When I started at Sense less than a year ago I had very little idea how difficult families find it to get proper educational support for their disabled children. I quickly learned that it is a constant struggle for parents and carers, and for the deafblind children and young people who need this support to get on.
While many stories have been heartbreaking to hear, it’s also been incredibly inspiring to meet families who have fought so hard and won so much for their children.
Of course, no one should have to jump through hoop after hoop to make sure their deafblind child can access education and Sense is committed to making it easier for families. That commitment is why Sense devotes so much energy to getting better outcomes for children and young people on a case by case basis and also why special educational needs (SEN) reform is so high on our policy agenda.
Indeed, since February, a lot of my time has been spent on the Children & Families Bill. There’s reason to be hopeful that the Special Educational Needs (SEN) reforms proposed by the Children & Families Bill will remove a hoop or two for families, but the current Bill still doesn’t meet the aspirations set out in the Green Paper that proceeded it. Luckily, the Parliamentary process gives us opportunities to achieve change.
Two weeks ago, a committee of MPs finished their scrutiny of the Children & Families Bill. Committee stage is where detailed examination of the Bill takes place during the legislative process. Amendments (proposals for change) for discussion are selected by the chairman of the committee and only members of the committee can vote on amendments during committee stage.
Sense worked with Robert Buckland MP to table a number of ‘probing amendments’. A probing amendment seeks to stimulate debate and draw out the Government’s thinking, without opposing the Government and bringing the amendment to a vote. It is a useful way of bringing issues to the attention of, and to get commitments from, government Ministers.
The issues Sense was particularly concerned about were:
- Local authority accountability for children’s well-being: we wanted to know if a local authority was responsible for a child or young person’s wellbeing if the child/young person was boarding outside of them home local authority.
- Transition between services: we want to make sure families have the information they need about how local authorities plan transition.
We were also working with the RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People) and NDCS (National Deaf Children’s Society) on:
- Early intervention: children with sensory impairments need support from an early age so that they can make the most of school when they go.
- Regional commissioning: we think that local authorities should would together to provide services for children and young people with sensory impairments.
You can read our detailed briefing for MPs at Committee Stage.
Because Robert Buckland tabled probing amendments, he did not attempt to force the Minister Edward Timpson MP to change parts of the Bill. He did, however, get a lot of assurances that the Department for Education is aware of the issues he raised and willing to address some of them. It might not be the most sensational result, but we are really pleased with the progress we’ve made during Committee stage.
The Bill has two more stages in the House of Commons – Report and Third Reading – before it heads over to the House of Lords. When the Lords starts debating the Bill we’ll have another opportunity to influence a detailed debate, but we won’t get that level of debate again while the Bill is still in the Commons. Our strategy for the next two stages in the Commons is, therefore, to work with RNIB and NDCS to keep MPs informed and to prepare for the Bill going into the Lords.
Sense is also a member of the Special Educational Consortium (SEC), a group of organisations that campaign together to protect and promote the right of disabled children and children with special educational needs to a high quality education. SEC has been actively briefing MPs on the broad issues that the proposed reforms present and we will continue support their work.
We’ve a long way to go before the Bill is where we want it to be, but also a long way to go before it becomes law. I’m feeling positive about what we can achieve in that time, especially with inspiration from, and working with, families and deafblind children and young people themselves.
Molly Kearney is Parliamentary Manager at Sense