Damian Hinds’s possible educational agenda for English schools

20 Apr

Damian Hinds was appointed Education Secretary on 7 January 2018, when Theresa May reshuffled her Cabinet.  He replaced Justine Greening, who turned down May’s offer to become the Secretary for Works and Pensions. Hinds rose from being a Whip to Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury then on to the Department for Works and Pensions as Employment Minister before taking on his current job.

Educated at the voluntary aided Roman Catholic Grammar School, St Ambrose College in Altrincham, Cheshire, he went on to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics in Oxford, securing a first-class degree. During his stay, he was elected President of the Oxford Union Society.

He was elected to Parliament in 2010 from East Hampshire, re-elected in 2015 and then in 2016 – increasing his majority from 56.8%, to 60.7% to 63.6% of the votes cast.

I        The Agenda

Prior to taking up the helm in education, Damian Hinds supported grammar schools.  However, he has not pushed the grammar-school agenda – so far.   Perhaps, he already has a full in-tray and faces formidable challenges, some of which are as follows.

(1)        How he deals with school funding will be a daunting test of his ability to square at least two circles.  First, year-on-year for the last five years, the rise in educational funding has failed to match the increase in the cost of living.  Then there is the implementation of the National Funding Formula with schools/academies crying out like Oliver Twist for more and those in the metropolitan areas screaming that they don’t have enough.

(2)        There has been a rise in the shortage of teachers, both, because of fewer wishing to train for the profession, and a steady haemorrhaging of practitioners several of whom are going abroad, opting to retrain for other professions or simply retiring.   The latest figures reveal that the applications for training courses are down by a third.

Government teacher recruitment targets were missed for five consecutive years.  The most severe shortfalls were in priority subjects such as mathematics, physics and computing. According to an analysis by the Labour Party, the Department for Education initial teacher training statistics showed that the cumulative shortfall in teachers recruited between September 2013 and September 2017 was more than 10,000.

When questioned by Andrew Marr on 18 February 2018 about the recruitment and retention of teachers, Hinds said: “You’re right that, you know; we need to do more on recruitment and indeed on retention. I think workload is a significant issue for teachers, and I’m determined to do everything that we can on that.”

Justine Greening was keen to tackle the problem and set out proposals to reform qualified teacher status, the consultations for which closed in March 2018.

(3)        Raising standards will continue to feature prominently, especially of white working-class boys.

(4)        Free Schools was a low priority for Justine Greening albeit a high one for Theresa May.   Greening took £280 million from the programme’s budget and made it over to schools and academies directly as part of the additional £1.3 billion.  Meanwhile, Hinds told The Sunday Times that he would remove the ban on a new Free School established by a discrete faith group taking in more than 50% of pupils based on its religion – a policy which prevented the Catholic Church opening any Free Schools.  What’s good for one religion must be good for every other.   Will this be ghettoising parts of the country where we are deeply concerned that religion is dividing the nation.

(5)        What will Hinds’s relationship be with the teacher unions?  Michael Gove was praised in his party for confronting them and dubbing them as part of the educational “blob”.  Justine Greening was criticised by the deep blue Tories of siding too strongly with the unions.

(6)        Then there is the consultation on mental health which Justine Green was conducting with her counterpart in Health, Jeremy Hunt.  Will he see this through and what is the likely outcome?

(7)        The Prime Minister’s wish to increase the number of grammar schools in England – which currently stands at 163 – was stillborn following the 2016 elections. As an ex-grammar school boy, will Damian Hinds want to resurrect this? In an interview with The Sunday Times, Hinds signalled keen support for “good school places” – but what does that mean?   He told Andrew Marr that new grammar schools would not be opened, but “we are talking about being able to expand existing grammar schools…..if there’s a need and if there’s parental demand and they are providing good education”.

However, an article published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, based on research findings, stated that youngsters at selective schools had achieved as well as their equivalent peers at non-selective schools, once factors, such as background and previous attainment were taken into account.  The research used government data on 549,203 pupils in England in 2015.

Grammar schools have around 2% of pupils who are, or have been, eligible for free school meals, compared with an average of 14% nationally.

The research also revealed that on average, grammar school pupils were less likely to have special educational needs, less likely to speak English as an additional language, more likely to be among the older children in their year group, and live in wealthier areas.

(8)        Finally, there are issues to do with the education of youngsters post-16, such as the introduction of Technical Levels and the expansion of the Apprentice Programme.   Further Education Colleges are chomping at the bit in the hope that they will be better funded.  Our youths are in desperate need of decent careers education and guidance so that they can become square pegs in square and round pegs in round holes.

II       Pundits’ views

When Damian Hinds was appointed Education Secretary, the world and his dog were there to offer him advice about what he should and should not do in January 2018 following his appointment.  It was difficult to sift the wheat from the chaff.

However, some sustaining and nutritious words of wisdom emanated from Alice Thompson of The Times, in the hope that Hinds would take heed.  In an open letter to him on 10 January 2018, she urged him not to worry too much about structure but rather focus on substance, i.e. provision and standards. “Mr Gove expended too much energy and money on setting up Free Schools,” she wrote, which account for only 473 of more than 24,000 schools in England. Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former chief of staff, became obsessed by increasing faith-based Free Schools, a subject I know you have also raised from the Catholic perspective. Don’t focus on this in your new job.”

She urged him to carry out a belt-and-braces review on home-schooling.  She mentioned that Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman, was as worried about culture wars as about standards.  Home-schooling was being used as a tool by religious extremists to segregate the young, she averred.

In an open letter to Mr Hinds, Sir Tim Brighouse, ex-supremo at the London Challenge and a former Director of Education in Birmingham, warned Hinds not to follow slavishly good practice that may have succeeded in place X because practice was not easily transferable to place Y.  Each school/academy had a unique context of time, place and people.

In addition to addressing the issues of diminishing funding for schools/academies and the teacher shortage which increasingly were taking centre stage, Sir Tim raised the spectre of four structural changes that were required, which he described as “running sores” that could become fatal.

(i)         Some schools/academies ignore the code of practice for admissions, where, instead of parents/carers choosing them, they manipulate the system and choose the children.

(ii)        Sir Tim is worried that the tail of tests and examinations is wagging the curriculum dog.   They are the basis for the high stakes league tables and Ofsted inspection judgements which reinforce a narrow curriculum.  Because tests/examinations are easily measurable tools for success, their use has become rampant.  However, we do know that the best aspects in education are also the most difficult to measure – such as the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, the ability to care for others, going the second mile, developing resilience, taking courage, learning from mistakes, thinking deeply and not accepting what is easily available.

(iii)       He is also very concerned about the expansion of the Free School and academy programme, “in practice nationalised government schools”, which makes a “mockery of school autonomy” and suggests that “there is a whiff of corruption about this unmanageable system”.

(iv)       Finally, he is of the view that Mr Hinds needs to curb the increasing number of powers wielded by him and future Secretaries of State – more than 2,000 in all.  The number exceeds the powers of people in similar position in other countries, including the Germany of 1939.  This undermines the local democratic process.

The country has some of the best schools and academies in the world – not necessarily all independent – matched by those that just cannot stand up to scrutiny.  School 21 in the East End of London is one shining example.  These outstanding schools and academies provide all-round education, promoting the basics as well as drama, debate, sport and the arts. They appear to thrive in the cities.   Coastal towns are poorly endowed.   There is also a north-south divide, with the north languishing behind the south.

And now, if I may, let me put my oar in.  Mr Hinds will receive polarised advice from all parts of the country.  For what it’s worth, I submit that he should be guided by the defining principle of placing young people at the centre of everything he does. They are of paramount importance.

Gove, Environment (and former Education) Secretary, touted Mr Hinds, together with Gavin Williamson, the Defence Secretary, as a future Tory Leader.  First, he will have to prove as the new Secretary of State for Education that he is able to tackle all the above issues not only successfully but also with aplomb.  Only time will tell and then everyone will be the wiser with Hind-sight.

 

To comply with the Children and Families Act 2014, pupils who have profound education needs began to be assessed from September 2014 to receive Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs).  Since then and till March 2018, EHCPs were maintained alongside statements of special needs – the predecessor system. Statements had been issued prior to the 2014 Act and abandoned on 1 April 2018.   For more on the subject, see the SEND Code of Practice.

Young people aged 16-25, who had severe learning disabilities, were assessed and given Learning Disabilities Assessments (LDAs).   The LDAs were converted to EHCPs by 1 September 2016.

I        Framing an EHCP: the process

An EHCP covers a young person from the time s/he is born to the age of 25.  It sets out the special educational, care and health needs and describes what teachers, psychologists, and health and care workers will do to meet those needs.

As soon as a school/academy or parent/carer of a child with Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) makes a request for an assessment of that child’s needs, the clock starts ticking. The local authority (LA) must tell the parent whether the assessment is going ahead within six weeks. Officers of the LA then gather information for the assessment and decide whether a plan is needed.

If the LA decides to go ahead, practitioners assess the needs and they, together with parents/carers and the young person, are given the opportunity to consider what outcomes they would like to see in an EHCP. The LA decides what resources are to be marshalled and arrangements made to achieve those outcomes. The plan is drafted and sent to the parents/carers. The parents/carers have 15 working days in which to comment.

The local authority must consult any school/academy before naming it in the EHCP.  The school/academy has 15 working days in which to make a response. Following consultation with the parent/carer, the draft plan is amended – where necessary – and issued within 20 weeks.

In accordance with the legislation, parents/carers and young people have more opportunities to express their views and share their aspirations with the professionals supporting the children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

The government trumpeted that EHCPs were a means of “changing the landscape for children with SEND”.   Legally, an EHCP must be issued within 20 weeks of parents requesting one based on an assessment for their child.   The government urged authorities to proceed with speed and complete the process in less than 20 weeks “wherever possible”.

II       Delays – the elephant in the room

However, an investigation by the Times Education Supplement in the dying days of 2017 revealed that the parents of 1,000 (circa) children with SEND had to wait longer than a year for the specialist support plans for their children.  In 2016, the TES received responses from 81 local authorities (LAs) under the Freedom for Information request to discover that in them, 903 children waited longer than a year for their EHCPs.  If this figure were to be extrapolated across all LAs, the number of children who would have had to wait longer than a year for their EHCPs in 2016 would have been 1,238.

Official figures revealed that in 2016, 44% of plans, excluding exceptions, were not issued within the 20-week time limit.

In the 81 authorities, at least one in 10 of the plans had taken longer than a year to complete. In Norfolk, 152 plans took longer than a year; in Hampshire the figure was 134.   Before subjecting these LAs to a caning, it’s critical to realise that plans are worthless if they are rushed out and filled with “waffle”.   Also, we must remember that local authorities have had their budgets severely reduced. They are trying to fill a gallon of work in a pint pot of time.

Notwithstanding, schools and academies harbour suspicions that the professionals driving the assessments do not give the exercise the attention they deserve.  Where there are inevitable delays, they should not be for more than four weeks – not a year.

Lengthy delays not only risk damaging the children and their parents/carers, but also place inordinate pressures on schools and academies who are coping with their own over-stretched budgets.

The most recent Department for Education figures show that 4,152 children and young people with disabilities or special needs were left without school places in 2017.  They were not home-schooled and received no state provision during school hours.  The majority were forced to stay at home with parents or carers.

In 2010, the equivalent figure was only 776 but rose sharply in recent years; schools said they were unable to pay for specialist staff and equipment.

Meanwhile, the Association of Educational Psychologists, the members of which carry out SEND assessments, estimates that about 200 educational psychologist positions are currently vacant nationwide. Sheffield City Council said that that was one reason for 95 children in its care having to wait longer than a year for their EHCPs in 2016. Further, Sheffield said that it was anxious to “make sure the plans were high quality” while suffering from a lack of resources.

“We take this issue very seriously and are working hard with the families of children with special educational needs and disabilities to make sure that they get the quality assessments and support they need,” Dawn Walton, the director of commissioning, inclusion and learning at Sheffield City Council told the TES.

And while local authorities are duty-bound to provide all the provision contained in the EHCPs, many struggle financially to do so. The gulf between what central government provides for high-needs pupils and what authorities say are needed in the coming year runs into the hundreds of million pounds.

III     Tribunals

Parents/carers who are unhappy with an education, health and care plan (EHCP) that has been issued for their child may appeal.  Towards the end of 2017, the Ministry of Justice revealed that the number of special educational needs and disability (SEND) appeals registered for the Tribunal in 2016-17 had risen by 27% – reaching 4,725, compared to 3,712 in the previous year.

More than half (55%) of the appeals related to the content of EHCPs; of the 1,599 that went all the way at the Tribunal rather than being settled out of court, 89% were decided in favour of the children.

In a blog post on the Special Needs Jungle website, Matt Keer, a parent of two deaf children, used research commissioned by the Department for Education to estimate that local authorities had spent about £70 million on handling appeals since the new law came into effect in September 2014.

“It’s painful to consider how much SEND provision £70m could have paid for, or how better off children might have been if this £70m had been invested in better SEND administration,” he wrote.  This is one of the unintended consequences of an Act meant to benefit some of the most disadvantaged youngsters in our society.

 

 

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