the dead sheep in the stream and new special needs legislation

Many years ago, on a walking holiday in the Lake District with friends, the conversation turned to how clean the water in the mountain streams might be. One of the more intrepid members of our party said; “So it would be OK for me to drink this?” “Probably,” replied an experienced fell-walker, “But not if there’s a dead sheep in the beck higher up.”

mountain stream

I was reminded of this incident by my local parent carer group newsletter. It included a couple of articles about the proposed legislative changes for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). The proposals include;

• joint planning and commissioning of services by local authorities and Clinical Commissioning Groups
• individual support specified in a single Education, Health and Care (EHC) Plan
• support extended to age 25 and
• that families of children with EHC plans should have the option of a personal budget.

The proposals have, overall, been welcomed. However, concerns have also been expressed.

The changes were first put forward in March 2011 in a Green Paper entitled “Support and aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability”. I was involved in several groups that responded to the consultation that followed and the general feeling was that it was difficult to comment on the proposals because they hadn’t been set out in enough detail. The Department for Education’s response to the consultation, “Support and aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability – progress and next steps” was published in May 2012 and draft legislation was published in September. The Department for Education appointed 20 pathfinder authorities to pilot and evaluate the proposed changes, with a final evaluation due in the summer of 2013 – almost a year later. Queries about how the proposals would be implemented were generally greeted with advice to wait for the pathfinder reports. In the event, not surprisingly, the pathfinder evaluation has been extended and it is likely that the legislative programme will be delayed until after the final pathfinder evaluation is published.

In discussions about these changes, I’ve felt like a Cassandra, prophesying doom and gloom whilst many around me have remained relentlessly upbeat. After all, the fact that there’s a SEND Bill at all shows that the government recognizes there are problems with the current system, and the proposals show that the DfE knows what the biggest ones are. Many children are likely to benefit from the changes. But in my view the proposals merely tweak problems caused by much more fundamental factors in the system, and that if these factors aren’t addressed, the current set of problems will simply be exchanged for another. One parent I sat next to in a consultation meeting kept saying “At least it couldn’t be worse than the current system.” Well, actually it could. It could be like the situation before the Warnock report in 1978, which recognized that many able children were denied a suitable education because of a physical disability, and many less able children were considered ineducable. Or, as I suggested, the legislation might result in a different set of problems.

Core components of a service

A service – whatever it is and whoever it’s for – has to have several core components. First, expertise. The people offering the service need to know how to accurately assess their clients’ needs and how best to meet them. Second, capacity and resources. An effective service will need enough people with the right expertise and sufficient equipment, materials, buildings etc. Thirdly, before designing the system the service will need to carry out a requirements analysis for all the people who need the service – described as a needs analysis in the case of children with SEND. No service has an unlimited budget, so once planners and commissioners know what the needs are, they can decide what expertise and resources are going to be most cost effective and what service users can probably manage without. This might seem self-evident and appear to be what central and local government are doing already, but since the current system of support for children with SEND clearly isn’t working – and I would argue that it has never worked, in terms of ensuring that most children with SEND achieve their full potential – there must be something going wrong somewhere.

What’s going wrong?

The Department for Education seems to have decided that the problem lies in the way support services are planned, commissioned and delivered. Planning and commissioning aren’t joined up enough, despite local authorities having integrated children’s services for nearly a decade. The process of statutory assessment is too cumbersome and takes too long, even though in principle assessments could be completed within weeks, rather than months. Support doesn’t go on for long enough, despite adult services being available. Local authorities aren’t allocating finance in the most effective way, even though it’s their job to do so. Consequently, the planning, commissioning and delivery of the system are being changed. Since the people who designed the current system presumably thought it would work, and viable processes for planning, commissioning and delivery are already in place, a key question does not appear to have been asked; what made the system go wrong in the first place?

The dead sheep in the stream

This is where the sheep in the stream analogy comes in. Imagine that you live in a farmhouse at the foot of a mountain. The farm is too remote for a mains water supply and for three hundred years the inhabitants have relied on water from a stream fed by a spring halfway up the mountainside. The purity of the water is renowned locally and the only problem has been that the stream flows sluggishly during extreme droughts. Then one day everyone at the farm gets sick. The illness is identified as water-borne and further investigation reveals the source – the body of a sheep in the stream just below the spring, hidden in a densely wooded area. The farming family is advised to boil their drinking water or install a purification unit; but they might not need to do anything involving that level of inconvenience or expense. It would be simpler to remove the body of the sheep from the stream and let the water flow for a couple of days.  Then the farmers could continue drinking the spring water for the next three hundred years without mishap – provided no more bodies end up in the stream.

Requiring local authorities to undertake joint planning and commissioning, implementing EHC plans, extending children’s services to 25 and providing personal budgets are all the equivalent of the farming family boiling their drinking water or installing a purification unit – while there’s still a dead sheep in the stream. So what’s the equivalent of the sheep? I’d say it was a problem with each of the three components of service provision I mentioned earlier – expertise, capacity and resources, and requirements analysis – not downstream in the system near the point of delivery where most of the amendments are taking place, but further upstream.


First, let’s look at expertise. Recent independent reports have indicated a lack of expertise with regard to children in the education (Lamb, 2009), health (Kennedy, 2010) and social care (Munro, 2011) sectors. Despite the Warnock recommendation that children with SEND be taught in mainstream schools where possible being implemented since 1978, it’s only since 2009 that teachers have been required to have any SEN training and that new special educational needs co-ordinators (SENCOs) have had to be qualified teachers. Teaching Assistants (TAs), who now make up around 25% of the mainstream school workforce, are generally not qualified teachers and don’t necessarily have any educational training, but are often the people who spend most time with children with SEN. A recent study (Webster & Blatchford, 2012) revealed that teachers aren’t usually trained to work with TAs, so many TAs are having to work ‘on the hoof’ in the classroom with little or no preparation with a child with learning or behavioural problems. The study found that when TAs worked with the rest of the class for part of the lesson so teachers could spend time with the children with SEN, the achievement of the pupils improved and teachers understood their learning difficulties better. What’s puzzling is how this situation arose in the first place. Here’s an extract from a piece about SENCO training published in the Times Educational Supplement in May 2009.

The [training] courses have been set up to address serious concerns about the perceived “low status” of Sencos and to raise the profile of special needs and disabilities in schools.”

I find it intriguing that although the professional status of SENCOs and poor awareness of special educational needs might be relevant issues, the TES reporter frames SENCO training in those terms of rather than in terms of the expertise required to help all children learn. What does this say about perceptions of SEN?

Capacity and resources

A second factor is capacity and resources; I’ll talk about capacity first. A recurring problem for parents of children with SEND is how long it takes to see professionals who can carry out assessments. Often all that children get is repeated assessments; because of limited service capacity sometimes parents (and occasionally teachers) are expected to implement therapies even though they have no idea what might be causing the child’s problems or what outcomes to expect. Another recent report (Bercow, 2008) suggested that speech and language therapy in England was a postcode lottery, and there doesn’t seem to have been a significant improvement since then. The British Psychological Society has expressed concerns (not for the first time) about cuts in the number of educational psychologists employed by local authorities. And if you google ‘shortage occupational therapist’ you’ll find reports from various parts of the globe. Then there’s resources. Parents report problems getting wheelchairs and large nappies; even the NHS website says that there might be a waiting list for assessments (waits for the actual wheelchair aren’t even mentioned). My local occupational therapy service apologized for the delay in providing therapy for my son. One problem was that they hadn’t been able to access his school to show teachers how to integrate exercises into his school day. Another obstacle was that because their equipment takes an hour to put up and an hour to dismantle, the only time they were able to book a room large enough and available for long enough for them to treat several children in one day was during the school summer holidays.

Requirements analysis

And then there’s the requirements analysis. Under the 1989 Children Act, local authorities are required to keep a register of children with disabilities. This should provide the information they need to enable them to design support services. The register is a voluntary one in the sense that parents volunteer information about their children, and there are obviously questions over what qualifies as a disability, so at best such a register is only going to provide approximate information about the needs of children with disabilities in a given locality. But an approximation is all that’s required. In the past twenty years, it should have been possible to form a fairly accurate picture of local needs, trends over time, and year-to-year fluctuations. But judging by recent reports, support for children with SEND has been getting worse, rather than better. So what’s gone wrong?

I suggest that because education, health and social care systems have been evolving piecemeal during this time, national government initiatives have cut across local authorities’ ability to use data to design effective services. For example, following the Warnock report in 1978, local authorities were encouraged to educate children with disabilities in mainstream schools where possible. An inspiring example of this is the collaboration between a mainstream junior school and a school for children with visual impairment described by Hegarty and Pocklington (1981). At that time, local authorities and individual schools had complete control over such initiatives. Then in 1988, the Education Reform Act introduced a compulsory national curriculum, followed in 1991 by national curriculum assessments, commonly known as SATs. Although there might have been good reasons for introducing both, they have each had an impact on the Warnock recommendation for the inclusion of SEND pupils in mainstream schools. If the performance of schools is assessed by pupils’ performance in standardized tests, systems pressures will inevitably lead to a tendency to marginalize pupils with SEND, either overtly – by schools discouraging admittance or by formal or informal exclusions – or covertly by simply not allocating sufficient resources to their education. Add to this the absence of SEN from initial teacher training and the reduction in SEN expertise within the education system as a whole due to a focus on children within the normal range and the closure of special schools, and no amount of tinkering with statutory assessments or who holds budgets will be able to compensate.

Failure demand

Overlooking shortcomings in factors that are upstream in a system means that whatever you do to problems downstream, they won’t get fixed. In fact the upstream issues create the need for further resources that wouldn’t be needed if the upstream problems were fixed. This phenomenon is what John Seddon calls failure demand – demand created solely by failures of system design. A common failure demand in the case of children with SEND is that avoiding early intervention in an attempt to reduce costs often means that simple problems become complex ones, requiring expensive interventions later on. Not to mention the sometimes permanent damage done to a child’s development and self-esteem, and the time wasted by teachers, parents and professionals trying to get problems resolved in the meantime. Providing sufficient resources to meet needs in a timely manner might not cost more; in fact, once failure demand is eliminated, costs usually go down.

In short, until teachers, healthcare and social care professionals are trained to meet the needs of all children (not just those within the middle range), until there are enough people with that training working within the education, health and social care sectors, and until there are enough materials, equipment and space available to meet the needs of all children, the needs of all children will not, and cannot be met.


Hegarty S. and Pocklington K. (1981). “A junior school resource area for the visually impaired” in W. Swann (Ed.) The Practice of Special Education, Basil Blackwell/Open University Press.

Webster R. & Blatchford P. (2012). “Supporting learning?:.How effective are teaching assistants?” in P. Adey & J. Dillon (Eds.) Bad Education: Debunking myths in education, McGraw Hill.


Photograph: Tullynaglack, Donegal, copyright Louise Price, used under Creative Commons,

First posted in December 2012 at and edited for clarity.


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