The failure of a SEND system

The underlying truths within the SEND Commissioner’s report on the failure of Birmingham City Council’s SEND services.

If a review is a process of looking back and critically examining something, the SEND Review is not a review of the Special Educational Needs and Disability system, as it promised to be.  

Commissioned in 2019 and reaching a very lean green paper only in 2022, the SEND Review ignores the yawning rhetoric-reality gap between the aspirations of the 2014 SEND reforms and the insufficiency of resources made available to implement them – and thereby loses any sense of meaningfulness.  Indeed, the central message of the green paper is that in respect of alternative provision (anything that isn’t a mainstream school) ‘the system is not financially sustainable’.   (The charity IPSEA’s view is that this mantra is going to be applied by government to the whole of the SEND system.)

This rhetoric-reality gap is now perfectly illustrated (and the consequences of it quietly explained) in the content of the report by the Commissioner for SEND services in Birmingham to the Secretary of State for Education.

The SEN and Disability system managed by Birmingham City Council (BCC) has been failing, according to the Commissioner, for at least a decade.  But this is not attributable to the quality of the work and professionalism of those at and nearest to the front line:

‘….Birmingham’s SEND services are populated by extremely dedicated professional staff and front-line managers. Therapists, teachers, carers, administrators and social workers, they continue to work with great skill and commitment in support of the children and families who need them, often in spite of rather than because of the conditions within which they are working.’

That the SEND system in Birmingham has been failing is unarguable:

‘On a range of levels described in more detail below, the services remain under tremendous duress with relatively chaotic systems which are also fragile in their limited improvements and susceptible to further disruption from the unavoidable continuing pressures – especially staffing and inevitable demand. The situation remains deeply worrying for the wellbeing of the children and their families.’

‘In summary, SENAR (the SEND assessment and review service) was and remains in some disarray, not least following a period of significant under-staffing, arguably connected to an abortive re-organisation of it and related services. SENAR is the engine room of SEND and once it struggles so badly so does everything around it in terms of effective assessments and reviews and school provision. This was part caused and part compounded by a serious deterioration in the quality of data systems and confidence.’

Although the Commissioner’s report is careful to avoid criticism of any individual post-holder, it does nevertheless apportion at least part of the fundamental responsibility for many aspects of BCC’s dire performance to a particular level of post-holders – senior officers within the SEND system at BCC.  There are multiple references to ‘politicians’ within the report, referring specifically to politicians at the level of the Council. But these ‘local’ politicians are essentially cleared of responsibility within the report and the finger pointed directly at ‘officers’.

‘Further, it is difficult to argue with a narrative that on balance, with regard to the SEND problems, it is politicians who have been let down by officers rather than vice versa.’

‘Those original failings were compounded by at best failings of communication by various senior officers which served to severely undermine the ruling politicians in a very public fashion.’

‘Again, in this regard, politicians have probably not been well served by officers.’

Since 2018, there have been ‘no less than nine post holders for both roles of chief executive and director of children’s services’ at BCC. 

The SEND Commissioner’s report doesn’t directly address the reasons for this – but the core explanations, for the extremely high turnover of senior staff and staff shortages generally (‘churn’, as the report calls it) and for the dire condition of BCC’s SEND system, can be found in various places within the report.

The dysfunctionality of BCC’s SEND system is illustrated by examples of its inordinately slow and unnecessarily complex Human Resources processes (‘bad bureaucracy’), especially in ‘agreeing and progressing key appointments’ (which is particularly unhelpful when key appointments are being made so frequently). 

‘You have to speculate, if this is the pace of processes when there is a crisis with a Statutory Direction in place, what is the responsiveness of governance in BCC ordinarily.’

It is further illustrated by the statistics that of the 10,000 plus children and young people with Education, Health and Care Plans in place, at least half of them seemed not to have had a (statutorily required) annual review of their Plan, and that at the time of reporting, there were in the region of 300 appeals to the SENDIST Tribunal pending from parents and young people within BCC’s compass of responsibility.

But the most telling statistic that illustrates the severity of staff shortages is this at one point, case loads reached 500-600 children per worker.

As the Commissioner says, ‘That is not an allocation in the real meaning of the term.’

In the Commissioner’s view,

‘…BCC is in danger of losing sight of its general responsibilities to children as per the Children Act 2004.  There has been an absence of obvious and strategic “organisational love” for the city’s most vulnerable children.’

‘If BCC is a (corporate) parent then these services, such as SEND, are its children. The parent has been through a traumatic period and the children are in any event extremely needy and demanding. They need the very best parenting and they are evidentially not getting it. There is a question as to whether the parent is capable of improving. In the metaphor the commissioner intervention is like a social work equivalent. It could be argued that the establishment of the social care trust represents the “removal” of one child from the corporate parent, and we are now considering removing the sibling that is SEND. When challenged the parent professes its love but the manifestation of that love can be harder to find.’

The ‘Why?’

So why is BCC’s SEND system in such inordinately poor condition?  The quotes below are drawn from several places within the report.

Firstly, it is widely accepted that the national reforms enshrined in legislation in 2014 are in need of review. At the time of writing the report the SEND and AP green paper had not yet been published [NB the Green Paper has now been published]. In particular, the reforms have arguably created a laudable raising of parental expectations but with limited substantive capacity to systematically meet those expectations.

‘Add to that the punishing effects of a decade of austerity on the nation’s largest city with some of the highest density of deprivation and child poverty and it is easy to see how pressure has been mounting generally against the background of inconsistent leadership.’

‘Alongside legitimate questions about the quantum of financial resource to support SEND, there appear to be significant systems challenges and failings which render effective management and financial monitoring extremely difficult.’

‘At present Birmingham has an allocation of £7.3 million in the top-up fund for the High Needs Block (in schools budgets) – reasonable guestimates suggest that figure should be closer to £20 million in an authority the size of Birmingham. That is a substantial difference by any standards.’

I thought that this last entry in the report, highlighting that the central funding pillar for the SEND system that is provided to Birmingham City Council is woefully insufficient, was made in remarkably understated language.  It makes explicit that central government has provided BCC with slightly more than 35% of the funding that could reasonably said to be necessary to enable the SEND system to run as it is envisaged in law.

And this is the single most likely explanation for the extremely high turnover of senior officers: however capable they might be, none stayed in post because the system is too damaged and too starved of resources for there to be any realistic prospect of effecting improvements.  Any senior officer remaining in post would be unlikely to be able to highlight their achievements in post, and would be gaining an entry on their CV that does nothing to enhance it, or their career prospects.

I would point readers to these two entries from ‘The Devil’s Educational Glossary’:

Local Authority

A bureaucratic organisation designed to act as an intermediary protective buffer between government and its citizens so that it shoulders the blame for government underfunding of public services.

Local Authority Education Department

For parents and children / young people with special or additional needs, a bureaucratic organisation which acts as the protective buffer between children / young people and the resources necessary to meet their special educational needs.

While it is government underfunding that has rendered it incapable of discharging all of its statutory duties, decisions about which statutory duties it will not meet, and how they will be avoided, are left to the creativity of each Local Authority.  This leaves the impression of organisations staffed overwhelmingly by morally upright citizens who have somehow been persuaded to suspend what they know to be right, for the (Local Authority’s) greater good but at the expense of children with special educational needs or disabilities and their families.

I wholeheartedly commend the SEND Commissioner for highlighting the fundamental reasons not just for BCC’s failure of system, but for the failure of any Local Authority’s SEND system – it is the rhetoric-reality gap between the legally-framed aspirations for children and young people and the cold, systematic under-resourcing by central government.  It also highlights that the SEND Review has thus far fallen well short of what is required, as many (self included) have suggested.

The final recommendation by the SEND Commissioner, one of 18, highlights the need for an urgent and proper review of the SEND system.

‘The Department for Education should conclude an effective review of the 2014 SEND reforms including with regard to more stable funding and, through that process or otherwise, look to establish ways to assess schools on their duty of inclusion.’

Until the DfE does this, the disarray of the 2014 SEND reforms will continue to affect the lives of the most vulnerable and needy children and young people in society.


The SEND Commissioner’s Report is dated February 2022, but was not published until late May 2022.  It’s clear that some updates and edits have been made to the original content (leading to at least one oddly worded passage of text).  One is left to wonder why….

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