The SEND Review: why Austerity is still the watchword

Fri,7 October 2022
Blog Full Education
by Bethany Bale

The Government has published its much-anticipated Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) Review, which set out its proposals for a more cohesive and consistently implemented SEND system across the country.

Whether these proposed changes in processes will lead to a tangible change in practice is still to be seen, but one thing that was clear throughout the Review is that the priority within SEND policy is still austerity. 

The Government is keen to highlight its ‘unprecedented’ investment in SEND policy several times, drawing attention to the current deficit of Local Authorities (but failing to mention how much of that would have been spent fighting parents at SEND tribunals) – and argued that the current system is financially unsustainable. 

A clear theme throughout the Review is that ‘despite’ this investment, outcomes for Disabled children have not improved. This suggests that the problems policy makers are trying to fix are the abilities and/or behaviour of Disabled children, rather than the inaccessibility of a system that was never built for us.

As we delve into the Schools White Paper and SEND Green Paper, it’s important to remember the history of education policy in England, and how current policy is patching gaping holes in a system that has always been institutionally ableist.

The 1918 Education Act made the education of Disabled children mandatory. However, a medical assessment was required which could deem students ‘in-educatable’ – and therefore not require schooling by law. The ‘in-educatable’ category wasn’t removed from legislation until the 1970 Education (Handicapped Children) Act.

Eleven years later, under the 1981 Education Act, it was decided that Disabled children should be educated in mainstream schools where possible. This was two decades after politicians began working towards comprehensive schools - moving away from the tripartite system of grammars, secondary moderns, and technical schools. 

That meant that when policy makers decided to bring all students together in their learning, and cater to their individual needs – Disabled students and our needs were not included in that conversation until over 20 years later. When Disabled children were eventually allowed to join their non-Disabled peers, the system had already been built for someone else.

These policies still provide the foundations for SEND policy today – and the institutionalised ableist attitudes within them are still deeply apparent in papers like the SEND Review.

For example, the current Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP) is a progression from the previous SEN statement. Despite being more difficult to obtain, and including aspects of health and care as well as education, the framework of the SEN statement has largely been unchanged since its creation in 1978. That’s the same decade that our government removed the ‘in-educatable’ category, and it’s before legislation stated that Disabled students should attend mainstream school wherever possible. 

That means that our current SEND policies have not only stayed largely unchanged for the last 50 years, but also that their ableist foundations are still informing how we support Disabled children in school today.

When we consider that the education system in England has long been built on the assumption that Disabled students can be ‘in-educatable’ it is no wonder that resourcing SEND support is never seen as a priority.

The SEND review highlighted that, although there are 1.4 million students identified as having SEND, only 51,800 have been awarded an EHCP. That’s less than 4%. EHCPs have always been awarded to students with the ‘most severe’ needs, but all Disabled students have needs – and all have a right to access their education and reach their full potential.

Despite only making up 15% of the school population, Disabled students make up nearly half of all exclusions. They’re also disproportionately bullied, and three times less likely to hold any qualifications than their non-Disabled peers. These inequalities are a consequence of Disabled students always having been refused access to their education. They are not a consequence of Disabled students being a lost cause.

The way in which provision for SEND support continues to be underfunded and de-prioritised is a violation of Disabled students’ rights to education, and a direct cause of so many of the disability inequalities that exist in this country today. Shallow reforms are never going to be enough to overhaul the institutional ableism that exists in the education system in England, and until Disabled students’ access to education is a priority for both policy-makers and education providers, these inequalities won’t change.

If Nadhim Zahawi wants to know why outcomes for Disabled students haven’t improved, it’s because improving those outcomes has never been a priority for the government – and the SEND review has not changed this. The education system in England was originally built on the assumption that Disabled children could not be educated and, since then, the Government has not taken the action needed to create a truly inclusive system. 

Nothing we see in the Green Paper gives us confidence that the Government is committed to finally giving Disabled children full access to mainstream education, and the increased funding of specialist schools indicates that instead of driving inclusion, it is building segregation instead. 

Bethany Bale is a Policy and Campaigns Officer specialising in education policy at Disability Rights UK.