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The SEND and AP Improvement Plan: filling the gap between where we are and where we want to be? (Article taken from nasen Connect May/June 2023)

  • Nasen Connect
  • 06 Jun 2023

Even before the SEND and AP Improvement Plan from the Government was published this March, there was a growing sense of this being a chance for real progress; a significant opportunity, a ‘moment in time’. Alison Willett, education director at nasen, takes a look at the plan, and what it could mean for the sector.

It feels as though momentum for greater and more fundamental system change in education broadly and for SEND specifically has been growing. Thought leadership in this space has been exploring the ‘what ifs…’ with much consensus around the need for fundamental shifts in thinking and approach. Rather than  continue to conceptualise SEND as ‘additional to or different from’ regular teaching and learning, what if we could commit to inclusion by design, thereby accepting the diversity of all learners as integral? If we accept that the current education system would require radical re-thinking to get closer to this ideal, and that this isn’t happening yet (despite signs of interest in change, such as the Education Committee’s recent call for evidence on secondary education and its suitability), it seems what’s needed are steps towards this ideal.
Everyone serving in education must work to the system and all its inherent constraints (such as a lack of time for sustained professional development) and so the gap remains between where we are and where we would like to be, remains.

In this vision, learning is designed for the ‘margins’ and so works for all; it is truly universal. It is about creating enabling environments, in the broadest sense, in which all children and young people can thrive.

In this context, we now have the SEND and AP Improvement Plan, so how much closer does this bring us?
What was really heartening was to see a reflection back of the vision that certainly nasen, and likely many others, urged the Department for Education (DfE) to  recognise and to share.
This is seen in their stated aim to: ‘…create a more inclusive society that celebrates and enables success in all forms, with the cultures, attitudes and environments to offer every child and young person the support that they need to participate fully, thrive and fulfil their potential’ with the ‘…process of identifying needs and accessing support to be early, dignified and affirmative, focusing on a child or young person’s achievements, talents and strengths… and … easier to navigate, with parents being clear on what support they can expect for their child and where they can turn for help…’ Perhaps next we could describe SEND and AP as processes within an education system rather than as separate systems of their own.


  • Failing to deliver improved outcomes for children and young people with SEND
  • Declining parental confidence in the system
  • Financial unsustainability,

To address these challenges, the Improvement Plan lays out a range of actions, the detail of which is in the plan ( There are also useful summaries on the nasen website (
Interestingly, a strong feature of the proposed reforms is the emphasis on how they will be implemented. The Government listened to the consultation responses which identified that the primary reason the aspirations of the 2014 reforms weren’t achieved was a lack of attention to implementation. 
This time, delivery will be supported through a Change Programme which will structure the testing and refining of key proposals, as well as supporting local SEND and AP systems to manage local improvement. 
This Change Programme will be the delivery vehicle for the work through the creation of up to nine Regional Expert Partnerships, each made up of three to four local authorities, one of which would be the lead.
One of the tensions for reform is timescale. We are acutely aware that problems need to be addressed immediately and that the children and young people currently within the system deserve the best experience now. To achieve meaningful engagement with all stakeholders, to get anywhere near real co-production and to properly test and refine the elements of the reforms, however, means being realistic about the length of time needed for the process.
The worst-case scenario here is that nothing that would have a positive impact on outcomes for at least two more years will happen, and then only if there is no change in government.

Securing accountability for enacting the changes within the reforms is another area under question. The aspects which will make up the suite of National Standards are to be underpinned with legislation, enabling intervention if standards are not met:

  • Clear expectations for what good looks like in identifying and meeting a range of needs (what provision should be ‘ordinarily available’ and what provision should be made through Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans)
  •  Who should secure what provision
  •  Where funding provision should come from (which budgets)
  •  Evidence-based approaches to identification and intervention (for SEN Support).

The Improvement Plan sets out an intention to ‘design accountability measures’ as new work is undertaken, including the role of Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CQC). The DfE has agreed with the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England to engage health and social care bodies on specific standards, so that the standards will recognise roles and interdependencies but within existing statutory frameworks for health and social care.
Where there is accountability, the need for training to meet the responsibilities to be discharged must be assessed.
Chapter four of the Improvement Plan focuses on the development of a ‘skilled workforce and excellent leadership’.


  • A new leadership level SENCO NPQ (National Professional Qualification) for schools
  • A review of the Initial Teacher Training (ITT) and Early Career Frameworks
  • Funding for up to 5,000 more early years professionals to gain a Level 3 SENCO qualification
  • Funding to train two more cohorts of educational psychologists and Early Language and Support for Every Child (ELSEC) pathfinders to improve access to speech and language therapy
  • Publication of three practice guides for ‘frontline professionals’, focusing on autism, mental health and wellbeing and early language intervention
  • A research project leading to the development of a ‘longer-term approach for teaching assistants’ to ensure their impact is consistent

It’s likely that many schools will need access to high quality professional development for their staff to be confident that they can make the required provision to be set out in the National Standards available. 
This should be easier to plan for, knowing that the schools’ voice will be heard through representation in any group tasked with writing the standards, and by a timescale which doesn’t see the majority of them rolled out until the end of 2025.
Whilst there are more points of action within the Improvement Plan, it inevitably sits alongside the existing ‘system’ and tries to make it work better. Anything radically different was pragmatically unlikely.
If we want to take steps towards the ideal of inclusion by design, perhaps building upon the foundation of what will become the national standards will be a starting point. Rather than risk any ‘race to the bottom’, where these standards become a comfortable benchmark, they should be a minimum expectation upon which further professional innovation will build.
Great practice and provision should be in the hands of educators and the ability to engage in professional development and learning is how to unlock inclusion by design.

Look out for opportunities to work with nasen to do this and let us know if your school or setting is already innovating; perhaps our own test and refine process can bring us closer to where we want to be.

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