Earlier this week, I attended a meeting at Westminster for Labour's SEN policy review, chaired by MP, Sharon Hodgson, Labour's Shadow Minister for Children and Families.
Mrs Hodgson is herself the mother of a severely dyslexic son so if anyone understands SEN issues, she does. The issue under discussion in this one of a series of meetings, was early identification and provision. Now, Labour's record on SEN isn't stellar, presiding as it did over the closure of so many special schools and the policy of inclusion, which anyone with a real understanding of the needs of children with SEN and disabilities could see just wasn't sensible.
However, now they are out of power they have an opportunity to reassess and this review is seeking to bring together young people with SEN and disabilities and their families and associated professionals to examine the current SEN landscape. The review is also attempting to crystallise opinions on the government's SEN Green Paper and to "work towards a clear pledge of what children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities and their parents or carers should be able to expect from education, health and social care services in identifying and providing for their needs."
Trialling by pathfinder councils of aspects of the Green paper is getting underway, although in Surrey at the moment, it seems there is much up in the air with an abrupt reorganisation of the SEN department and the departure of several senior key figures, including the head of SEN herself, Debbie Johnson. One might ask, who is actually running Surrey's SEN at the moment and how will this apparently major reconfiguration affect the pathfinder?
At the Westminster meeting, around fifty people concerned with SEN were gathered in Committee Room 14, from the head of the NUT, Christine Blower, the CEO of The Meningitis Trust, Sue Davie, councillors, day nursery providers, the leader of the Association of Educational Psychologists, Kate Fallon, other SEN professionals and parents, like me.
All who spoke, did so with great passion and knowledge about the difficulties faced in providing adequate care and appropriate education for SEN and disabled children. This was focused on the problems surrounding the timely identification of children whose SEN might not be immediately apparent, in some cases until they reach Secondary level, such as children with acquired brain injury.
Karen Veitch of the National Day Nurseries Association, said how early intervention may be expensive at first but it was far cheaper in the long run, while Kate Fallon said that the current system tends to mitigate against early intervention.
One inspirational mother and daughter team are Nadia Clark and her mother, Katie. Nadia has cerebral palsy and is deaf. She uses a vocal synthesiser to speak, but her indefatigable spirit and intelligence shines through and she soon hopes to go to University. She is the recipient of a Winston Churchill Foundation grant to research alternative methods of communication.
Her mother, Katie, is a woman of great determination and she has worked tirelessly to support her daughter. She spent two years looking for a school that would take Nadia, moving her family across the country to do so. She later formed the parent-carer forum, One Voice Communicating Together and believes the future for SEN & disability services should be about "looking at things differently and more creatively". She stressed, and I thoroughly agree with this, the need for good emotional support for families in the early years, saying supporting parents' self-esteem is vital if they are to be able to be strong for their children.
The NUT's Christine Blower voiced concern over the break up of the schools system and said there was massive pressure on SENCos to work beyond their skill sets. In my own experience, SENCos are also overworked, carrying out several other roles within the school as well.
It will be interesting to see what comes out of the review and I will look forward to reading any published policy that comes about because of it. It was a privilege for me to listen to such committed and dedicated parents and professionals speak so eloquently about services for vulnerable children. I just hope that they are listened to by those who can make a difference at government level.