Q&A with Sharon Hodgson, shadow minister for children and families

Sharon Hodgson

In April 2012, shadow minister for children and families Sharon Hodgson invited Mumsnetters to post their stories, suggestions and questions on the current Special Educational Needs system.

As shadow education minister and the parent of a child with severe dyslexia, Sharon was asked to review the Labour Party's policies on SEN provision. She wanted to hear Mumsnetters' experiences to ensure her review included the key issues facing parents. 

Mumsnetters' comments covered a variety of areas, from the impact of early intervention and the need for more teacher training to the management of funding and local authority accountability.

DiagnosisLocal authority communicationFunding | Teacher training | Other

 

Diagnosis

Q. latedeveloper: All children should be offered a developmental check at two years old so concerns can be properly followed up. Too many children get to three or four years old before anything is picked up - even children with fairly significant needs.

 My local education authority (LEA) is supposed to be good for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), but the waiting list time to assess for ASD is four years. It was also a four-year wait under Labour, and at a time when in other areas of health there were strict limits on waiting times and more ample funding. Why was this ever acceptable?

A. Sharon: One of the key recommendations of the Tickell Review of the Early Years Foundation Stage was such a check, to be carried out by early years professionals on top of the check children should get from their health visitors.

To its credit, the government have taken this forward in the changes they have made to the EYFS, which come into effect in September 2012. However, I am yet to establish how this will be administered for those children who aren't in early years settings at 24-36 months old, and will be pressing the government on this in the meantime.

Q. Karenmumof3: I have a son with selective mutism and don't believe that schools and health authorities take it seriously as a disability. Is there anything that can be done to bring this more in to focus? My son is six and has not spoken in school in three years, except to me in a room on our own. He has also been through Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and was given a statement due to having large areas that fell into a sensory processing disorder (SPD).

I have dyslexia. Where I lived as a child, the county council didn't believe dyslexia was real so I struggled through school without help. I don't want this to happen to my son, or other children who have a sensory processing disorder but don't have an 'official' diagnosis for support and help. Is there any way we can push SPD to be added to the list of 'official' disabilities?

"Many children have historically been failed by education because the needs they had were not identified or recognised, and while we have come on in leaps and bounds in terms of recognising disorders like dyslexia and autism, there is still far more research which could and should be done."

A. Sharon: I must admit this is not something I have come across before, but I will certainly make enquiries with the government and experts in the SEN sector.

It is absolutely correct that many children have historically been failed by education because the needs they had were not identified or recognised, and while we have come on in leaps and bounds in terms of recognising disorders like dyslexia and autism, there is still far more research which could and should be done - such as into the effects of acquired brain injury through childhood diseases such as meningitis, or pregnancy-related issues such as Foetal Alcohol Syndrome and the long-term effects of being born premature.
 

Local authority communication

Q. Silverfrog: Why is a statement not transferable from local authority (LA) to local authority? After all, the needs of the child are unlikely to have changed just because of a move two, five or 10 miles down the road. We are stuck in an LA where we don't want to live because having chased provision for our daughter here, we are unlikely to 'win' the same provision again if we move out of the county.

A. Sharon: The question of why statements aren't fully portable from one council to the next is an excellent one and has been compellingly raised with me previously by Henrietta and Michael Spink, the inspirational parents behind The Henry Spink Foundation.

Local authorities should honour the educational parts of the statement, but often use their right to bring forward reviews to stall on doing so, or try to alter it. They don't have the same requirements for the non-education parts, which is why this problem is particularly bad for those with complex disabilities. This is definitely something I would like to see improved, and as part of the ongoing work of my review I will look into how this can be made a reality.

Q. LeninGrad: There is just too much repetitive paperwork. Why can't more things be emailed to and from local authorities?

A. Sharon: As far as I'm concerned, there is no good reason, and I would think that some of the better councils will be doing this already. While some parents don't have access to the internet, most now do, and common sense would tell you that moving to mostly-paper-free systems would be better for both parties. I'll look into this issue further over the next few weeks.
 

Funding

Q. Mycarscallednev: In my experience schools love SEN, or at least the money that comes with the statement.

 The unfortunate thing (for some schools) is the statement comes with a child attached to it - so schools get the cheapest 'help' they can find (an unqualified 17 year old in our case) - and they leave the 'special child' in the corridor playing on the computer.

 Meanwhile, the money is used to purchase things for the school like interactive white boards.

A. Sharon: To be clear, schools shouldn't be doing this. A statement puts a legal duty on them to provide exactly what it sets out, and if they are not doing this you need to go through the complaints process.

Q. AgnesDiPesto: How can LAs be made to follow the rules in the SEN system?
 Do you think it is time for sanctions against local authorities that abuse the system eg using the wait for a tribunal as a way of delaying provision or saving money?

In my case, the LA SEN officers went against their own professionals and imposed a cheap mainstream provision instead of a specialist placement. There was no evidence to support this. When we eventually won at tribunal, we won exactly what the LA educational psychologist had advised a year earlier, the LA were still quids in as they had saved themselves a year of special school fees. I, meanwhile, had to give up a good career to home tutor my son and remortgage my house to pay for a private EdPsych and a legal rep to help me.

Why are SEN officers - who are just admin staff - allowed to overrule qualified professionals like ed psychs, clinical psychs, and speech and language therapists (SALTs)?

Do you think its fair that carers of severely disabled children will lose £75 a week in tax credits from April 2012 if a couple cannot find 24 hours of work between them, even though they might be caring for over 100 hours a week. Why is care not counted as work? Why is one half of such couples expected to do the same amount of work as two people in a couple who do not have caring responsibilities. Why did Labour not campaign for an exemption for carers from this new harsh rule? 

What about a central funded system or minimum guarantee of specialist support? Leaving it up to LAs is not working. No LA can afford to develop really good SN provision. No LA is going to fund say ABA (autism specific) home packages. If they did we would all move there. It has to come from national government and with serious money attached. We need some national programme to fund pre-school and school -ge intervention, at least until this starts to bear fruit in lower benefits and care bills when those children grow up.



How can we use data more cleverly? It must be possible to show whether the cost of specialist placements put in early eg at pre-school age pay dividends later on, and whether cheap mainstream placements actually end up costing more in unemployment, lost wages for parents and mental health / criminal justice costs. Cheap does not mean good value. How can we use data to find out what is good value? Surely we can track children in terms of employment, mental health etc and see which placements are value for money.

A. Sharon: You have raised several excellent points based on what sounds like a horrific personal experience. On the changes to the working hours entitlement to working tax credits from 16 to 24, which came in earlier this month, you will be pleased to know that following pressure from many quarters, the government conceded that the change wouldn't apply where one parent was entitled to Carer's Allowance. The Labour Party did flag up these issues extensively, and has campaigned against the change in general.

A central funding model for SEN is certainly an interesting suggestion, and is the flipside of the argument that many make that ed psychs should be hived off from councils to separate funding from assessment. For me, doing either of these has to be the last resort, as losing ed psychs from councils or giving relatively small funding decisions to Whitehall both have the potential to create far too many problems in their own right, so I think there needs to be more put into making local systems work before dismantling them altogether.

In terms of research into the long-term benefits of investing in early intervention in the SEN field, I agree that more is needed. That which exists shows incredibly positive benefits - for example, research compiled for the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists shows that every £1 spent on therapy for children with SLI brings a return of more than £6 over that child's lifetime.

Unfortunately, because that return is over many budget cycles and spread across many budget holders (eg councils, welfare, police/justice system, NHS, HMRC etc), those who are being asked to spend that £1 are often unable to justify doing so in the face of short-term pressures and competing priorities.

Q. StarlightDickenzie: How would the Labour government ensure that charities which receive direct funding both centrally and through local authorites remain impartial and don't become a part of the system that parents have to challenge? 

"Theoretically, under the market system the government is piloting, parents have the option to 'vote with their feet' if they feel the service they are getting is not adequate. However, in practice this depends on so many factors, including the availability of sufficient alternatives locally, so it is going to be very tricky to get right."

A. Sharon: This is an issue of accountability. Theoretically, under the market system the government is piloting, parents have the option to 'vote with their feet' if they feel the service they are getting is not adequate. However, in practice this depends on so many factors, including the availability of sufficient alternatives locally, so it is going to be very tricky to get right.

I support the principle of personal budgets for some aspects of support, although I do have concerns that it could provide an opening for opportunists to exploit vulnerable parents, so I am taking a keen interest in the progress of the pilots the government has started before considering this further.
 

Teacher training

Q. Cornsilksit1: Many teachers have little or no accredited SN/SEN training, unless they arrange it for themselves and are willing to undertake it in their own time, often at their own expense. How will this be addressed?

A. Sharon: This has been the key priority for me way before I started this review, and even before I was appointed as a shadow minister. Quite simply, I believe that a great deal of what is wrong with the way that children with SEN are educated now owes to a lack of training and knowledge in teachers, as well as others in the children's workforce such as early years workers.

This lack of knowledge needs to change, and I believe that solving this requires two things: first, that all trainee teachers should have a full module on identifying and teaching children with SEN in the classroom and, second, that one INSET day a year in every school should be given over to SEN using quality training resources - one in five for the one in five children who have SEND.

The response I have had to these proposals so far from professionals and parents has been overwhelmingly positive, so I expect them to form part of my final report, and will be exploring how the necessary resources can be ready to be in place as soon as possible.

Giving educators these skills does two things: it improves identification, as it helps teachers spot those children with specific difficulties which may otherwise go unnoticed, or be incorrectly labelled as naughty or lazy; and it helps them to teach most of those children without the need for them to be taken out of the class, as many are at the moment.

Q. SanctiMoanyArse: I believe it should be required that all Special Educational Need Coordinators (SENCOs) have a qualification in the field to certify that they have a basic knowledge of SEN. Teaching qualifications have very little SEN content, and if a TA has to take a qualification to be a support worker, then a SENCO should certainly have something in place in the form of registration and training to show they are competent and care about the work they do.

A. Sharon: There is the SENCO National Award qualification available, which more and more teachers are taking, but the regulations in place don't require this for most schools at the moment. I think that we need to look at raising not just the qualifications but also the status of SENCOs within schools, making it into a post that teachers aspire to achieve and be well-qualified to undertake. At the same time, local authorities need to ensure that there are sufficient SENCOs working across early years settings to provide training and support to early years workers.

"Obviously, teachers can't be experts on every SEN... but giving all teachers, as well as those working in the early years, a solid base in SEN could greatly improve the education that all children receive, as well as reduce the strain on support services."

Obviously, teachers can't be experts on every SEN, so specialists and specialist provision will always be needed to help those children with severe, complex and multiple problems, but giving all teachers, as well as those working in the early years, a solid base in SEN could greatly improve the education that all children receive, as well as reduce the strain on support services.
 

Other

Q. Triggles: Our family is lucky. We have a lovely school that has gone well out of its way to make sure that our son is safe and educated and supported appropriately. They (SENCO, teachers, teaching assistants, headteacher, SALT, teaching advisory service) involve us as parents fully in all meetings and discussions, listening to our input and working WITH us. Our paediatrician and occupational therapist are also brilliant, making time to come to school meetings and do everything in their power to help out when we run across an obstacle in our son's care. 



I have been told repeatedly by numerous people how lucky we are that these people are so proactive and do so much to help our son. Why? Shouldn't this type of thing be the norm? How sad that good, competent assistance and support is seen as extraordinary! What does it say about our society when people have to fight and fight just for basic needs and education for their child?

A. Sharon: Support for parents is extremely important - both in helping them to cope with the practical and emotional difficulties that having a child with SEN can often bring, but also in giving them the knowledge, skills and confidence to be able to navigate the system and provide help to their child themselves. So as part of that process of parents designing local systems with professionals, I would certainly like to see services provided to this end.

However, at the same time, I do think that there should be a role for central government to investigate local SEN practices and impose sanctions on local authorities where they are found to be failing, and looking at those with the highest numbers of tribunals being brought against them would be a good start.

Q. Moosemama: I am terrified of the secondary school transition. My son has ASD, is achieving very well academically, but needs a lot of support around social, emotional, communication and organisational skills as well as suffering from severe anxiety. 

All the special schools in our area focus on life skills rather than qualifications and not one of the special schools OR additionally resourced units is available to children who have a high functioning ASD.


How are we supposed to help our child to become a productive, tax-paying member of society, when there is nowhere he can go to gain the necessary qualifications that will get him a job in the future?


Our only option seems to be home-schooling him and tutoring him through the qualifications ourselves, but he doesn't want this - he wants to be like other children. He needs to go to school not only for his own self-esteem, but also in order to continue learning appropriate social skills etc, which will also be a vital component of his future employability and ability to contribute to society.

A. Sharon: The transition from primary to secondary school can be extremely difficult for young people with certain SENs, and particularly those on the autistic spectrum. Young people have a fundamental right to an appropriate education, which for me means that they have the right to achieve to the level their potential will take them. In practice, this means that local authorities need to ensure they are placing young people in the best settings for them, even if that is out-of-authority or in non-maintained (or both) settings, which many are reluctant to do at the moment.

Q. PipinJo: Local educational authorities should be made to follow national research like the NHS when it comes to 'educational therapy' and to observe guidelines for ASD. This will ensure the child receives the correct therapy. They currently operate a 'one therapy fits all' instead of establishing individual therapies to fit individual children.

A. Sharon: This is something which has been raised throughout the review process and I do agree that we need to ensure that professionals have a 'toolbox' of evidence-based methods and therapies to call on. This is particularly important both at a time of spending restraint, as well as if we are to have budgets delegated to parents and services being provided on a market basis. 

Q. Inhibernation: My daughter is two years old and has Cerebral Palsy (moderately affected). She has spastic limbs, particularly her ankles. We want her to attend the same school as her brother but there are some issues regarding access to grounds. The government has ended the Schools Access Initiative grants and so the school cannot afford to pay for a ramp.  

A. Sharon: This is worrying news, and I would advise taking any such cases to your constituency MP to raise with the local authority and the secretary of state. Schools have obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act to make reasonable adjustments, but they must have the funding available to them to make this a reality, and I hope that any instances where it is claimed that this is not the case are challenged. I will table questions to ministers on this and feed the answers into my review.

Q. Silverfrog: All these problems were the same under the Labour government too, so please no waffle about how shocked you are that Cameron is turning his back on disabled children, or similar.

A. Sharon: It's true that the problems we are talking about are not down to this government, but that successive governments have failed to completely tackle them. I do think that a lot of progress has been made in a lot of areas, but the underlying problems of postcode lotteries and complex and confrontational systems - and most importantly, children being failed as a result - remain.

I wouldn't claim to have all the answers at this point, but I hope that the answers and the insights into my review that I have been able to assure people that my ambition is to work to make things better for SEND children and their families, and I hope that I get a chance to share the results of the review with you all in the near future.

Last updated: almost 2 years ago