Dear Mr Timpson,
Thank you for your time today. I hope you got something positive out of our meeting.
Edward Timpson – Minister for Children and Families
I will be following your progress with interest.
Your determination to listen, try to understand and therefore avoid pitfalls was admirable. I truly wish all ‘power to your elbow’.That being so it simply remains for me to ask ‘what use can we parents of SEN children be to you?’ and ‘what is the best way for us to help this process along?’ In the spirit of helpfulness I thought I would submit my agenda points with clarification and comment for your information.
1. The adversarial nature of the statementing process.
This piece called Wonderfully Ordinary was written to describe the sheer relief I felt on learning that we had finally won our year-long battle with the local authority over my daughter’s statement of Special Educational Needs.
This process I now know to be a byword in brutal bureaucracy. At a moment where parents are most in need of support and kindness one is confronted with bullish tactics, and a combative attitude. From the outset it seems as if parents are mistrusted and assumed to be trying to get more out of the system than they should.
Our route to statementing was unnecessarily unpleasant from the very beginning. We were constantly told that what we wanted was not available, had never been done and that there was no precedent. As we started towards tribunal the experience was pocked with incidence of aggressive counter tactics (supplications to the tribunal judges to throw out the case on various technical grounds) all failed and once the LA realised that we both had a lawyer and also that we had discovered the precedent they had denied existed they folded before we got to the courtroom door. None of the behaviour of the LA was in the best interest of my daughter. It was all concerned with control and cost cutting.
Route for change
What came through today was a strong sense that what is needed is a full culture change within the Local authority (with particular reference to those involved in the statementing process ) and the importance of parent advocacy – parents should be considered, where possible, to be full participants in the process.
2. Progress and attainment
I was pleased to read the DfE report on support and aspiration: a new approach to special needs and disability.
The current, and I hope soon to be past, expectation of the need to show 3 terms (1 year) of failure in order to be considered for a statement is an affront. It runs directly counter to the best interests of the child and the goal of equal access to education.
Special Educational Needs must not be understood to mean operating below the basic standard: That would be to do a terrible disservice to those who are already going to have to work harder than average to fulfil their potential. They do not need further obstacles thrown into their path.
Having been informed that this was the system I spent Hester’s time at nursery (whilst supported under a CAF protocol) marking, describing, looking for and predicting every possible failure of access and attainment. This is no way to view a child’s learning process.
Route for change
Statementing should be about preventing failure: at its heart should be Equal Access to education with success at the highest level its goal – not mere containment of difficulty.
Blind and Visually Impaired children without further SEN needs have the same potential for high attainment as a sighted child.
There should, therefore, be no expectation of working below the national average. Yet, shamingly, a research briefing from the RNIB found that whilst Blind children with no other SEN had a higher attainment and make better progress than other SEN Groups they still show markedly lower attainment than children with no SEN. The gap, notable at the end of reception, widens with every key stage. This should not be the case and demonstrates the need for more early intervention and support if these findings are to be turned around.
3. Importance of Early intervention and countrywide parity of access to specialist support.
We were in London when Hester was first diagnosed with Leber’s congenital amaurosis (blindness).
To begin with we had little guidance or support to help with sensory stimulation or tactics for helping with language development. (Language is the starting block from which all learning stems – if you can’t see – you don’t learn by naming and pointing – which is how babies learn to speak. If your speech is delayed so too is your cognitive processing and all forms of drawing conclusion from connections are likely to be lost). By the time she was first assessed developmentally at 18 months she was already one year behind in linguistic terms and both fine and gross motors skills were delayed.
Luckily for Hester this was the point at which we moved to the West Country and into the arms of the Bristol VI team where the difference in approach was marked.
Hester was able to attend a specialist playgroup (once a week) where every part of her development (visual, mental, emotional, physical) could be continually assessed and supported as could my parenting of a child with such particular needs.
These groups were led by specially trained teachers and assistants with years of experience in the field. The whole aim of this group was to ensure that each child (and they ranged in age from new-born to 5) was ready for school when the time arrived.
They did a superb job. In real terms their help and early intervention made Hester’s transition to school as successful as it could be. Without their support Hester would have started on the back foot – if not facing in the wrong direction. As it is she is now operating at the same standard as her sighted peers (in fact higher than most of them!)
Blindness in children is very low incidence within the population and requires an enormous amount of specialist support if access to education is to be successful.
There is a great deal of unease in the visual impairment service that although their funding has been guaranteed for one year this funding needs to be ring fenced if their excellent work is to continue. Devolving funding to schools, without ringfencing their funding through the Local Authority, risks a supply and demand mechanism of funding allocation and low incidence yet essential services would be negatively affected by this.
Hester is my fourth child. I had some experience of mothering and also 10 years of teaching under my belt before we embarked on this adventure but even so, without the early years support of specialists she would not be in the excellent position she is now. Early invention is crucial if education is to be successful. It would be extremely short-sighted, if you will forgive the pun, to scrimp here when good support will secure a better outcome: to wit – a person educated to the highest standard and therefore, one hopes, a high tax payer – Fail this child and the outcome will be more expensive in the long run.
This is a marvellous opportunity to really make things better for a significant minority.
Just as the Paralympics changed perceptions around disability I hope that you and your bill can produce a sea change in the climate of SEN. If you would like to see how well this can all work I would like to invite you to come and meet Hester and her fantastic team of assistants, specialist teachers, SENco and truly supportive school of teachers and children. We have all worked together to achieve a situation which could happily be used as a best practice model.
Sarah Lowden Poole
Ps. It was lovely to see you again Ed – Congrats on being a Minister and everything! If you do make it to Bath - Lucy and I can promise to feed you lots of cake (BATH WI style!)