Better co-production is crucial for improving SEND provision. But are the Government’s plans a case of magical thinking? – Special Needs Jungle


‘Critically, we agree with what we heard during the consultation: that the national system should be co-produced with families, children and young people, so we can build their confidence that the system will meet their needs quickly and effectively’

(p8 SEND & AP Improvement plan)

Within the SEND & AP Improvement Plan, co-production is one of the five core values. It is clear that the Government is still keen for principles of effective ‘strong’ co-production to underpin the SEND reforms, despite there being no real clarity or agreement about what co-production is nor what ‘good’ looks like. Has co-production been uncritically accepted as a good thing to strive for?

Of course, it is unlikely that anyone reading this article will dispute the importance of children and young people and their families, having a greater say in matters that relate to them. However, I am concerned that the ongoing use of the concept of co-production is being used to suggest parental involvement and buy-in to the reforms, when in reality this is simply not happening. Indeed, can anyone out there clearly state what effective co-production looks like in practice or how it improves outcomes for children and young people labelled with SEND? Have we just accepted co-production as a good thing, whilst not really knowing what is it or how to engage children, young people and their families in planning at both an individual and strategic level in a really meaningful way, rather than simply a continued illusion of partnership working?

So what do we know about the effectiveness of co-production?

Well, it’s not going too well is it?

  • Contact reported in 2021 (I could not find a more recent report), fewer than half of parent carer forums (PCFs) co-produced with education or health, and under a third of PCFs were co-producing with social care. This is despite nearly £5m worth of funding being provided to the PCF programme in this year, either from the central DfE grant or funding from other sources such as local authorities and health partners.
  • The National Network of Parent Carer Forums reported in 2021/22 a ‘grim’ SEND landscape and that co-production remains ‘a mixed picture’.
  • Ofsted reported in 2021 that the implementation of co-production at a school level, ‘was not always meaningful’ and that parents are not consistently being given the opportunity to co-produce support plans for their child.

What does the SEND & AP Improvement plan say about co-production?

Co-production is mentioned in relation to the following elements within the Improvement Plan:

  • The proposed National Standards will be co-produced and tested with Regional Expert Partnerships. The plan is to develop the National Standards ‘with a wide range of stakeholders, including professional experts across education, health and care, as well as children, young people and their families’. It states that these ‘partners’ will be involved at the earliest opportunity to understand the views of children, young people and their families (these views are available for all to see already, one only needs to look at the many responses to the Select Committee SEND Inquiry!)
  • The timescales of the reforms (from now until the end of 2025) are designed to ‘allow time for genuine co-production and testing(there is no mention of what ‘genuine co-production’ looks like of course).
  • There will be guidance for the development of Local Inclusion Plans that include ‘the requirements for co-production with children and their families’ which ‘will be underpinned by a maturity matrix self-assessment tool to support local areas to evolve partnerships and move towards new model of plans’ (anyone got a clue what this means? No, nor me!)
  • The Short Breaks Innovation Fund will fund seven local authority projects to deliver “innovative approaches” to short breaks. These bids ‘should be co-produced with families’ and ‘must be supported by the local parent carer forum’ (scroll back up, remember that fewer than one-third of parent carer forums are engaged in co-production with social care).
  • There will be co-produced guidance with young people, parents and carers in relation to the guidance for effective transitions to post-16. (phew more guidance to be produced!)
  • The National SEND and Alternative Provision Implementation Board will ‘receive regular input from a wide range of stakeholders, including children, young people and parents’ (another day, another board for busy parent carers to provide input to!)

What is Co-production and how is it done?

Co-production definitions can change a little, depending on the context, but for our purposes, I prefer this one from The Care Act:

“Co-production” is when an individual influences the support and services received, or when groups of people get together to influence the way that services are designed, commissioned and delivered.”

Definition from The Care Act 2014 from the TLAP website

But we do not see any workable definition about co-production in the SEND and AP Improvement Plan, or how the increasingly fractured relationships between parents and professionals will be addressed. Buried in the SEND & AP Improvement Plan (p. 37), the DfE does define individual co-production as “The green paper restated our commitment to the principle of co-production: that children, young people and their families and services work together as equal partners to support children and young people to achieve their goals.” But in reality, the power imbalance between parent and LA means they can never be “equal partners”; that’s simply magical thinking. The current SEND Code of Practice (1.12) meanwhile, mentions principles of ’effective participation’, but these principles seem to relate to PCFs only not individual participation/co-production.

Instead, it feels that the model of co-production being developed continues to be based on the representative model, where some parents (the most willing and able?) will be parent representatives on a range of boards, working groups and panels, providing ‘the parent voice’ – as though there is ‘one voice’ to speak of. This is likely to be the handful of “usual suspect” parent representatives who are engaged in their parent carer forum, or the even smaller number engaged in the NNPCF.

The challenges of parental co-production

There is also no discussion anywhere about the ongoing challenges that parent carer forums continue to face in these roles. For instance, when local authority ‘partners’ only engage in a tokenistic fashion, or the impossibility of lobbying and campaigning given their reliance on government funding. There are also the challenges of representing the complexity of needs and opinions of parents from across all the diverse communities within a local authority area, and the fact that often, presence around the table is not leading to actual meaningful change for children, young people and their families. If it were working, we would not be in the situation we are in now.

This is not to suggest that some parent carer forums aren’t making positive changes, but as they themselves state, even in the organisations the government recognises and funds to engage in co-production, it simply is not happening in reality.

So where does this leave the issue raised by Ofsted (above), of a lack of meaningful, individual co-production at a school and FE level for many families? Do we know how many parents whose children are receiving SEND Support are fully engaged in the Assess Plan Do Review process, meeting the school at least three times a year? I would wager it is very few indeed.

Lost in (co)production

Although the SEND & AP Green Paper stated there would be the “development of consistent standards on co-production with children, young people, parents and carers…so that they are engaged in the decision-making process around the support that they receive and the progress they are making” (Green Paper p28-9), there is no mention of this within the actual SEND & AP Improvement Plan.

It is hard to know if the proposed development of these standards are still in the frame. Indeed if they are, how will they be introduced and compliance monitored? It’s possible that the suggestion of “national standards” being needed for (individual-level) co-production could deter school practitioners from simply talking to parents to find out what their concerns are, or asking them how they think relationships and parental input could be improved.

Sadly, there is nothing in the Plan suggesting changes to how we approach co-production, so what confidence can we have that it’s suddenly going to be the panacea it was always promised to be, given the lack of impact from co-production we’ve seen to date?

Tensions with the ‘tailored list’ of education providers

Other proposals within the Improvement Plan stand in direct contrast to the idea of person-centred planning and meaningful co-production. If implemented these will work against the idea of providing families with greater choice and control. Yes tailored list of placements, I am looking at you!

In the SEND & AP Green Paper, the government introduced the idea of a “tailored list” of settings to ‘support parents and carers to express an informed preference for a suitable placement’ (p14). This list will be drawn from and based on an area’s Local Inclusion Plan. Parents will be able to state a preference from this list. Apparently, this would remove the ‘fight’ parents face and will bring confidence that needs will be met in the ‘most appropriate local setting’.

This proposal suggests an implicit limiting of choice of placement and a lack of co-production. Rather than ‘ensuring that the preferences of the child’s parents or the young person for where they should be educated are met wherever possible’ as per the SEND Code of Practice 2015 (p28), parents would only be able to state a preference from those settings named on the tailored list. As Special Needs Jungle has previously said this ‘is a terrible idea and should be dropped’ and it is a legally questionable proposal. It certainly sits in opposition to the notion of co-production because who is in any doubt that families will be “supported” to choose from a list of settings limited to those the LA wants them to choose from.

Though devoid of any evidence base, the government is clear it will continue to push this proposal ahead, despite parent carers and a range of organisations such as IPSEA also raising concerns. Of course, the question within the Green Paper consultation did not ask whether respondents agreed with the proposal or not, it simply asked ‘How can parents and local authorities most effectively work together to produce a tailored list of placements that is appropriate for their child, and gives parents confidence in the EHCP process?, an implicit assumption that the proposal will proceed and that the consultation seeks views on how, not if, it should be implemented.

When we look at the consultation analysis report it states:

‘Overall, some respondents expressed support for the proposal as, if appropriately resourced and correctly applied, it could improve the current process. They felt the main benefits would be in reducing bureaucracy, harnessing local authority expertise and supporting parents/carers. However, some were concerned that the changes would be used to reduce the funding spent on supporting children and young people with special needs.’

Consultation responses (page 38-9)

Of course what we don’t see here is the actual level of support for this proposal, or how many people responded with concerns. But it is clear that parents actually wanted greater clarity on how more effective communication and collaboration can be encouraged, to ensure they’re fully-involved in decision-making. It was suggested, therefore, that there could be: ‘A centralised, freely available and regularly updated list of settings and available provision within each local authority area. This would help to identify gaps in services and allow parents/carers to have greater clarity on which setting would be most appropriate for their child’ (p39)

Is this not what the Local Offer is for? You really could not make this up.

A wolf in sheep’s clothing

Again we see ‘co-production’ posited as a way to make this list more appetising for parents, but the reality is likely to be that existing rights to state a preference for a setting are likely to be eroded if this ever finds a legislative route forward. This proposal, as I have stated, appears to sit in direct opposition to improving the idea of partnership working.

Over the next few years, both the national standards – possibly including standards for co-production – and the proposal for the tailored list will be further tested and developed, yes you have guessed it, in co-production! However, it’s important to note that – for now – as SNJ’s Catriona Moore reminds us, the SEND & AP Improvement plan makes it clear that, “in the areas we test this proposal, there will be no change to the existing statutory framework and parents and young people’s existing rights will be unaffected”. So if you are presented with a tailored list of settings, please remember that you are not, in fact, limited to the settings listed nor should you accept anything less than the current law.

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Sharon Smith is a parent of a young lady who has Down syndrome. She is also a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham, undertaking research with parents of disabled children. Her research interests include risk/vulnerability, belonging, co-production, inclusion and philosophy of education. She is a member of the SEN Policy Research Forum lead group.

Sharon Smith
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