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A message from Christine McInnes:

28 June 2024 weekly update

28 June 2024

This week, Christine shares the presentation from the Chair of Governors special schools review consultation meeting, and picks up on some of the key discussion points from the meeting.

Dear Colleagues,

I think most of you are now through just about over the assessment, test and examination period. Well done in successfully supporting staff, pupils and parents through the preparation, as well as the stresses and strains of the actual events. I hope you can devote some time and energy in enjoying the various celebrations and events that are planned between now and the end of the term.

Key meetings attended

Over the last week I worked with education, SEN and health colleagues on developing the SEND Self Evaluation, the Pathways for All (post 16 reform programme) Board, South Kent Headteacher Briefing and as I am writing, looking forward to attending the Headteachers and Business Summit 2024 at Kent Cricket Ground this Thursday evening. I also attended a meeting for governors of special schools about the special schools review consultation which is underway and I want to take the opportunity of today’s bulletin to pick up on some of the key discussion points. The special school review consultation presentation (PDF, 3.5 MB) used at that meeting is available.

Developing a sustainable education system
The special schools review: proposed changes to designations and admissions guidance

The proposed changes to some special schools which are currently out to consultation are just one element of the re-shaping of the education landscape in Kent, improvement that we all agree needs to take place.

So, you are familiar with the work going on with mainstream schools to develop SEND inclusion capacity through training (an investment of over £3million in training shaped by your input) and more targeted use of specialist support. We are going out to consultation in the autumn on a KCC Accessibility Strategy which will support us using capital funding in a more strategic way for adaptations and will help further with improving inclusion. The review of Specialist Resource Provision has led to schools working to a new, consistent Service Level Agreement so that there is clarity across the county of what level of support can be expected when a child attends an SRP and host schools are providing data on pupil outcomes. As High Needs Funding is schools’ money, getting this data means you will be able to see the benefits to pupils of attending an SRP. This project has also helped us map all the existing SRP provision, so we now know where the gaps are and we are scoping and costing new SRPs to fill those gaps.

In order to develop a cohesive continuum of education provision we also needed to look at the important contribution of special schools to the education landscape in Kent. We are in the very fortunate position that the vast majority of special schools are judged Good or Outstanding by Ofsted. However, what we know from our data analysis (the SEND commissioning plan published earlier this year), from feedback from parents and carers and from you as education leaders, is that we do not have the right provision, in the right place, at the right time. The position we want to be in is that the whole education system is more than the sum of its parts so we can deliver more effectively for children and families. That is not the case currently because decisions which are focused solely on and make sense for individual providers, schools or MATs (even those that are Good and Outstanding) do not add up to a functioning whole, system that provides places matched to pupil need.

The LA’s statutory role as commissioner of school places and champion for children, young people and families gives us a unique overview of the whole education system as well as a statutory responsibility to make changes for the greater good. I discussed the impact of the admissions criteria in some of our special schools in last week’s bulletin and that is one issue that clearly needs to be addressed so that we can move to the position that special schools are educating the children and young people with the most complex needs. That is the purpose of special schools.

What about more money, wouldn’t that help and mean we wouldn’t need to change? Well, look at what happened in Kent since the original inspection in 2019 which triggered an exponential increase in High Needs spending. The underlying problems, which had been accumulating over a number of years prior to 2019, were not addressed but formed very shaky foundations for increased spending. This did not result in any improvement by time the revisit took place in 2022 but created a challenging legacy which we are now addressing. As you all know, if you don’t get the principles and foundations right, it’s not going to work.

Financial modelling shows that if we carried on the previous trajectory of decision-making and spending the deficit would be approaching £700 million by 2027-28. Yes a whopping £700 million deficit for KCC – if you are a Kent resident, take a moment to reflect on the implications of that deficit for you and your family. Is anyone seriously arguing that is a defensible position? So, sweeping under the carpet had to stop and the paradigm, the model, had to change and that is what we are doing. The Safety Valve programme is bringing an additional £140 million into the Kent SEND budget in return for us recalibrating, building a more financially sustainable system and meeting our statutory duty to deliver within budget. If we think back to the last re-visit in September 2022 it was only the rapid changes in leadership and governance that gave the Minister confidence to issue an Improvement Notice in March 2023 rather than to impose a team of external commissioners on KCC who would over-ride any local decision making and impose cuts to all non-statutory services (and we have a lot of those) to make savings.

A common response to Kent’s SEND challenges is to suggest building more special schools. As we are taking a measured approach to change, we are opening new provision to create capacity in the system to help us change. Snowfields ASD Academy will have a new annex opening on the Isle of Sheppey in the next academic year, a new secondary SEMH school will open on the Isle of Sheppey on Wednesday 1 January 2025 and two new PSCN schools have been agreed, one in Swanley and a second in Whitstable. Alongside this, there will also be new SRPs as I mentioned above. However, one of the other challenges we need to address is the current over-reliance on special schools, as Kent places significantly higher proportions of pupils with an EHCP in special schools. This is illustrated by the table below, which also shows the variance by District.

Kent places significantly higher proportions of pupils with an EHCP in special schools. This is illustrated by the table below, which also shows the variance by District.

This is an issue we aim to address in the longer term as the changes in the education system begin to embed. We all agree that special schools do very positive work and play a unique and vitally important part in the system and a proportion of children and young people do need high levels of adult support and may need support for the rest of their lives. However, for others, being in a context where there are very high numbers of adults, a limited range of peer role models and a restricted curriculum develops and embeds dependency which can inhibit opportunities in adult life and we can see the impact of that in KCCs adult services.

The statutory position is that there is a presumption of a mainstream school place, but more importantly there is an international evidence base of the benefits of an inclusive, mainstream education. These benefits are both social and educational, as well as providing a better preparation for adult life by generally being more effective at promoting independence. Through our work with young people, we know enabling them to develop the knowledge and skills to be more independent is really important for them which is another very important consideration. Special schools play a vital role in the system, which is why we need to make sure the offer is appropriate and matched to meet the needs of children and young people in Kent.

The proposed designation of special schools in the consultation document has promoted some debate. Within my teaching lifetime I can remember designations that no longer exist - anyone else remember Delicate schools? School designations are not proscribed and vary between LAs, with some LAs still having Moderate Learning Difficulties schools whilst others have established generic special schools which serve a geographic community rather than a need type. With regard to the SEND Code of Practice and types of special needs, again those types do not necessarily translate into school designations and Kent currently has ‘Profound, Severe and Complex Needs’ schools, a category which does not exist in the COP. Another example is that there is a COP need type of ‘Communication and Interaction’ but schools meeting that type of need are generally called Autistic Spectrum Condition schools. So, we have taken the opportunity to introduce the designation ‘Neurodivergent with Learning Difficulties’ and the accompanying suggested admissions guidance makes it clear what these schools would be for children and young people who are ‘neurodivergent, may have a diagnosis of autism, ADHD or other conditions’. The term Neurodivergent is already used nationally as well as within Kent, and we want to be forward looking rather than backward facing in our change programme.

The process of the special schools review started in November 2022 and has included visits and discussions with every special school about their current curriculum pathways, the involvement of special school headteachers and mainstream headteacher in workshops, focus groups with young people and input by parent representatives. We have been supported by two consultants, including a former special school headteacher. So, the process has been sound and the evidence for change is robust. Working within the planned national funding framework, we have been developing a tariff funding model with headteachers which is being refined currently in discussion with school representatives. The principles of special school funding and localities funding will be presented to the School Funding Forum in July and the paper will be circulated in this bulletin as well as being published on the website.

You will know that as a consequence of the improvement notice we are under considerable scrutiny by DfE and NHSE. This is formal scrutiny through a Board mechanism (the SEND Improvement and Assurance Board) but also informally through regular meetings between Department which focus on our data and processes. This means the Departments are fully aware of everything we are doing so we are confident all we are doing is within national policy and reflects best practice.

In doing this work, I have been really encouraged by a growing coalescence around creating a system which meets the evidenced needs of children and young people, rather than focusing on maintaining the organisational status quo at any cost. I have heard some really purposeful and professional debate, seeking to thrash out the detail and mitigate the risks of the change process and ensure that we collectively get it right.

The education sector has effective change management built into its DNA as we are constantly evolving to meet new government policy, evidence based practice (remember life before the Education Endowment Foundation’s mission to disseminate evidence based improvement?) and local concerns. I know we have fantastic expertise in Kent to make positive change in the special school part of the system by working together.

I strongly encourage you draw the special school review consultation to the attention of parents and carers and support them to engage as well as encouraging your staff to do likewise.

And finally…

I was delighted to go with friends to the Trinity Theatre in Tunbridge Wells on Friday to see a Dire Straits tribute band. Really lovely evening but I’d had a very full on day which started at 5am and had to leave at the interval to have a sleep in the car before driving us back to London. Rock and roll it ain ’t, it’s when you know you’re getting old 😊! It was a busy weekend as my brother got married and it was brilliant seeing my 90 year old mum (still sharp as a tack) with ‘the boys’, four grandsons and a great-grandson. My older nephew (16) and grandson (12) took the initiative to go and talk with Restore Nature Now demonstrators outside the wedding reception and were surprised to find out they seemed like reasonable people! Well, I’d spotted a Tunbridge Well Mothers Union banner earlier so I could have told them that. It sparked a great conversation though about the important right we have in this country to demonstrate, however disruptive that might be.

Best wishes

Christine McInnes
Director of Education and SEN