We recently caught up with Olivia Blake MP, who is Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on SEND, to learn more about how the APPG works and their priorities for enhancing SEND Provision, and explore how things have changed as a result of the pandemic.
Olivia will be sharing more insights on the future of SEND provision at the National SEND Conference in June 2021.
IG Schools: What is the driving purpose of the APPG on SEND, and your role in improving and expanding SEND provision?
Olivia: Of course, colleagues involved in the APPG will have numerous reasons for wanting to get involved. For me, I think the APPG has two important purposes. The first is to put SEND issues on the political agenda and ensure they are at the forefront of parliamentarians’ minds. There is a tendency for policy makers and politicians to treat SEND as a Cinderella Service, and young people and families are often the last group of people that are considered when they should be the first! I think everyone in the APPG is united in wanting to advocate for SEND and ensure that Government policy is working for SEND children and young people. That’s why I’ve been pressing Ministers and civil servants whenever I get the opportunity on when they will be publishing their long-awaited review of the SEND strategy. We must keep the pressure up and ensure this doesn’t fall by the wayside.
In disability rights activism, there is an old saying that goes ‘nothing about us, without us’. For that reason, the second purpose of the APPG is not only to advocate for SEND young people, families and settings, but to amplify their voices. I am very proud of our most recent report, called Forgotten. Left-behind. Overlooked: The experiences of young people with SEND and their educational transitions during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. To produce the report, we held evidence sessions in which SEND young people, families and those who ran services were invited to give verbal testimonies. These testimonies were integrated into the report, describing people’s experiences in their own words. The three words in the main title – ‘forgotten’, ‘left-behind’ and ‘overlooked’ – come from the evidence we collected. The report makes for powerful and difficult reading – while we identified good practice throughout the pandemic, it is also clear that many people had an incredibly hard time, with Covid highlighting the cracks in an already very broken system.
IG Schools: And so what are the current priorities of the APPG on SEND?
Olivia: We have just elected our new officer group and I was very pleased to be re-elected chair, so we need to meet to plan the year ahead. For the time being, the two key priorities are ensuring our report is read by the people who need to see it and continuing the pressure on the Government for the publication of the SEND review. I was pleased that the Minister was able to attend the launch of our report, and I have been informed that we can expect the review in June. I hope our findings feed into the review – responding to it will certainly be an important part of the year ahead.
IG Schools: That sounds really positive! Could you tell us about the challenges you are currently working to overcome, and how are these related to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Olivia: Politically, one of the main challenges has been fulfilling that purpose of ensuring SEND stays on the agenda. Our report shows that the difficulties SEND young people, families and settings were already experiencing have been hugely magnified by the Covid crisis. Despite this, at times it has felt as though SEND has been deprioritised by Ministers. For instance, when I questioned the DfE, the reason given for the delay to the review publication was the Covid crisis. Actually, the crisis makes the publication of the review more – not less – important, because the challenges people are facing now are often a direct legacy of the problems that have plagued the system for years.
More positively, what many have seen as a difficulty – the logistics of continuing work through lockdown – have actually been an opportunity for us. For example, one of the reasons we were able to include so many voices and hear from so many people in our report was hosting online meetings. Zoom made our meetings far more accessible than they might otherwise have been, allowing us to adhere better to that ‘nothing about us, without us’ ethos. For that reason, we will continue to use it, even after lockdown restrictions have ended.
IG Schools: It's great that you've been able to take something positive out of this difficult period. What advice do you have for providers of services for children and young people with SEND, working through the difficulties of this year including lost learning time and delays in accessing services?
Olivia: Lots of these difficulties are caused by legacy problems that have been greatly exacerbated by the pandemic – chronic underfunding, problems with the high-needs budget, backlogs in EHCPs, lack of capacity etc. In its present form, the system is not going to be able to deal with, for example, loss learning time, because it was struggling to deliver under “normal” circumstances. It is difficult to give blanket advice to providers because while those long-standing problems are well-known, they are also so numerous and vary across settings. What I would say is that if you provide SEND services, as the APPG sets its priorities for the year ahead, it would be fantastic to hear from you. One thing is clear to me: we can only address the challenges of Covid by tackling the longer-term problems in the SEND system and ensuring that SEND young people, families and providers are leading that change.
IG Schools: Thank you for your time Olivia! We look forward to hearing more from you at the 2021 SEND Conference.
Click below to learn more about this year's Conference, and explore learning opportunities for schools and health and social care partners.