The Schools White Paper, Opportunity for All, was published by the Department for Education in England at the end of March, amid a flurry of press releases and media opportunities.

The White Paper is positioned as part of the government’s Levelling Up agenda, seeking to address the attainment gap and drive up literacy and numeracy. Tutoring, central to the post-Covid recovery programme, will become a permanent feature with the aim of ensuring that 90% of children leave primary school having achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and maths by 2030, and raising the average GCSE grade in English language and maths from 4.5 to 5 by the same year.

Much of the focus is on teacher training and improving working conditions to attract and retain staff. There will be 500,000 teacher training opportunities by 2024, from Initial Teacher Training (ITT) through to National Professional Qualifications (NPQs), higher starting salaries, and training for early years practitioners to support literacy and numeracy. There are also commitments to a 32.5 hour school week, a ‘Parent Pledge’, and further academisation.

For those of us wondering where care-experienced children and those with SEND will fit into all of this, the White Paper leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Previously looked-after children are mentioned only once, in the context of continuing to deliver virtual school advice and guidance, so nothing new or ground-breaking there.

The White Paper is intended to be considered in the wider context of both the SEND Green Paper and the Care Review but, as it stands, alarm bells will be ringing for many.

  • The focus on raising attainment seems to be entirely about maths and literacy. Will children who struggle to meet the expected standards in these areas risk losing out on a broad and balanced curriculum if schools feel pressured to pour everything into meeting targets in these subjects?
  • Teachers are promised centrally produced, free, ready-made resources, guidance, and lessons to reduce workload so that they can “focus on responding to the needs of their class.” The discussion then moves straight onto behaviour, attendance, and welfare. Is this, rather than curriculum planning and delivery, what teachers are expected to focus on now? If so, what form will these interventions take, and will there be any understanding of the complex drivers of children’s behaviour or barriers to school attendance?
  • The ‘Parent Pledge’ promises that schools will inform parents if children are falling behind in maths or literacy and provide children with evidence-based support to make progress. Surely this is what good schools should be doing anyway. What accountability is in place if they do not?
  • Training for early years and school practitioners is to be welcomed but what, if any, reference will there be in this training about the needs of care-experienced children or those with SEND?

The SEND green paper, published the day after the School White Paper, offered a little clarity on some of these issues, but it also raised a lot more questions.

The paper rightly highlights inconsistencies in identifying children’s needs and in meeting those needs, lack of clarity for families and shocking delays in the system. Although the green paper doesn’t mention it, delayed identification of needs is a particular concern for care-experienced children (as evidenced in the Education Policy Institute report, Identifying pupils with special educational needs and disabilities). However, it’s hard to escape the feeling that there’s an undertone of blame directed at families who seek EHCPs for their children and are therefore, apparently, responsible for the high demand which causes delays in the system.

The green paper proposes to address inconsistency and delay with a new, national SEND and alternative provision (AP) system which will set national standards for how needs are identified and assessed, accompanied by local inclusion plans created by SEND partnerships (including education, health and care) to show how each area will meet the national standards and what support is available locally. A new standardised and digitised EHCP process and template will also be developed.

The training for teachers announced in the Schools White Paper is given more detail in the SEND green paper, with the proposals including the introduction of a new national professional qualification (NPQ) for SENCOs, and an increase in the number of staff with an accredited SENCO qualification in early years settings. However, newly appointed SENCOs in maintained schools have been required to have a relevant qualification since 2008, so this NPQ is more a tweak than a new initiative, and there is no clarity on whether the other training announced in the Schools White Paper will contain anything on SEND or the needs of care-experience pupils.

Unfortunately, like the NPQ for SENCOs, some of the proposals are essentially re-workings of existing measures or lack sufficient detail to give any real assurance to families. The update to the local area SEND inspection framework has been promised for some time and is mentioned here again but still has not happened. The green paper is clear that children should be offered the support they need regardless of whether they have a diagnosis, but the SEND Code of Practice (2014) already says that. The ‘inclusion dashboard’ to monitor performance at local and national level looks like a potentially useful accountability measure, but without knowing what exactly will be monitored it’s hard to predict if it will have any positive impact.

The many difficulties experienced by families navigating the SEND system in England have tended to arise not so much from the legislation and guidance itself, but from lack of due process and lack of accountability. Without seriously addressing these issues, it is difficult to see what improvements this review can realistically achieve.

For parents and guardians of previously looked after children, there are several areas of particular concern.

  • Additional training for SEND practitioners is welcome, but many families with care-experienced children operate at the intersection of SEND, trauma and disrupted attachments and so must those who support their children. This needs to be reflected in specialist training.
  • The proposal that local authorities will produce tailored lists of suitable settings to help parents make an informed choice is problematic. Who will create these lists and what criteria will they use? How individualised will they be? How many local authorities can truly say they have a setting that can meet the needs of children with developmental trauma? Will families be strongly encouraged to choose from the local authority’s pre-defined list, however unsuitable they consider the options to be?
  • The proposal to introduce mandatory mediation in disputes, reserving tribunals only for the most challenging cases ignores the enormous power imbalance often inherent when things go wrong. Many will have little confidence that mediators will have the expertise and knowledge necessary to understand the specific nature of the needs of care-experienced children.

The SEND green paper is open for consultation until 1 July 2022, with the national SEND delivery plan due to come later in 2022.

Adoption UK will be responding to the consultation, and we strongly encourage families, adopted children and young people, and anyone else for whom this is relevant to contribute their views. The DfE will be making an easy read summary of the green paper available. More information and a link to the consultation can be found on the dedicated website here:

By Rebecca Brooks, AUK Education Policy Adviser