We reprint with thanks this article by Tom Belger from Schools Week 287, 20 May 2022, because it shows how the Government’s cuts in education funding and attacks on the powers of local authorities, compounded by the shortcomings of Birmingham Council itself, are hitting hardest at those most in need of support. It’s an issue where parents and young people, workers and their unions, community organisations and the Council itself need to unite to fight back, not just to put right the immediate problems SEND provision but against the whole relentless Tory onslaught on education in Birmingham.
(Another parallel campaign is to defend Catholic local authority schools against the decision by the Catholic archdiocese of Birmingham to compel them to become Academies, doing the Government’s work for it of destroying locally democratic and accountable school systems. See Birmingham SEA Facebook 9 February.)
A government commissioner parachuted in to run special educational needs and disabilities services in Birmingham found that caseloads hit more than 500 children per worker, concluding that the place of vulnerable youngsters has become “unclear, if not lost”.
Ex-Hampshire County Council chief executive John Coughlan’s appointment was mandated last year, the first time the government has made such drastic intervention in a council’s SEND services.
In his first report, published today, he issued not only a damning report on the “dire” state of SEND provision locally, but also pointed a finger at government – including its 2014 reforms.
‘500-600 children per worker’
Following a local area SEND inspection in 2018, the government ordered Birmingham to produce a written statement of action (WSOA) in relation to 13 “significant areas of weakness”.
When inspectors revisited in May last year, they found that sufficient progress had not been made – prompting the commissioner’s appointment.
Coughlan’s 34-page report this week states that services are not only in “the dire predicament, as described”, but are likely to have deteriorated further.
The place of children, and particularly vulnerable children, in Birmingham is “unclear, if not lost”, with the director of children’s services role “gradually eroded” and formal partnerships “all but defunct”.
He highlighted a restructure in the Special Educational Needs Assessment and Review team in 2020-21, and a linked backlog of cases and complaints. Over 18 months, “no case officers were holding cases, and case accountability was at best obscure”.
At one point, caseloads had “theoretically reached 500-600 children per worker”.
The 20-week timescale is not being met in most new education health and care plans, while annual reviews are “infrequent”, and there are around 300 tribunal appeals pending.
There is also “little coordination” over complaints and queries, and “deteriorating functionality” in the IT case-management system, to the point that some staff have reportedly stopped using it. School relations with the council-led SEND system have been “severely strained” – with the commissioner highlighting “understandable but nevertheless unhelpful comments by some heads in their discontent with their LA colleagues”.
However, he said that schools were now represented in, and engaged with, improvement efforts.
At least three years of failings have not only had a “severe effect” on schools themselves, but also a “destructive effect” on council-parental engagement.
Recommendations for council – and DfE
The commissioner considered recommending wide-ranging potential structural reforms, such as handing over services to a newly formed trust. But he concluded that “the known costs and risks of such a step cannot be confidently assessed as outweighed by the potential benefits”.
Support for services remaining in-house is dependent on council support for other change, including the “continuing roles of the improvement board, a DfE-funded improvement partnership, the retained statutory direction, and the commissioner.”
Proposed reforms also include recreating a “children’s department”, promoting a children’s partnership with a “clearly stated vision” and a drive to “reset the wider relationship” with schools. A better communication strategy with parents, new SEND data systems and a review of SEND information advice and support services locally were also advised.
There are also demands of the DfE, however, with the commissioner highlighting the “national context to this local crisis”. He noted all SEND services “appear to be struggling to varying degrees”. “It must be acknowledged how hard progress can be in such a dispersed school system, in which individual schools are measured on virtually everything in support of their vitally important gradings.”
The DfE should not only “look to establish ways to assess schools on their duty of inclusion”, but also review its own 2014 SEND reforms “with regard to more stable funding”.
Birmingham City Council leader Ian Ward thanked the commissioner, acknowledging the “uncomfortable reading” – but said the council was “heading in the right direction” and accepted all recommendations. “For too long, families have not felt listened to, and that has been a key area for improvement.”