We Don’t Need Just SEND Reform, We Need a SEND Revolution. Who’s In?

educational psychology send Feb 12, 2024
Children with SEND standing united for a revolution in SEND

by Dr Joanna Stanbridge (Senior Educational Psychologist and Tutor at UCL's Institute for Education) and the EP revolutionary collective


Q: What do you get if you cross a cloud and a pair of pants?

A: Thunderwear.

Q: What do you get if you cross an education system with principles of free market capitalism baked into its core (with extra lashings added over the last decade and a bit) with austerity legacy, an incongruent and incoherent mix of legislation, a runaway train towards academisation on which the tracks were never quite finished, a public sector on the brink of palliative care and a population in one way or another exhausted by uncertainty?

A: A 91% rise in statutory assessments (statements/EHCPS) since 2012 and a 250% increase in appeals to the First Tier Tribunal since 2015 (Marsh, 2023), an immeasurable escalation in emotionally-based school non-attendance (EBSNA), huge rises in requests for special school and alternative provision placements, parents and professionals in despair and council after council in financial dire straits and at risk of, if not actual in, bankruptcy.

It’s no joke but the punchline seems somehow to be a surprise.

It’s not funny of course but somehow it seems to come as a surprise whenever the extent of these increases is raised, as if those who have only just noticed these rises in reported SEND need and associated requests for statutory support, can’t quite understand how this situation has come about. This is often accompanied by well-intentioned suggestions for how these trends might be reversed with a few tweaks to the system, and reference to the fact that there has been “lots of funding pumped into the system”. This “lots of funding” of course is proffered in the context of real-terms 8% reduction in school budgets (IFF, 2022) and 21% reductions in funding to local authority budgets since 2012 (Local government funding in England | Institute for Government). This “lots of additional funding” appears to be much like trying to use a single watering can to rescue a parched pot plant in a hot conservatory that hasn’t been watered while you have been away on holiday for weeks.


The Human Costs of the Current Defective System are Catastrophic for Those Within It

It's really not funny at all when the narrative turns from the big picture and to those living with the impact of a system that is not working. Children and young people are depressingly often without school places or feeling that school is not a safe or meaningful place for them, and are experiencing the associated impacts on their wellbeing (often more profoundly on their mental health) and community participation.

Families of children and young people with additional needs often share their experiences of how exhausted and desperate they have felt seeing their children stuck and feeling that they are watching their children’s access to an education slip away.

Teachers and SENCos tell us they are caught in the stranglehold of knowing that many children they teach need something more or different and not being able find a way to make this happen within the systems that they are in and teachers are leaving the profession. I have lost count of how many SENCos and teachers have told me that they are sick of being the ‘face of a broken system’; stuck between the differing pressures of what the Code of Practice says that they should be providing and what is possible within the constraints of their school finances and structures (even when children are supported by EHCPs). I have heard more than once in the last academic year SENCos telling me that the level of additional need they are supporting for the children and young people in their schools is such that their schools don’t feel safe.

The situation for SEND Casework Officers is no better, also finding themselves as the public face of systems and crushed in the vice-like tension between the enormous pressures on local authority demands (financial as well as practical) and what schools and parents are also often quite understandably saying is needed. There is a well-documented impact of academisation within a half-finished system on what local authorities have retained responsibility for without the required powers and funding to enact and this has disproportionately affected the most vulnerable children and young people (Freedman, 2022). SEND Casework Officers find themselves having to just apologise to everybody for factors that are entirely beyond their control; they are in the equivalent of the stocks on the town squares of SEND System City and everybody is pelting them with tomatoes.

The pressures that schools are under from the rigid curricula imposed by the Education Act (2011) in conjunction with the legacy of austerity and financial strangleholds, means that the flexibility required for inclusive education just isn’t available in schools in the same way that it was a decade or so ago. This is not to suggest that the educational experience of all children and young people with additional needs is not positive; things do work well for a great many children all over the country every day. However, this is now arguably despite the systems, not because of them.


Mainstream Education is Becoming Increasingly Less Accessible

There is therefore more call for an alternative educational forum for these children who require more flexibility, often in the form of special school education and so we have perhaps sleepwalked into a situation whereby the evidence and commitment about mainstream schools being the best place for the majority of children with additional needs has either been conveniently forgotten or may no longer be true in the context of the current system.

There is nothing wrong with special school education of course, quite the contrary; for a small proportion of children and young people, a specialist provision is what they need. However, it’s not necessarily the case that now ‘more children need a special educational provision’ so much as now ‘more mainstream schools are unable to provide the flexibility and resources for children to have their needs met’. Even if we did all agree that special education settings were the answer (which I am not sure we are all agreeing, especially not at the current scale), local authorities who have the responsibility for finding school places no longer have the power to build new schools anyway and are at the mercy of what academy chains (or free schools) may come up with.

We have parents (and young people) who would like their children to attend a special school but there are not the places to meet demand, and other parents (and young people) who would like a mainstream education but are being deterred (directly or indirectly) by schools saying they can’t meet need. This isn’t quite in line with the legislation inherent in the SEND Code of Practice but the unfinished structural business of academisation has meant that there is very little mechanism by which Academy schools can be held to account for not working in line with the code of practice by local authorities (see Freedman, 2022).

What the Code of Practice does allow is for Local Authorities to be held to account (of course quite rightly) via the First Tier Tribunal and so Local Authorities are held to account for finding school places which are often effectively out of their control to find. You couldn’t make it up!


What’s This Got to Do With Us EPs?

Educational Psychologists (EPs) are the only professional group working across every level of this system from individual families; to schools; communities to whole county and local authorities; EHCNAs to tribunals. We see the unfolding of what is being described here every single day and to us it is surely no surprise that rates of need and the associated EHCPs and Tribunals are skyrocketing.

Many EPs are moving into independent practice, unable to take any more of the pressure to complete around twice as many statutory assessments and be called with increased frequency as expert witnesses in tribunal appeals, with considerably reduced workforces and at the expense of the early intervention work which we know to be effective, and/or they feel unable to countenance propping up these broken systems. There are fewer and fewer EPs left in local authorities and the difficulties with retention and recruitment of EPs are well-known (General Secretary Blog: Insights on the EP Workforce | Association of Educational Psychologists (aep.org.uk).  

Those of us left, like the teachers that are left, the SENCos that are left and the SEN casework officers who are still here, are here because of an absolute determination to be part the solution (although none of us are immune to having a breaking point), and yet we all watch on as different parts of the system blame each other (blame the LA! blame the schools! blame the parents! blame the EPs! Most pernicious of all of course, blame the kids!).

If we really want meaningful change, the only hope is to stop looking at parts of the system in isolation. We have to look at the system and systems within it as a whole. When we do, we see that all the parts of the system blaming each other for the stuckness and brokenness are all actually right in the context of their own legislative and cultural pressures.

The problem is that those legislative and cultural pressures all exist but are not consistent with each other. It is time to stop blaming each other and to look back upwards to those who have created these inconsistent and incoherent Stanford-Prison-Experiment-esque chaos in which we all find ourselves flailing without safe structure or responsible oversight.


Who or What is to Blame Then?

It is often suggested that we can’t keep blaming Margaret Thatcher for everything that has gone wrong. However, in education, particularly education for those children and young people who need something more or different to the majority in order to access it, it seems perhaps we can, at least a bit. While we may not phrase her contributions quite so emphatically as the great Frank Turner, the enduring impact of free market economics (aka neoliberalism) which she so championed and which has seeped into every aspect of our society has fundamentally and intractably changed the way the English education system works, and, albeit likely unintentionally this has demonstrably been to the detriment of those who need something more or different (e.g. Kerr & Ainscow, 2022; Norwich, 2019; Taberner, 2023). Of course, she has not been alone; successive governments from both sides of the Houses of Parliament have in their own ways extended the reach of neoliberal principles of competition, individual accountability, natural hierarchy, rewarding efficiency and punishing inefficiency through natural market forces.

The UK and New Zealand have been identified as ‘political laboratories’ for neoliberal reforms in education (e.g. Ball 1998; Stangvik 2014), with reforms to this end escalating from 2010 onwards. This is seen in the high-stakes competition between school, tighter government control over curricula, establishment of a meritocratic order which places emphasis on each individual’s responsibility to make the most of the opportunities available to them over the course of their lifetime (e.g. Ball, 1998). These principles shift the emphasis toward what an individual can do to fit the systems rather than how systems can adapt to meet the needs of individuals within them, this being a fundamental requirement for inclusive education (Grimaldi, 2012).

We cannot usefully address the challenges to inclusive education without addressing the perhaps inadvertently, but nonetheless opposing forces which drive the remainder of the education system. All jokes aside, this isn’t about trying to find blame or accountability but rather about trying to make sense of the factors that have led to this crisis so that systems can be fully reformed in a way which addresses those factors.


An Ecosystemic Framework of the Education System and the Combined Impacts of Different Parts of the System on Children and Young People With Additional Needs (Adapted from Bronfrenbrenner, 2005)

Our model, gratuitously adapted from Bronfenbrenner’s ecosystemic framework (e.g. Bronfenbrenner, 2005) aims to clarify many of the various systems, influences factors, pressures and legislative structures which are often incongruent and which combine to result in the experience outlined above of all those involved in the SEND system, most crucially children. It subdivides them microsystem into schools and families acknowledging a specific additional system that exists around schools. No part is of this framework an island and each part impacts on each other. It may be that we can elaborate on this in a series of blog posts over time.

Figure 1. An ecosystemic model of the positioning of SEND within the education system.

An Ecosystemic Framework of the Education System and the Combined Impacts of Different Parts of the System on Children and Young People With Additional Needs


A System Of Imperfect Cogs

As shown in Figure 1, it is not only the wider systems which make it difficult to effectively implement SEND legislation. There are considerable issues with the implementation of the SEND Code of Practice which need to be addressed of course (e.g. Black, 2019; Daniels, Thompson and Towell, 2019; Hodkinson, 20223; Lamb 2019; Norwich, 2019; Taberner, 2023) and we hope to come to them in future blog posts. But for now, the first step is surely a serious look at the wider system.

A system has been created in which the cogs don’t fit – parent cogs, teacher cogs, external professional cogs, legislation cogs, head teacher cog, casework officer cog, LA education budget holder cogs etc but most tragically of all, children and young people cogs.

The system forces the cogs to spin, butting and scraping against each other until they are ground down no more than spinning wheels with no impact, creating friction amongst each other and spinning hopelessly withing the unmaintained and only just functioning machine they have been shoehorned into. The machine can identify broken cogs and even replace them but unless it changes its internal mechanisms, the outcomes will inevitably be the same.

It’s probably worth revisiting who the machine is supposed to be serving, and what its purpose is.

At present, it appears to be largely focussed on maintaining itself (and not very effectively at that). It is probably not too naïve for us to all agree that the machine should be working for children and young people, families, the smooth and effective running of the schools in their communities, the professionals and processes whose role is to support access, participation and meaningful education for those children and young people who need something more and/or different and to meet the needs of and have the skills needed to participate in the labour market.

In short, a system that helps children and young people become young adults who participate meaningfully in their communities and wider society with a sense of purpose and autonomy. It is surely hard to argue against that aspiration. However, it is equally incredibly difficult to see how that can be achieved within the constraints of the current, often conflicting constraints on schools, local authorities and thereby on parents and children.


What Can We Do About All This? A Call To Revolution For Educational Psychologists

Educational psychologists are ideally placed to take a lead on what change could look like, and the small steps needed to turn the tides in those directions. EPs have a foot in all of the systems. EPs are skilled at supporting systemic shifts and advocating for the views of the most vulnerable but also finding shared perspectives of all those involved. Some of the shifts needed are not seismic to achieve more coherence in these systems but they are crucial. Fundamentally, what is needed is for SEND to be integrated rather than a bolt-on.

The extent to which SEND legislation was an afterthought in the legislation since 2010 is even apparent in the chronology of legislation from Academies Act (2010), Education (Act) with the later appearance of the Children and Families Act (2014) and SEND Code of Practice (2015). This will need to be accompanied by serious consideration of whether there is any way that a high stake performativity culture of competition between schools can truly be congruent with the level of flexibility that is required for inclusive education that meets the needs of all children including those with additional needs (Norwich, 2019).

There are wider discussions to be had about what is meant by inclusion, and who and what education is for in a context where the main pressure at present seems to be a performative peacock-display badged under the fig leaves of ‘excellence’ and ‘parental choice’. To move towards SEND integration, even within the current systems is not an unreasonable or unfeasible prospect and EPs have helpful and pragmatic recommendations to shift the systems into this direction. To pre-empt any concerns that this may not be aspirational enough, it’s also not very aspirational having fewer than half of children passing Maths and English GCSEs (one quarter of those eligible for Free School Meals) and being so disaffected by school that they are not routinely allowed to go to the school toilets in case they vandalise them (Key stage 4 performance, Academic year 2022/23 – Explore education statistics – GOV.UK (explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk)). We can do better than this. We have to do better than this.

We argue that what is needed now is a collective, collaborative, and unified response whereby we stop fighting between each other as cogs within this system and parents, teachers, head teachers, EPs, SEN Casework officers, young people if they want to, and all others involved in this broken system turn our voices collectively and roar back at the guardians of the system instead. We must insist together that the systems are reformed.

We know what needs to happen; there is tonnes written about it. We just need to put accountability back on those who can make it happen, to make sure that it does. As EPs, our first focus is inevitably on what EPs can do as a profession, but this movement is open to all those who have a one or both feet in this world.

We don’t just need a few tweaks here and there, tinkering with SEND systems around the outside. We need a revolution which gets SEND into the heart of the education system, fully and genuinely integrated. This must be our shared aim and it is absolutely achievable to the benefit of all and without lowering aspirations for anybody (see previous notes on aspirational systems for the absence of doubt that the current system is not delivering on its own the high aspirations anyway). We just have to share what we know and what we understand about the system and make it impossible not to be heard by those in the positions to make these shifts happen.


Find an Energetic Soundtrack, and Whatever Your Music, be the Band That Keeps Playing

Let’s be in the band that kept playing while the Titanic SEND System goes down and let’s see if we can’t help right her. In a context in which pretty much every person involved in the SEND System is running on empty, we need something to keep our energy up and keep driving us. For some of us that’s music. If the punk rock artists that fuelled this blog post, (Frank Turner, the Clash, Operation Ivy, NOFX, Rancid, the Interrupters, the King Blues, Against Me, and many, many more), aren’t your thing, that’s ok. Just find the music and a soundtrack for revolution that means something to you and gives you energy and a determination for change, whatever it may be; but for goodness sake, let’s keep playing.

Let’s keep challenging situations and systems that we see not working by not sitting down, not shutting up (sing along IFKYK)… and nudging, irritating and agitating systems to work better for the vulnerable children and young people who we serve.

Even if none of any of this changes anything, at least we can say we tried. Who’s in?


Join the EP Collective

The EP revolutionary collective is made up of EPs who are thoroughly fed up with seeing every day the impacts of impossible systems and challenges on the young people, families and schools who we work to support. Whether in LA or independent practice, whether north, south, east or west, we are all seeing and hearing the same stories over and over again.

Some of the things that EPs are most skilled at are making sense of complex systems, advocating for those whose voices are often unheard in the noise and chaos of those complex systems, drawing together shared perspectives in stuck situations and supporting solution focussed steps forward to help those situations become unstuck.

The EP revolutionary collective is about doing all of those things at the macro level of the whole education system. We can see many of the factors which are barriers to children and young people’s educational experiences and we are naming them because unless those factors are acknowledged and addressed, no amount of well-intentioned tinkering with the SEND system is going to improve outcomes for the children and young people  in the communities that we support.

We have lots of short term and practical, as well as long term and more aspirational recommendations for change which we'd love you to add to with your experiences and knowledge.

We are not just pointing out what isn't working, we are also offering ways to move things forwards in a way that keeps children and young people at the forefront. If any or all of this chimes with you, we’d love for you to join us. Just pop your contact details in the form below and we will get in touch with updates, meeting dates and eventually plans for steps forwards. We may be a tiny profession, but together we are mighty and the more we are, the stronger our message. Thanks so much for taking the time to read this.



If you're not an EP and you wish to show your support - CLICK HERE






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Freedman, S. (2022). The Gove reforms a decade on. Institute for Government.

Grimaldi, E. (2012). Neoliberalism and the marginalisation of social justice: The making of an education policy to combat social exclusion. International Journal of Inclusive Education16(11), 1131-1154.

Hodkinson, A. (2023). The death of the 2015 special educational needs code of practice–and the parable of the drowning man–should government have learnt lessons from listening to the voices of history, research and politicians?(Part I). Education 3-13, 1-13.

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Lamb, B. (2019, October). Statutory assessment for special educational needs and the Warnock report; the first 40 years. In Frontiers in Education (Vol. 4, p. 51). Frontiers Media SA.

Marsh, A. J. (2023). Education health and care plans (EHCPs) and statements in England: a 20 year sustainability review. Educational Psychology in Practice39(4), 457-474.

Norwich, B. (2019, July). From the Warnock report (1978) to an education framework commission: A novel contemporary approach to educational policy making for pupils with special educational needs/disabilities. In Frontiers in Education (Vol. 4, p. 72). Frontiers Media SA.

Stangvik, G. (2014). Progressive special education in the neoliberal context. European Journal of Special Needs Education29(1), 91-104.

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