainstream settings, or specialist units co-located with mainstream settings – worked better than any other’.  Has your child done best within a mainstream setting or did this fail for them?  Have you valued the opportunity of having your child educated in a special school?  If so what was it about a special school that worked for them?  What do you think of your child’s special school?  Has your child accessed specialist teaching in a language unit, autism unit, hearing support unit or other specialist unit within a mainstream school?  Did this work out for your child?  Lets make it a priority to reply to Sarah Teather’s Green Paper: Children And Young People With Special Educational Needs And Disabilities – Call For Views.  Or parents can comment on this blog or at ellenpower@guerrillamum.co.uk – lets record our views somewhere – we may well be glad we did!

 I hope I’m wrong, but this report is looking more and more like it will result in a weakening of our children’s rights to SEN provision, all in the name of cutting costs.  I think there is a risk that the new government will devise future SEN policy or legislation that will further de-specialise special schools and further limit specialist provision within specialist units co-located in mainstream schools – these places are already like gold dust.  Is this an OFSTED report, or an OFST£D report?