This week I was fortunate to meet and talk to four teenagers representing the Disabled Children’s Partnership’s Youth Advisory Group: Harshi, Amber, Sam and Udi.
These four articulate young people have a range of learning support needs, disabilities and long-term health needs, and have had experience of both the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) system and the care system.
The meeting, with Education Secretary Gillian Keegan and myself, was an opportunity for them to share their experiences of getting support at school, college and in their day-to-day lives, as well as their perspectives on what more is needed to make this support truly work for them.
They told the Secretary of State and I about their frustrations with ‘vague’ Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) that aren’t focused on the individual, about support coming too late in their education to make enough difference, and about how hard it can be to access life-changing equipment and technology.
They also spoke passionately about a lack of accountability in services, meaning they were pushed from pillar to post and felt they were being ‘punished’ for having additional needs. Amber told me about the struggle of getting the right kind of chair in school: “If I’m sitting in pain, I can’t learn.”
They talked about wanting to go further in their education and training than the system is currently set up to easily support. They want to go on into university and get great jobs, but said they often felt like no-one else around them shared that expectation for them.
“Listen to the kids”, Amber told me. “Listen to what we are saying.”
What struck me most about the conversation was that in all of their shared experiences, one thing really seemed to jump out: a lack of ambition from those around them, despite the obvious and enormous ambition each of these young people have for themselves.
It chimes with the findings of my Big Ask survey. Children told me they want to be in education. Children with SEND were even more likely than their peers to say that education was important to their future plan – and where they received the right support, quickly and locally, they were happier than the overall cohort.
But their experience of support and care is only as good as the worst part of the system.
Children with an EHCP are more likely to be severely absent from school and experience higher absence rates. I want to see progress towards a system where the professionals working with children with SEND are setting realistic goals for school attendance and integrating them as part of the EHCP so that each child receives an education that matches their ambitions. This is a key theme of the evidence I published earlier this week and have shared with the Education Select Committee to aid its inquiry into persistent absence.
It comes at a crucial time, as we await publication very shortly of the Government’s reform plans for SEND and Alternative Provision, which aim to address some of those gaps Harshi, Amber, Sam and Udi spoke about: in ambition, in staff training and in accountability.
We have to match the level of ambition that young people have for themselves, through the systems designed to support them working better together: education, health and across care.