8 years ago, I joined NDTi at a really exciting time, we had not previously had a children and people’s programme and it was thrilling to join the organisation when the programme was in its infancy and gathering momentum. We subsequently won a contract with the Department for Education to deliver the Preparing for Adulthood programme as part of government support to implement new legislation governing special educational needs.
The Children and Families Act in 2014 changed the system for identifying and supporting children and young people with special needs and disabilities. This was a considerable change. The previous system was steeped in the traditional medical model of disability. Children were identified, assessed and treated with no thought to their aspirations or what was important to them. Despite a forty year “commitment” to inclusion, the same number of children and young people continued to be placed in segregated settings. Many parents and children and young people themselves have wanted to be included in their local schools but usually this has only been possible if they have been prepared to take on hostile schools and nervous local authorities.
Thankfully, the new legislation has a completely different orientation and is more rooted in the social model of disability. There is now an expectation that children, young people and their families are listened to, that plans are co-produced, that the system is based on person-centred practice and personalisation and that support is jointly commissioned across health, education and care. There is a strong focus on supporting children and young people to achieve their aspirations and to move into adulthood with jobs, independence, friends, relationships and being part of their communities.
It has been my privilege to work with families, children and young people and professionals to put the new system in place. The Education, Health and Care plan provides a fantastic opportunity to genuinely support young people to plan for great lives and to do the things that all young people do. The confidence in tackling exclusion and oppression that NDTi has developed over the past 25 years has been invaluable in helping people to implement person-centred planning and to have different conversations.
However, there are still many challenges to realising a vision of ordinary lives for children and young people with disabilities. Negative attitudes about disability continue to pervade our culture. Parents are still given “the bad news” that their child is disabled. Children, young people and adults with learning disabilities are still segregated and not allowed to be full citizens with equal rights. Families are still pathologised along with their children; they can be considered over protective, unrealistic in their aspirations or uninterested. Local authorities are under enormous pressure and do not feel that they have the capacity to deliver the Reforms fully due to cuts, constant restructuring and the enormity of the task.
Despite all of this, lots of good things are happening and we are confident that the vision of ordinary lives for disabled children and young people is no longer seen as a silly idea but a realistic change that can be delivered.
Having a children and young people’s programme has meant that we can promote a life course approach, where, regardless of labels or age, people are supported through person-centred practice to be listened to and are provided with the support they need to have the best possible life. Our life course is largely determined by what happens to us in childhood and “getting it right” for children could have a massive impact on people’s lives, on value for money in terms of services and on society.
Over the past 8 years we have continued to highlight the inclusion agenda and a young person’s right to a high-quality education with joined up support for any health and social support needs. The UK Government has signed up to the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and, as part of its commitments under articles 7 and 24, it promotes inclusive education for disabled children and young people. This includes the progressive removal of barriers to learning and participation in mainstream education.
The Children and Families Act 2014 also secures the general presumption in law of mainstream education in relation to decisions about where children and young people with SEN should be educated and the Equality Act 2010 provides protection from discrimination for disabled people.
Progress is being made. This month we have once again been awarded the contract to deliver the Preparing for Adulthood contract for DfE. This work, together with our continued dedication to our Children and Young People’s programme, means we are still working to ensure these legal commitments to change become a reality.