Children and Families Bill

Memorandum submitted by Sue Gerrard (CF 44)


An analysis of the education system over time suggests that persistent poor outcomes for children with SEND[1] have been due to the content rather than the form of the system, in particular;

· inaccurate assumptions about SEND , and

· lack of access to relevant expertise.

Expertise could be improved through the realloc ation of existing resources and would address inaccurate assumptions.

Inaccurate assumptions

Two inaccurate assumptions emerge;

· that learning difficulties can be remediated by teaching per se

· that learning difficulties are biologically determined so there’s no point trying to remediate them .

The evidence suggests that both assumptions are currently implicit in educational thinking due to a widespread misunderstanding of the social model of disability.

Lack of e xpertise

Since education became compulsory in 1870 around 99% of children have attended mainstream schools, and a consistent 20% or so have had SEND. Despite this;

· the mainstream teaching workforce has always lacked expertise in SEND

· access to specialist support se rvices has always been limited

· intervention has often been too little, too late.

Currently, many children with SEND are taught by teachers without relevant training and supported by untrained teaching assistants. Unsurprisingly, many children do not experience the best outcomes.


Because inadequate access to expertise is a core problem, I recommend that;

· all teaching staff should be trained to teach children with special educational needs,

· children and teachers should have good access to specialist services

· LAs should issue EHC plans as early as possible.

These recommendations could be implemented by reallocating some funding from one-to-one support to access to specialist services. If they are not implemented, the education system will continue to fail to achieve the best outcomes for all children.

Sue Gerrard I am the parent of two teenagers, one with a chronic medical condition and another with a diagnosis of ASD and a statement, who attends an independent specialist school. In the 1970s I taught in the equivalent of a parent-controlled Free School. Since then I’ve worked in a range of sectors and have a Master’s degree in occupational psychology. I’m a director of Gerrard Rugg Associates, a consultancy working in knowledge modelling and involved in the development of knowledge representation software. My research interests are in theoretical models of child development, developmental disorders and special education. I’m author of several articles and journal papers and I run blogs on systems, autism and child development[2]. I’m also a part-time carer. This submission is made in a private capacity.


1. The stated intention of the Children and Families Bill is to "improve the outcomes of all children and families in our society, whatever their start in life." [3] Part 3 of the Bill proposes changing parts of the SEND system found by previous inquirie s [4,5] to be problematic. However, p revious inquiries have made recommendations for sy stem-wide changes that are not part of the proposed legislation. Because the components of a system are by definition interconnected, attempting to change some par ts in isolation can result in u nintended and unwanted outcomes - the focus of this submission. My submission is in three parts;

I. The education system as a system

II. The perennial ‘problem’ of s pecial educational needs

III. The underlying principles of existing legislation

I have commented in the Public Reading on possible unintended and unwanted outcomes of specific clauses in the Bill.


2. In practice the education system is complex, but in principle involves children undergoing a process of teaching and learning and emerging (hopefully) as well-educated young people. To be effective, teaching and learning must be closely aligned with the educational needs of children.


The proportion of children with special educational needs

3. Children vary widely. Collectively, their general educational ability forms a normal (Gaussian) distribution; the abilities of around 16% of children will fall below the normal range (categorised as SEND) and around 2.2% will need significant support (statements/EHCs).

4. Previous research led the Warnock committee[6] to estimate that up to 20% of children would at some point need additional educational support and that up to 3% would need support of equivalent to that provided by a special school. A recent analysis[7] shows that these proportions have remained constant for almost half a century.

5. It’s important to note that the proportions are relative, not absolute. Even with the best teaching the percentages of children below the normal range would remain constant, because of the natural variation amongst human beings. The figures are not cause for complacency, because there’s scope for improving the quality of education generally. Nor are they a cause for concern, because they reflect natural variation, not necessarily poor teaching or low aspirations.

Types of special educational needs

6. Classification of special educational needs has varied over time, but it’s clear from the Warnock report that the types of learning difficulties have changed little. Thus we have reasonably reliable data regarding the number of children likely to need additional support and what types of support they will need.

Teaching and learning


7. Teaching needs to be tailored to learning, and the Warnock report devoted an entire chapter to the training and support of teachers in relation to SEND. Similar recommendations have been made in recent reports[4,5].

8. Funding for specialist teacher training has been increased recently[3]. Although this initiative is welcome, if the number of teachers involved is added to the number of teaching and support staff in special schools (as an approximation for the number of teaching staff with SEND training and/or experience), the total amounts to only 7% of the teaching workforce, and that proportion is concentrated in special schools [8] .

9. The Warnock recommendations in relation to teacher training have yet to be fully implemented, which might explain why so many children with SEND, forty years on, are still falling through the net. As the Lamb Inquiry emphasized "All teachers are teachers of children with special educational needs."

Specialist support

10. The Warnock committee also recognised that access to specialist expertise and support was es sen tial. Recent reviews by Lamb ( SEND ), Bercow (speech, language and communication), Kennedy (children’s services) and Munro (child protection), have highlighted problems with capacity and/or expertise in relation to children in the education, health and social care sectors.

Well-educated young people

Educational outcomes

11. Over the last 20 years, successive governments have sought to improve educational outcomes by setting performance targets using pupil attainment in tests as a proxy for school performance. Although targets such as 5 A*- C grades at GCSE provide a convenient measure of overall educational attainment, they are not necessarily an attain able or appropriate target for every pupil. It is not in the interest of schools to allocate scarce resources to children unlikely to meet performance targets. P erformance targets have introduced perverse incentives into the education system in relation to SEND.

12. Section 7 of the Education Act 1996 is quite clear that an education should be suitable for the age, ability, aptitude and any special educational needs of the individua l , not of some hypothetical average young person. Research into long-term outcomes suggests that an education not suited to the individual can be counterproductive.

Long-term outcomes

13. Wabe r[9] for example, shows that economic, social and health outcomes for people w ith learning difficulties tends to improve in adulthood and schooldays are reported as being the most difficult and stressful period of their lives. E duca tion should help but not hinder children and young people with SEND .


14. The evidence [6,7] suggests that educational outcomes for children with SEND have always tended to be poor for reasons that have changed over time;

· between 1870[10] and 1898[11], education per se did not address the needs of the unexpectedly large numbers of children with learning difficulties coming into schools when education became compulsory,

· between 1898 and 1978[6], expectations about the educability of children with SEND were low,

· between 1978 and 2009[7], local authorities have prioritised the needs of children with severe difficulties at the expense of preventative early intervention.

The last point requires further explanation.

Prioritising complex difficulties at the expense of early intervention

15. Data from 2009/10[7] indicate that the proportion of children identified as having SEND increases slightly between the ages of 5 and 10, but the proportion of children with statements doubles - from 1.1% to 2.2%. Statistically, we know that around 16% of children starting school will have SEND, around 2.2% will need a statement, and these prevalence data have remained stable over time. It appears that schools are slightly over-identifying children with SEND (23.5%), but local authorities are significantly under-identifying younger children who at some point will need statements. This implies reluctance on the part of LAs to issue statements, and suggests that one in 100 children must encounter problems before they access appropriate support. This tallies with accounts from parents of long waiting lists for specialist services and difficulty getting statutory assessments.

16. Taken together, the statistical and anecdotal evidence suggest that current problems with the SEND system are due to the way resources are allocated rather than the structure of the system itself. The evidence suggests that the Warnock framework is still fit for purpose; the problem is not with its form, but its content.

Form vs content

17. Children’s learning difficulties are often very specific, even when ‘complex’. Some difficulties are encountered frequently across a range of disorders and include impairments in;

· sensory perception

· speech and language

· working memory

· attention

· impulse control

· gross and fine motor function.

Despite the specific nature of the learning difficulties, since 1898 public inquiries have repeatedly reported low levels of specialist expertise in mainstream classrooms and specialist services unable to meet demand.

18. Currently, support for children with statements frequently takes the form of a specified number of hours working one-to-one with a teaching assistant, often untrained. Recent research[12] has shown that children supported by TAs tend to make poor progress, and that many teachers have not been trained to work with TAs, who report having to operate ‘on the hoof’ for much of the time.

19. Although children with statements might need one-to-one support, outcomes are likely to improve if appropriate specialist support is provided as soon as learning difficulties are identified. It isn’t difficult to detect speech or language delays in children starting school, for example, and prompt remediation can make a significant difference to literacy skills. But if no one in the classroom has appropriate expertise and specialist services have waiting lists of months or even years, a minor speech or language impairment can rapidly develop into complex educational and behavioural difficulties.

20. In 2008/2009 the cost of support staff in schools totaled £4.1 billion[12]. Much of that support involved untrained teaching assistants and was far less effective than hoped. It might be time to re-allocate some of that resource to specialist early intervention and training for teaching staff, as recommended by previous inquiries.

It’s worth considering why that hasn’t happened.

Why is early specialist intervention not prioritized?

21. One plausible explanation is insufficient investment per se in the SEND system, but that’s unlikely as significant sums have been spent on one-to-one support.

22. A second possibility is insufficient investment in specialist services after the Education Act 1981, resulting in ‘failure demand’. But contemporary accounts suggest that access to specialist assessment and support was comparatively easy at that time.

23. A third, more likely explanation that also accounts for intervention consisting largely of one-to-one support from untrained TAs, has its origins I suggest, in a widespread misunderstanding of the social model of disability.

The social model of disability

24. The social model of disability began to gain popularity in the period following the Education Act 1981. It draws a distinction between;

· limitations experienced by someone as the result of a biological impairment[13], and

· disability experienced as the result of failure by society to accommodate or accept those impairments.

The social model of disability differentiates itself from the medical model of disability that locates disability in the limitations or impairments themselves – implying that someone is disabled because there is something ‘wrong’ with them.

25. These distinctions are subtle and easily misunderstood. The DfE training materials for severe, profound and complex learning difficulties[14] for example, appear to see a disjunct between children’s impairments and their needs, and to disparage attempts to address impairments;

"The individual (or medical) model of disability focuses on the nature and severity of a child's impairment rather than on their needs, and the extent to which difficulties can be overcome or militated against. The power to 'change' [sic] such children is often seen to lie with medical, educational or other professionals." (Slide 2)

26. The British Red Cross teacher briefing on disability[15] goes even further. After explaining the social and medical models it says:

"So the impairments themselves don't matter?

Obviously, they still matter. Not being able to see, hear, walk, has an important effect on people. But generally speaking people find ways to cope – they get used to living with the impairment. And in any case what someone with an impairment cannot do is always much less than what they can do – if they are given the chance. The idea of the social model of disability is to give them a chance, remove the barrier that society places."

27. In fact, many people with impairments do not ‘get used’ to living with them. What people with impairments can’t do is not always less than they can do. The social model of disability is not about giving people ‘a chance’, it’s about people with impairments being enabled to lead the sort of life they want to lead – which might involve remediating the impairments.

28. The suggestion that impairments can and should be treated where appropriate often results in accusations of ‘medicalising’ the child. Children can of course be ‘medicalised’ - the outcomes of poor teaching can be attributed to something being ‘wrong’ with the child. That doesn’t negate the fact that children vary biologically and those biological variations can often be ameliorated.

29. The pendulum appears to have swung so far from the medical model of disability that it’s now seen as inappropriate to treat or even investigate biological variations that might be causing a child’s learning difficulties. Many common minor impairments involving, for example, sensory processing, working memory or motor control can be effectively treated in a variety of ways, thus reducing limitations and the risk of ‘disability’, but these services are often inaccessible or non-existent.

Black boxes

30. The intention of the Bill is clearly to improve outcomes for children with SEND. However, a focus on structural changes risks the system being seen as a series of ‘black boxes’, and an assumption that if statutory duties, teacher training, classroom support and specialist services are nominally in place, they must be fulfilling the function for which they are intended. What the evidence shows is that the form of these provisions doesn’t guarantee their content, and it’s the quality of content that explains why the SEND system has repeatedly been found not fit for purpose.


An analysis of the system as a system suggests that some relatively simple and inexpensive steps could bring about significant improvement.

Train teachers and teaching assistants in SEND

Special school placements and Master’s degrees[3] might be desirable, but in the short-term, classroom expertise could be improved by in-service training, using for example, the DfE’s advanced SEND training materials[16].

Reallocate resources to early intervention from specialist support services

Currently, children often have to fail at school before they can access the support they need. The data suggest that schools are accurately identifying children with SEND, but that children do not get appropriate or timely support. Some TA support  could be replaced with speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, cognitive skill development and behavior management training.

Issue EHC plans as early as possible, not as late as possible

We know what proportion of children are likely to need EHC plans. Local authorities should consider issuing EHC plans as early as possible rather than as late as possible, and plans should focus on remediating the causes of learning difficulties, as well as one-to-one support.


In recent years the general responsibilities of central and local government towards children have increased, resulting in a frequent lack of clarity about where parents’ responsibilities end and LAs’ responsibilities start. If the clauses in Part 3 of the Bill are not read in the context of previous legislation, some of them are likely to be misunderstood. The existing legislative framework makes clear that:

· Parents are responsible for their children’s education and welfare.

Parents have;

· an explicit duty to cause their children to have a suitable education [17] and

· an implicit duty to avoid putting them at risk of significant harm [18].

There are only two sets of circumstances in which LAs should intervene in relation to parental responsibility for children;

· if the parent is unable to educate or look after the child and asks the local authority to take over these duties


· if there is reason to believe the parent is breaking, or likely to break the law by not ensuring the child has a suitable education or by putting the child at risk of significant harm.

Local authorities should also have regard to;

· the general principle that children should be educated in accordance with the parent’s wishes [19].

This framework has implications for unwanted and unintended outcomes if Part 3 of the Bill is implemented as it stands. I have commented on the wording of specific clauses in the Public Reading of the Bill.

March 2013


[1] I use the abbreviation SEND (special educational needs and/or disabilities) to refer to children who need additional support with education for whatever reason.


[3] Department for Education, Children and Families Bill 2013: Contextual Information and Responses to Pre-Legislative Scrutiny

[4 ] Education and Skills Select Committee (2005-2006), Third Report, vol. 1 Special Educational Needs

[5] Lamb, B. (2009), Special Educational Needs and Parental Confidence.

[6] Warnock, H.M. (1978), Special Educational Needs: Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Handicapped Children and Young People. HMSO.

[7] Department for Education, Children with Special Educational Needs 2010: An Analysis, Fig. 1.7.

[8 ] Department for Education, School Workforce in England, 2011.

[9] Waber, D.P. (2010). Rethinking Learning Disabilities: Understanding Children who Struggle in School. The Guilford Press.

[10] Elementary Education Act, 1870

[11] Report of the Committee on Defective and Epileptic Children, 1898

[12] Webster, R. & Blatchford, P. (2012), "Supporting learning?: How effective are teaching assistants? In P. Adey & J Dillon (Eds.) Bad Education, Open University Press.

[13] The term ‘impairment’ is itself questionable, but I have used it because it’s commonly employed in relation to the social model of disability.



[16] SEND d/improvingprovision/b00209601/ SEND d-materials-advanced

[17] s.7 Education Act, 1996

[18] s.47 Children Act 1989

[19] s.9 Education Act, 1996

Prepared 20th March 2013