the new SEN legislation and the Dunkirk spirit

First posted in August 2014, just before the new SEN legislation came into force.  I put my head above the parapet and predicted what would happen.  Judging by this account of an LA’s Ofsted inspection, I wasn’t far wrong.

In less than a week an event will take place that’s been awaited with excitement, apprehension, or in some cases with something approaching the Dunkirk spirit. On 1 September part 3 of the Children and Families Act 2014 comes into force. It’s been described as the biggest change to special educational needs in 30 years.

it won’t work
. If I were a betting sort of person, I’d put money on the next government having to review the system again in a couple of years. How can I be so sure? Or so pessimistic? It’s because the ‘problem’ with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) isn’t the special educational needs and disabilities, it’s the education system. And not just the SEN bit of it – it’s the education system as a whole. To find out why we need to go back in time…

we have a history

Education became compulsory in England in 1870. The new education system was essentially a one-size-fits-all affair focusing on reading, writing and arithmetic. Or more accurately one-size-fits-most; what took the government by surprise was the number of children turning up to school who didn’t fit the education system. Government essentially saw these ‘handicapped’ children as a problem, and its solution was to provide special schools for them. Although the solution made perfect sense, it wasn’t entirely successful. Handicapped children often ended up socially marginalised and sometimes institutionalised, and there were still children in mainstream schools who were struggling.

By the 1970s, the education system had changed considerably. There was more emphasis on an individualised education and local education authorities (LEAs), schools and teachers had a good deal of flexibility in the education they provided. The time was right for Margaret Thatcher as Secretary of State for Education to commission a review of the education of handicapped children, headed by Mary Warnock. The Warnock Committee reported in 1978. It defined special education as ‘provision not generally available in normal schools’ (p.45). In other words it saw the ‘problem’ of special education not as the children but as the educational provision available in mainstream schools. The committee’s recommendations fed into the 1981 Education Act that:

• assumed children would attend mainstream schools where possible
• did away with the old categories of handicap
• introduced the concept of ‘special educational needs’
• gave LEAs a duty to assess children’s special educational needs and to fund the additional provision required for their education.

The Act had the potential to transform the lives of children marginalised by the education system, but it clearly hasn’t done so – not in a good way, anyway. In the last 20 years we’ve had three SEN Codes of Practice, numerous inquiries, reports and tinkerings with SEN legislation and regulations. One select committee described the system as not fit for purpose. So…

what went wrong?

The Warnock recommendations were made in the context of a highly flexible education system. A contemporary account describes a fruitful collaboration between a school for children with visual impairment (VI) and a mainstream junior school, pioneered by a keen LEA officer (Hegarty & Pocklington, 1981). Children with VI were gradually integrated into the mainstream school and teachers trained each other. Everybody won.

In order to undertake such a project, LEAs, schools and teachers needed a fair amount of control over their time and budgets. Projects like this might have eventually been rolled out nationwide, except that within a decade the introduction of a compulsory national curriculum and standardised testing had begun to steer the education system back towards a one-size-fits-all approach. Within a few short years central government had essentially wrested the responsibility for education and its funding from local authorities and education had become a serious ‘political football’. Successive governments have focused on raising educational attainment as an indicator of their own effectiveness as a government and ironically that’s what’s resulted in SEN becoming a problem again in recent years.

Essentially, if you want an efficient one-size-fits-all education system and world-beating exam results it makes perfect sense to remove from the equation children who don’t fit into the system and are unlikely to do well in exams however hard everyone tries. That’s what the government did in the 1890s. If you want an education system that provides all children with an education suitable to their individual needs, you can forget about one-size-fits-all and world-beating exam results; you’ll need a lot of flexibility. That’s what the education system had developed into by the time of the Warnock committee. If you want both you’re likely to end up where we are now.

“Relativity” by MC Escher

The Warnock committee defined special educational needs in terms of the educational provision ‘generally available in normal schools’. By definition, the better the provision in normal schools, the smaller the number of children who would be deemed to have special educational needs. The committee couldn’t have emphasised the need for SEN training for all teachers more strongly if it had tried, but perversely, the education system appears to have taken a step in the opposite direction.

teacher training

The Warnock committee recommended the inclusion of SEN training in the initial teacher training (ITT) for all teachers. Following the 1981 Education Act, the assumption that many children with SEN would be taught in mainstream schools and that all teachers would be trained in SEN led to the cessation of many special needs teacher training courses. They obviously haven’t been replaced with comparable training in ITT. This, coupled with the retirement of special education teachers and a reduction of the number of children in special schools, has meant that the education system as a whole has suffered a considerable loss of SEN expertise.

Reviews of SEN provision have repeatedly reported concerns about there being insufficient emphasis on SEN in ITT. But it’s only been since 2009 that Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators (SENCOs) have been required to be trained teachers, and only new SENCOs have been required to have SEN training. The current government has allocated additional funding for SEN qualifications (para 53) but only until 2013. This isn’t going to touch the problem. DfE figures for 2011 show that only around 7% of the total education workforce has SEN experience and/or training, and most of those people are concentrated in special schools. And special schools report ongoing difficulties recruiting suitably trained staff. This, despite the fact that the Warnock report 35 years ago pointed out that based on historical data, around 20% of the school population could be expected to need additional educational provision at some time during their school career. The report made it clear that all teachers are teachers of children with special educational needs.

Teachers’ expertise, or lack of it, will have a big impact on the attainment of children with SEN, but that hasn’t prevented government from developing unrealistic targets for all children under the guise of raising aspirations.

expectations of attainment

I mentioned earlier that over the last three decades education has become a ‘political football’. Concern is often expressed over the proportion of young people who leave school functionally illiterate or innumerate or without qualifications, despite evidence that this proportion has remained pretty constant for many years. In the case of literacy, it’s remained stubbornly at around 17%, by bizarre coincidence not far from the equally stubborn 20% figure for children with SEN.

But the possibility that some of those young people might be in the position they’re in because of lack of expertise in the education system – or even because they are never going to meet government’s arbitrary attainment targets and that that might actually be OK – doesn’t seem to have occurred to successive governments. In her keynote address to the inaugural national conference of the Autism Education Trust in 2009 the then Minister for Schools and Learning Sarah McCarthy-Fry, saw no reason why young people with autism shouldn’t achieve 5 A-C grade GCSEs. Some of course might do just that. For others such an aspiration bears no relation to their ability or aptitude, part of the definition for the ‘suitable education’ each child is required, by law, to receive.

Currently, funding for post-16 education requires young people to have or be studying for A-C grade GCSEs in both English and Maths. Post-16 providers are rolling their eyes. Although I can understand the reasoning behind this requirement, it’s an arbitrary target bearing no relation to the legal definition of a suitable education.

it’s the system

Currently, local authorities, schools and teachers are under pressure from the SEN system to make personalised, specialised educational provision for a small group of children, whilst at the same time the education system as a whole is pushing them in the opposite direction, towards a one-size-fits-all approach. This is a daft way to design a system and no matter how much effort individual professionals put in, it can’t work. But it isn’t the SEN system itself that needs changing, it’s teacher expertise and government expectations.

Over recent decades, successive governments have approached education legislation (and legislation in general, for that matter) not by careful consideration of the historical data and ensuring that the whole system is designed to produce the desired outcomes, but essentially by edict. A bit of the education system is wrong, so government has decreed that it should be put right, regardless of what’s causing the problem or the impact of changing part of the system without considering the likely consequences elsewhere.

In systems theory terms, this is known as sub-system optimization at the expense of systems optimization. That mouthful basically means that because all the parts of a system are connected, if you tweak one bit of it another bit will change, but not necessarily in a good way. Policy-makers refer to the not-in-a-good-way changes as unintended and unwanted outcomes.

The new SEN legislation is a classic case of an attempt at sub-system optimization that’s doomed to fail. It requires the education, health and social care sectors to do some joined up thinking and extend the support offered to children with SEND for a further decade – until they are 25 – at a time when all three sectors are undergoing massive organisational change and simultaneously having their budgets cut. It introduces personal budgets at a time when all three sectors are changing their commissioning arrangements. It fails to address the lack of expertise in all three systems. (Recent reports have pointed out that teachers aren’t trained in SEN, GPs don’t have paediatric training and children’s social workers don’t know about child development.) It fails to address the fundamental systems design problems inherent in all three sectors; a one-size-fits-all education system, and health and social care sectors that focus on cure rather than prevention.

This approach to systems design isn’t just daft, it’s incompetent and reprehensively irresponsible. People who have made hopeful noises about the new SEN system have tended to focus on the good intentions behind the legislation. I have no doubt about the good intentions or the integrity of the ministers responsible – Sarah Teather and Edward Timpson – but they have been swimming against a strong tide. Getting through the next few years will be tough. Fortunately, in the world of SEN there’s a lot of Dunkirk spirit – we’re going to need it.

Hegarty, S & Pocklington, K (1981). A junior school resource area for the visually impaired. In Swann, W (ed.) The Practice of Special Education. Open University Press/Basil Blackwell.
Warnock, H M (1978). Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Handicapped Children and Young People. HMSO.

education and systems thinking

A couple of years ago I attended a conference hosted by Stoke-on-Trent City Council called A radical approach to reshaping public services. It was one of the most informative I’ve ever been to, so I thought a summary might be useful to anyone struggling to navigate public sector services.  I’ve re-posted it here because it outlines an approach that’s very relevant to SEN support – person-centred planning.

A team from the city council and another from Bromsgrove and Redditch councils explained how they were applying Vanguard’s systems thinking approach to the way they support local people. The two teams had tackled local issues slightly differently; in this post I’ve amalgamated what they described, to give an overview. Obviously, this is my own overview and I’m happy to be corrected if I’ve got anything wrong.

Although both teams use the Vanguard approach, systems thinking for organisations wasn’t invented by Vanguard, but is based on the principles of systems theory. Systems theory is pretty robust. We know how systems work in many different domains. Because organisations are systems, applying systems theory to them makes a lot of sense. (Management theories, by contrast, usually address only part of the organizational system, and that’s why they tend not to work very well.)

Some key principles of systems thinking as applied to organisations

Form follows function

If you want your organization to be effective, you need to have a clear idea of its function. If its ultimate goal is to make sure local people can get on with their lives (the primary purpose of local authorities) you need to have valid, reliable and relevant information about what services people need to enable them to do that. Then you can decide what things your organization has to do to meet those needs (function) and what structure will best enable it to do those things (form).

Systems should be designed as whole systems

If you’re designing a system, you need to make sure the whole system is actually doing what it’s supposed to do. A system is essentially a set of interacting components. If you change one component, there’s a good chance another component will be affected, so you need to check out the impact on the system as a whole, or the system as a whole might not work.

Good data about the nature of demand is essential

“Demand’ is anything that takes energy out of the system. It includes the processes the system carries out, the number of people using it and the complexity of their needs, the cost of staffing, buildings and equipment etc. It also includes what Vanguard calls ‘failure demand’ – demand due solely to the failure of the system to function efficiently. Failure demand would include duplication, re-referrals, complaints etc.

Variation requires adaptability

A system dealing with high variation (e.g. a large population with a wide range of needs) must be adaptable if it’s to respond appropriately to that variation. The best way we’ve found so far of meeting the wide range of needs across a community is through the classic model of professional expertise. For millennia, communities have met needs through access to people with high levels of expertise, whether carpenters or doctors, tailors or teachers. The key features of these professionals are that they have a high level of both specialist expertise and autonomy. Both qualities are characteristic of the teams using the systems thinking approach.

How do you apply systems thinking to a public service organisation?

Stoke-on-Trent City Council was faced with escalating problems – unemployment, rent arrears, anti-social behaviour etc – at the same time as experiencing significant reductions in funding. It was clear that even before funding cuts, whatever the council was doing to tackle the problems wasn’t an unqualified success, so a radical change was needed to avert disaster. The council applied the systems thinking approach in three phases;

• an analysis of the effectiveness of the old system,
• a pilot study of the systems thinking approach in one location, and
• scaling-up the new system informed by data gathered from the pilot study.

Phase 1: Analysing the effectiveness of the old system

Because it was clear that the old system a) wasn’t working efficiently and b) wasn’t financially sustainable, a detailed examination of its strengths and weaknesses might, on the face of it, appear to be a waste of time. It turns out that several useful outcomes emerge from a detailed analysis of current practice. A analysis enables you to;

• look at the system as a system, not as a set of disconnected agencies and departments,
• see how effective the system is, and why it is or isn’t effective, and
• get detailed information about costs.

The city council already had good city-wide data, so they knew where most of the problems were located geographically, but they didn’t know much about the people with the problems. They couldn’t answer the question “Where do the people who go through your system end up?”

The council team looked in detail at a small number of complex cases from the point of view of the people involved. Analyses carried out by a multi-agency team shed light on how the old system worked – or rather how it didn’t work. The analyses included mapping the pathways followed by people using the system, creating a timeline of interactions with agencies, and comparing what people wanted with what they got.

Mapping the pathways followed by people using the system

Typically, when someone first engaged with the system, the department they contacted dealt with issues within their remit, and then referred the person to other departments or agencies for any other issues. To analyse the pathways people followed, the team drew a map, for each case study, showing each referral. They ended up with some hugely complex diagrams, showing that people often ended up in loops of referrals and re-referrals to the same agencies. Anyone unfamiliar with the system would have found it bewildering and frustrating. Confusion and frustration is what people using public sector systems often report, but until you’ve seen it mapped out on paper, it’s difficult to see where the specific causes of the confusion and frustration lie.

Diagram showing how referrals were mapped

Diagram showing how referrals were mapped

Mapping out a time-line of interactions with different agencies

The team also looked at what interactions people had with different agencies and when. They used used post-it notes to represent interactions, colour-coded for the relevant agency, on a timeline. A typical pattern consisted of a few interactions with a single agency for a few months that then rapidly fanned out into many interactions with multiple agencies. What was clear was that there was no ownership of the case by any specific agency.

Diagram showing timeline of interactions

Diagram showing timeline of interactions

Asking people what they wanted

The team compared what support people said they wanted with what they actually got. One woman, who ended up with health and mobility problems, no support and her children in care, initially had two ‘wants’; access to the first floor of her home and help with housework. If those ‘wants’ had been met at the outset, the cost to the council would have been relatively low. As it was, the fact that neither ‘want’ was addressed resulted in an outcome that was very expensive for the council and catastrophic for the family.

What these exercises showed is that;

• the problems that people presented with (e.g. rent arrears) were often outcomes of other problems
• people often accurately identified the root causes of problems given the opportunity to do so
• addressing the root causes promptly could result in significant financial savings and avoid problems becoming complex
• people using services often experienced unnecessary referrals to multiple agencies and many agencies were duplicating each other’s work
• each interaction with services added to costs
• each increase in complexity of problems added to costs.

Phase 2: Pilot study in one locality

An area of the city known to have high needs was chosen for a pilot study. A ‘locality’ team was set up to respond to issues raised by people in this area. The team’s brief was to address any problems identified when people living in this area came into contact with any local authority services or with the fire or police services, which were by now actively involved with the project.

The new locality team differed from the old functional teams in several important respects;

• each team member would be responsible for ensuring the support of a small group of citizens
• they ‘pulled in’ additional expertise to the team if required, rather than referring the citizen out to another agency
• they used measures to monitor performance and outcomes but didn’t use targets

Phase 3: Evaluating the effectiveness of the pilot study

After six months, the pilot study was evaluated at three levels, Tier 3 – the city level, Tier 2 – which could be described as the locality level, and Tier 1 – the individual level.

Tier 3: City level evaluation

Two years prior to the pilot study the council had identified 35 key strategic measures in order to monitor the cost-effectiveness of their services, so they already had good data at the macro-level, Tier 3. The team used the ‘triangle of need’ to identify the level of support required by particular households.

triangle of need

Triangle of need

Small, but clear reductions in costs for the pilot area of the city were evident compared to similar localities used as controls. The results are tentative because the intervention had only been in place for 6 months.

Tier 1: Individual level evaluation

During the pilot study, the outcomes for seven people were assessed in detail, so data were then available at the individual level – Tier 1. The results were not what the team expected. Overall, the number of interactions with local authority services had increased, but the cumulative cost of those interactions had gone down slightly. By contrast, the demand on health and police services decreased significantly – in some cases by around 90%. Fire service interactions increased, but costs also plummeted because fire service involvement was around fire prevention, not emergency call-outs.

The seven citizens were asked at the beginning of the pilot study what problems they wanted to resolve and their perception of their progress towards resolution was mapped on radar (spider) charts. After six months most had seen significant improvements. The locality teams also filmed some quite moving interviews with people who’d received support from them. The citizens in question were obviously grateful to the locality teams for providing them with relevant, timely support. And surprised that the council offered that support at all.

Tier 2 – Locality level evaluation

After the first 6 months, the proportion of households in the pilot locality needing multiple-agency or specialist support had dropped from 35% to 20%. The council estimates that there are around 5,000 households in the city that fall into one of these two categories and that if the improvements seen in the pilot study can be scaled-up city-wide, over 5 years the council could save £40-80m.


Some points worth noting emerged during the course of the conference.

Getting other agencies on board was essential

Stoke city council were clear that they couldn’t have proceeded with this work without the active involvement of the police and fire services, and that getting the support of people in charge of other agencies was essential. The massive cost savings to the police, fire and health services suggested their involvement was a worthwhile investment.

Local councillors, often initially sceptical about yet another re-organisation, generally found the facts and figures persuasive.

Seeing the situation on the ground is essential

One housing officer was shocked when she visited the properties that tenants were expected to occupy. So were other team members when they found out what had happened to people who’d contacted their departments. What’s on paper doesn’t always match real life.

It takes time to build up the trust of people using the new system

Finding out more about people’s problems can seem intrusive, and it took time to build up the trust of those with complex problems. But word-of-mouth recommendations about timely, effective support and positive outcomes is beginning to change the relationship between local people and the council.

Staff using the systems thinking approach wouldn’t go back to the old system

Council officers found their working life transformed by the increase in variety, autonomy and effectiveness of their new roles. Most wouldn’t go back to the old way of working. One important factor in improving the time taken to respond to problems, was that the members of the locality team (including a fire officer, a police officer and an alcohol support worker) were based in the same room, resulting in almost instant communication. Other agencies had a designated member of staff to deal with locality team queries.

The main problem with systems thinking – it looks like common sense

One of the drawbacks of systems thinking is that it looks so obvious, it’s easy for organisations to think they are using it already .

For example, many local authority children’s services use multi-agency teams and emphasise the importance of ‘joined-up thinking’, but the teams, their thinking and the outcomes that result bear little resemblance to the locality teams or the outcomes they’ve achieved.

I’ve also seen the triangle of need used by another local authority, not as a way of representing data, but to categorise children with disabilities (low, medium and high needs). Support is available only to families with children with severe or complex needs – those in the top section – meaning there’s a real risk that the problems of families in the middle section will be allowed to escalate.

Systems thinking is based on tried-and-tested principles. It can cope with highly variable demand and results in increased job satisfaction, reduced costs and improved quality of service. The savings and improvements can be significant. A real ray of hope in a public sector facing its greatest ever challenges.

Update: My understanding is that the pilot wasn’t rolled out to the rest of Stoke-on-Trent because of factors such as this –  In other words, the Vanguard approach revealed the true cost of housing maintenance and the true cost of the backlog, so was abandoned.

Originally posted in October 2013 at