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Background to SEN Unit Review

The Kent SEN Unit Review was initiated in 2003, and scrapped in September 2010. It introduced a wholly misguided policy of closing Units to new admissions and setting up a system of Lead Mainstream Schools,  whic would fully integrate the children. KCC denies there was ever such a policy, but it was on their website until Autumn 2010, and i still have a copy. Sadly, the damage the policy has done to the SEN Unit system will take years to repair.

The comments below were prepared in 2010, and are reproduced here, for those who wish to understand the background.

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IF YOU ARE AFFECTED BY ANY OF THE ISSUES BELOW, I WOULD BE HAPPY TO HEAR FROM YOU ON A CONFIDENTIAL BASIS

Until recently, KCC  contained a policy document on its SEN wewbsite pages that states: "Units and designations which exist currently and which have agreed to become lead schools will gradually be replaced by the lead school model.  There will be no new admissions to the units but all children and young people currently in them will remain there until they are due to leave or until a review of the Statement of SEN determines their placement should change"

Since I first challenged the policy last December, KCC has consistently argued that no such policy exists.  KCC has now issued an important letter to all headteachers in the Pilot areas, signed by Rosalind Turner, Managing Director Children, Families and Education. You can find this here. It is clearly written and unambiguous (unlike some previous communications). It states that KCC is minded to end the Pilot project next March. It will remove the swirl of misunderstandings that are still circulating.

It makes clear that no Units are closing to children, but acknowledges that some parents may have been misled into thinking otherwise and the authority apologises if there have been any such misunderstandings. It makes clear that there is no block on naming schools with Units on statements and asserts that there never has been.

It also gives an undertaking that KCC will look again at any case brought to its attention by parents who feel that as a result of misunderstanding they have been influenced to accept provision with which they are unhappy.

Whilst I disagree with several of the assertions of what has happened in the past, that is in the past, and given the LA’s assurance on support for families who may have been misled, we should now be able to look forward positively to the future.

The remainder of this page now relates to issues that may have gone, and will be revisited as time permits.

Update on information that follows this section:

There were a series of interviews on Radio Kent recently on the phasing out of SEN Units.  Rosalind Turner, Managing Director Children, Families and Education maintained the KCC line that (1) Units were never going to be closed, (2)there had been no change of policy, (3) they knew of no children with statements naming Units had been turned away, and so (4) there was no need to take action to inform parents of any change of policy.  As you may imagine, my own contribution focused on challenging these claims.

Three parents were interviewed, including two who had children who had been turned away from Units. One, whose child was appropriately placed at Linden Grove Primary School Speech and Language Unit in Ashford, had been told both by the Unit and KCC Officers that there was no point in applying for a statement naming the Unit as it was closing. This enables KCC to make the claim about no children with statements naming a Unit being turned away - parents have been told there is no point in applying for one!! Another was told by the school and KCC officers that as York Road Speech and Language Unit in Dartford was closing, there was no point in applying for a place.

It is now clear that the KCC statement that no Units were ever going to be closed is 'technically correct'. Its just that they are going to be closed to children! One parent who was told that the Unit was going to be closed fought to secure a place and was then told that the policy had been changed and she could now have a place. However, when the statement came through, the child had been allocated to the mainstream school - with support from the Unit. I have now been told of another case of the same at the Morehall School Unit in Folkestone. This of course is the Lead School Model designed to replace Units that so many parents are unhappy with.

I am therefore still unclear whether Units are closed to children or not. Five months after I first asked the question!

There are therefore still three key questions to be answered. Please ask these if you have the opportunity, or alternativel I would welcome the answers:

1) Are Units in the Pilot area being closed to new children for admission on the previous full time basis (sorry if the wording is still not quite correct - but it is evident that KCC is expert with semantics)? This discounts children being placed in the mainstream school with access to support from the Unit.

2) What is KCC doing to alert parents whose children have been told by KCC Officers  or schools that the Units are closing and so there is no point in applying for them?

3) Will such children now be fast tracked for admission to these Units.

I have now seen the Minutes of a fascinating meeting in July 2009 where it was agreed by KCC Officers and the Deputy Cabinet Member with responsibility for SEN, that a new Secondary  SEN Unit would be set up in Swale,  catering for autism and Speech and Language for September 2010!  This was to cater for the large gap in provision in this area for children with these conditions. The  proposal is clearly inconsistent with the County policy at the time,  but consistent with the new policy. However, there appears no sign of the Unit scheduled for Sittingbourne Community College, although I suspect it has become a Lead School.

The document also explains how the Pilot areas were chosen. Apparently in Ashford, Shepway and North West Kent concerns about the Lead Schools concept were lowest so they were selected for Phase One. If the problems that have emerged reflect low concerns, it makes one wonder what would have happened if they had chosen the others! Warning - if there are proposals that you don't like, your school or area may be chosen ahead of others if you don't shout loudly enough.

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And now back to the beginning with my Kent On Sunday Article of May 23rd:

SEN Units have been in a state of utter confusion in recent years as KCC has planned to phase them out, the proposal being for children who would otherwise be placed in Units to attend mainstream classes and be supported by visitng teachers from Lead Schools in each of the specialisations.

KCC claim they don't know of any child who has been deprived of a place at a Unit in one of the Pilot areas, but I have now identified several and would be very happy to hear of others to  understand the scale of the problem. It is now late in the day to get a statement changed to name a Unit, but KCC ought to be prepared to do so. 

The following article (abbreviated) appears in Kent on Sunday and Kent on Saturday this weekend (22nd & 23rd May):

In 2004 Kent County Council decided to carry out a Review of Special Education Units contained within mainstream schools that support children with Autism, Speech, language & communication difficulties, Specific learning difficulties, Hearing impairment, Visual impairment, or Physical disability.  In 2009 they told families that Units would be phased out and there would be no new admissions in the Pilot areas of Gravesham, Dartford, Swanley, Ashford and Shepway for September 2010.  Many parents gave up seeking places in Units as a result. This month KCC quietly reversed its policy and if parents know there are now places in Units they can apply for them – although at this late stage some have given up and settled for less satisfactory arrangements.

However, in reply to several questions I put to KCC, they have today said they don’t know of any parents who have been told there are no places this September.  This is simply not true.  Some SEN Units have been telling parents for months of the KCC policy that there were to be no admissions to Units this year.  KCC on its own website makes clear that this was the situation until the reversal of policy was quietly announced on an inner page last week.  I have today spoken with parents who are angry that they have been misled by KCC and are now having to reapply for places in Units. Adam Holloway, MP for Gravesham, has been campaigning for months to secure places in Units for children of constituents who had been turned down, but was told in writing in February by Peter Gilroy, KCC Chief Executive, and again in April by the Kent SEN Manager that there would be no places in Pilot area Units for September.

At a meeting of  parents at the York Road, Dartford, Unit in February,  parents were told by  a senior officer of  KCC that there were to be no places in Units for September.  The Unit at the Langafel School in Longfield has been giving the same message to parents.

I could go on with further examples, but KCC have told me today that there has been NO change of policy, which as you can see from the above is simply untrue.  I have to say that the way this information was written appears designed to mislead me. Indeed, the letter to headteachers last week informing them of the new policy some time after parents knew, is so muddled and confusing that neither I nor two headteachers I consulted were clear as to what it was saying. Sadly, this confusion is typical of most communications on this subject in recent months.

How has this chaos come about? In 2006 KCC decided that the concept of Units was “dated” and looked for a more inclusive provision within mainstream schools. In 2008 (just four years from the start of the Review!), KCC decided to phase out all Units, in two phases, the first (the Pilot) to begin in 2009. No new admissions would be allowed from September 2010, so that the Units would wither away. Instead those children who would previously have been admitted to Units  would now go to mainstream school classes, increasing still further the wide range of skills already required by teachers as they came to terms with these conditions.  Lead schools would be set up for each disability providing outreach support, duplicating some of the provision currently being developed by Special Schools for this very purpose.

Consequences are that children have been turned away from Units although some who have persevered in spite of obstacles put up by KCC have broken through the net, staff at Units have been demoralised and are looking for other posts because of lack of a secure future, recruitment is down and Units will inevitably have been damaged which may make them easier to close in the future.

What do I think of the whole situation? Frankly I think it is an utter disgrace, putting unreasonable pressure on vulnerable families and damaging Units which have enjoyed an excellent reputation over many years. And for what? It has taken six years, considerable expenditure of money, time and energy to discover that what is in place is best, and the main victims of this chaos are of course Kent children with Special Educational Needs whose needs are best met in Units; surely those who deserve the best possible care from the Authority.

 Kent County Council has responded as follows, my comments in red:

A spokesman said: “It is Kent County Council’s aim that every child with special educational needs gets the care and education to fulfil their potential. Everything we do in this important area of work is done in the best interests of children and their families. KCC has not reversed its policy on specialist units in mainstream schools". So why has a senior KCC officers attended a meeting of parents at a Unit to tell them that Units would be admitting no new pupils.

"A pilot is currently running in Ashford, Shepway and north-west Kent and it is the subject of evaluation. In running the pilot, it was never the council’s intention to lose the expertise that exists in our units but to strengthen them and to build on the opportunities for using that expertise to support and build capacity in the other mainstream schools". The Council did plan to close those Units and lose that expertise - only when they belatedly realised earlier this year that this was going to happen did they reverse their policy.Another interpretaion told to some parents was that where they coincided with Lead Schools, the Units would not close as such. Instead, the teachers would become specialists in outreach going out to schools, but there would be no pupils coming into the Units! Use of language is everything in this debate.

At no point before or during the pilot were any decisions taken by elected members to close units". The KCC Cabinet Paper of 12 October 2009 headed REVIEW OF SPECIALIST UNIT AND DESIGNATED PROVISION IN MAINSTREAM SCHOOLS – LEAD SCHOOL IMPLEMENTATION, by Sarah Hohler, Cabinet Member for Education,  hardly mentions Units. However, it does state: "All lead schools in the pilot area are progressing although there are different development needs between new lead schools and those that previously had units". previously had Units - so where were they going? Some parents have had it explained to them that the budget from Lead  Schools comes from the phasing out of Units. KCC papers are littered with references to the phasing out of Units. Who authorised KCC Officers to tell parents that Units were being phased out and no new children would be admitted in the pilot areas for September 2010? Did elected members really not know what was being done in their name?

"The council will be reporting on the evaluation during the summer and this will inform, not just how we proceed with specialist provision in mainstream schools, but how we develop our special educational needs strategy to make sure all children and young people in Kent can have equal access to quality provision that delivers improved outcomes for them. The letter that was sent to schools recently and also placed on the council’s website was not announcing a change of policy but was for the purpose of keeping schools informed about the review and its evaluation". Schools believed and knew that Units were being phased out. Somewhere in the confusion of Letter One, it implies they are not. That is a reversal of policy.  

When Kent embarked on the pilot, it gave a commitment that the project would not compromise the education of those children who were already in units" Where is this commitment, and what about those who were told there were no places in Units? and it has stuck to that commitment? “Nothing in Kent’s policy or practice can supersede or set aside special educational needs legislation, and the council takes seriously its legal duty to make sure it arranges provision for children who have a statement of special educational needs, in order to meet their needs". A statement of Kent's legal duty is always helpful, but this issue is about the nature of that provision, described as dated by KCC in an earlier paper that proposes they are replaced by Lead Schools. It is not primarily about the law.  

In 2010 some parents expressed a preference for a school with a specialist unit within one of the pilot areas. These preferences were agreed where the child was considered to need that placement". Might these be the recent ones after the decision to change the policy was made? I was talking to a parent yesterday who was told the Unit would close but after persistent lobbying has now been told they can have a place. Certainly the parent I was talking to today, whose case has been put forward by his  MP, had been told the Unit he wanted was not accepting new children.  Only yesterday did he learn of the change of policy from his MP.  

“The council is not aware of any children with statements who have been offered an unsuitable school". I found this an astonishing claim. Then I examined it closely. Clearly the Council consider that a main stream placement with outreach support is suitable provisionl, and hence can make this claim. The fact that they are aware of children who wanted places in Units but were told there were none is not covered by this statement. Sadly, I believe it is purely an attempt to mislead the reader as I was initially misled.   

All parents are advised of their right of appeal to the special educational needs tribunal if they are unhappy with the school named in their child’s statement. In the pilot areas, no appeals have been lodged by parents seeking places in schools with units.Well they wouldn't would they! If parents are told the Units are being phased out, with no new admissions there is no point in going through the lengthy and stressful appeal process to SENDIST (Special Educational Need and Disability Tribunal). Some have already been down this route to secure their statement and come face to face with a barrister employed by KCC to shoot down cases. However, whilst parents now know that there are places it may be too late to change direction for September.

Why can't KCC simply acknowledge that they have changed policy for the benefit of Kent children, and attempt to contact those they have misled earlier, offering to fast track any late applications through to Units. Instead this policy of obfuscation and refusal to acknowledge the truth continues to drag out the misery. To quote the first sentence of this response again: "It is Kent County Council’s aim that every child with special educational needs gets the care and education to fulfil their potential. Everything we do in this important area of work is done in the best interests of children and their families". I just wish it were so!

 The good news is that SEN Units, attached to mainstream schools are all to remain open, although KCC has been telling parents for the past four months that they are to close. Sadly, some have already closed for lack of children.  For further information, or if you are affected by these issues please go to Units. You will also find a list of the Units with the disability that each covers.

 

Last modified on Sunday, 19 January 2014 07:42