Friday, 25 May 2012

Support and Aspiration and Social Work: when things don't add up

In her Comment is Free article published on the Guardian website on May24th, Sara Teather argues that the consultation on the SEN Green Paper 'has shown broad backing from across the SEN sector' and she is right, it does appear to have received broad support from across the sector. Personally I have been surprised to see the extent of that support, but to be fair to them despite the reservations about the underyling political motivations that I have expressed elsewhere, Support and Aspiration does have a lot going for it.

The idea of a combined assessment is a good thing and families have been asking for it for as long as I can remember. The earliest references to it in the research literature go as far back as Glendining's Unshared Care (1983). Then there is the idea of a 'Local Offer' of services and information, intended to deal with the information and support challenges that families face following diagnosis and beyond. And thirdly there are personal budgets, which will theoretically provide both choice and control to families with disabled children and overtime provide a more seamless transition into adulthood and adult services.

So for my part I believe Sarah Teather genuinely means it, when she says that 'These reforms are about making sure every child, whatever their needs, gets the right type of help early' and from this perspective it is understandable that the proposals have been viewed favourably by some. However, the problem with Support and Aspiration is not it's content - its the politics and practicalities of its implementation. I have covered some of my resevations about the politics of its implementation in a previous blog but it is probably the practical shortcomings over the proposals that are most worrying.

As Sarah Teather points out it is intended that Support and Aspiration will replace the statutory assessment process set out in the 2001 Code of Practice, and as I have said elsewhere, the statutory assessment process requires that decisions about a child's education are made according to a child's need not according to the budget that is available.  According to the 'Progress and next steps' document this entitlement isn't going to change.

Children who would currently have a statement of SEN and young people over 16 who would have a learning difficulty assessment have an integrated assessment and a single Education, Health and Care Plan which is completed in a shorter time and without families having the stress of going from pillar to post to get the support they need; and,

 Parents have greater control over the services they and their family use with:
  1. every family with an Education, Health and Care plan having the right to a personal budget for their support
On the surface this looks good. It is pretty much everything that many families have ever wanted, although some may have reservations about managing their own budgets. The principal difficulty will lie in the entitlement to a personal budget and other forms of social care service and the implications that this has for social workers.

Currently Personal Budgets are assessed and processed by social workers and should involve the use of the Common Assessment Framework. Indeed as the BASW point out in their consultation response to Support and Aspiration 'the importance of social work involvement with disabled children and their families cannot be stressed enough ' and the involvement of social workers should be seen as good practice. Despite this, at the moment only 1 in 5 families whose children have a Statement of SEN also receive any form of social care service. (This figure is based on DfE data and research carried out by the Thomas Coram Institute at the University of London.). The implications of this for the implementation of Support and Aspiration are significant. Whilst the use of Self Assessment Questionnaires and Resource Allocation Systems may help, the resources required to make Personal Budgets available to every family with an Education, Health and Care Plan are self evidently not going to be made available given the scale of the cuts that are currently being implemented across Children's Services.

Last week the British Association of Social Workers published a report into The State of Social Work in the UK in 2012. In it Fran Fuller the Chair of the BASW, stated that current caseloads are 'quite simply unmanageable and that they pose a serious risk to the people who need services'. In addition to the burden that their workload imposes, social workers complain of being bullied and overall that the current state of social work is "terrifying". How the government imagines that social workers will be able to cope with any increase in their workload borders on the delusional and it is self evident that the development of Support and Aspiration's proposals took no account whatsoever of the views and current status of the profession, in the same way it would appear to have taken little account of the views of front line teachers.

So whilst I can understand why the content of Support and Aspiration has garnered the approval of many in the sector and why Sarah Teather believes it is being done in everybody's best interests, the politics and practicalities of its implementation are fatally flawed. Those who support its implementation need to be aware that if it is not supported by a significant increase in social care funding and is not implemented with the widespread support of front line social workers and teachers, it will fail miserably and do significant damage to all concerned.  

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Special educational needs and the undeserving

The fundamentals of how the government is going to manage the implementation of the changes to the Special Educational Needs (SEN) System are now clear, and all present in much of the coverage in today’s media. As expected the government’s media strategy has begun by representing the changes as reform and an improvement to a system 'that is not fit for purpose'. In truth it is not so much the system they are concerned with but the level of funding it consumes and their ability to control that spending. In the current system the Statement of SEN requires resources to be made available according to a child's needs, irrespective of budgets that local authorities may or may not have available. Currently that entitlement is being made available to approximately 3% of all children and in a government where managing budgets comes first the removal of that entitlement is unsurprisingly, a high priority.  
The second thing they have done is to divide the children and their families into two categories: those deserving of additional support and those who are not. This paralells the strategy used in many of their other reforms. The more severely disabled child and their family will be entitled to the support they deserve: a combined assessment and a personal budget. In contrast to this a child with the lowest level of special need will supposedly have their additional needs met through improved teaching methods and better training for teachers.  This group of children are likely to include amongst others; childrenwith high functioning autistic spectrum disorders, children without a diagnosis and particularly those with emotional, behavioural and social difficulties whose difficulties are (often erroneously) attributed to poor parenting skills.
The third element of the strategy implicit in much of the coverage, is to vilify teachers. Along with parents, teachers are seen as the principal abusers of the current system. The treatment of teachers in the Graeme Paton’s Telegraph article is particularly blunt and they are blamed for using the SEN system to manipulate league tables and hide poor teaching and as ever Ofsted is used to support the argument and make what is essentially a political case. What makes this vilification of teachers all the more pointless is that the proposals outlined in the Green Paper Support and Aspiration are almost impossible to achieve without the full support and commitment of a child's school.
So over the coming months, we can expect more examples of deserving disabled children and how effective the combined assessment is at meeting their needs. We can expect examples of the charities that are supporting these proposals, most of which now have significant government contracts. We can expect reports on how inclined teachers and parents are to abuse the current system to get additional funding and how a culture of low expectations deprives these children of their futures. What we won’t get is honesty about the real objective of these changes – the removal of the Statement of Special Educational Needs – as a legal guarantee of a child's statutory entitlement to additional support according to need.