Some thought about Panorama: Fighting for an Education (SEND) – with a note for Robert Halfon

The SEND system has been failing for over thirty years and it has often received little attention beyond the community of children and families who are directly affected by it. I was delighted to see these issues finally being aired on prime time television. 

Sadly, the programme itself left me feeling disappointed, a bit frustrated and hoping for more. And after a night’s sleeping on it, here are the reasons why:

The music.  Now this might seem an odd place for me to start but music is incredibly important. It sets the tone.  The choice of sad plinky plonky piano music reinforces a tragedy model of disability.  The unwritten message is that having a disabled child is sad, and even if the system is a bit broken (understatement of the year), the tragedy of having a disabled child will persist.  The joy and love families have from and for their children is sidelined.

COVID: There was a suggestion that this is a new problem, or, at least, that things have got much worse because of COViD. Anyone familiar with SEND knows this is not true.  Back in 2007, I wrote this, the government reforms  were supposed to tackle a broken system, the Education Committee, chaired by Robert Halfon (more on his contribution later) published a damning report on the reforms.  COVID may have magnified problems for families, but it did not cause them and it cannot be used as an excuse for current or past failings.

The law.  The law was treated, as it so often is in the world of SEND, as some sort of optional extra.  Local Authorities routinely break the law in regard to their duties to disabled children and families – 4,000 appeals a year to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal, the vast majority of which are successful, should be evidence enough of that.  The LA excuse is always lack of funds and this claim is underpinned by appeals to austerity and, now, to a COVID narrative.  I struggle to think of an example where any other area of law that local authorities can simply opt out of because of cost.  The programme missed an opportunity to hold the LAs feet to the fire over this one.  If LAs can’t meet their legal duties, they need to challenge central government for more funds.  End of.

Sharp elbowed parents.  Robert Halfon described parents as being ‘sharp elbowed’. Being sharp elbowed means pursuing your advantage at the expense of other people. And here, Robert, you touched a nerve because   in all my experience, personal and professional, of meeting parents of disabled children the parents have been fighting for their child’s legal entitlements (not an advantage). They have worked together to support one another. We saw this last night when the first thing a parent did was to reach out and form a network of support with other families fighting for their rights. Back in 2008, @sarasiobhan and I wrote about this mother activism.

‘Sharp elbowed parents’ has a familiar whiff about it – that of mother blame. The gender neutral term ‘parents’ obscures the fact that this is, very often, a gendered blame game.  

So, thank you Panorama for making this programme, but I hope you will make more about SEND, but that you will, next time, dig a little deeper into what it really means to have a right to, and not to have to fight for, an education.


6 Replies to “Some thought about Panorama: Fighting for an Education (SEND) – with a note for Robert Halfon”

  1. Totally agree. Let’s hope this is the stepping stone to more investigative programmes into ALL issues for children, young people with disabilities and their familes


  2. Agree totally with your appraisal
    Music was more suited to a sad moment in a TV drama
    Content lacked depth probably just like the lack of knowledge of professional persons of ASD who adversely impact on the lives of parents the program researchers also probably have little to no hands on experience beyond the people they interviewed


  3. Great summary. I found the use of meltdown footage of vulnerable children unneccessary and worrying. I don’t think it helps with the already limited view of autistic children, plus isn’t that their story to tell once they’re old enough to decide?


  4. This program left me feeling very frustrated! I found the emphasis on the £100k rather sensationalist, giving the impression that we’re being handed big wads of money (which couldn’t be further than truth).

    My son received his statement at 5 years and there were several instances of people saying that he was lucky he had one so young and it was down to me being a teacher. In response to that: First, I was a secondary school teacher with, at the time, embarrassingly pitiful knowledge of SEND or the assessment process (teacher training – another story!!) Second, my son really needed it to be able to access education. Third, I was lucky and had fantastic support from the early support team. No one in a position similar to mine should have to feel lucky.

    No plinky plonky sad music in this house!!


    1. I am the mother of the two older boys at the end of the documentary. We filmed all day but unfortunately it did not give a view of what we have been through with all 3 of our children who have collectively been out of formal education for 8 years!!! The offer of money is disgraceful but our point was that it should have been spend on the proper support for our children. I hope this is followed up with The full story of everyone’s struggle with SEN support.


  5. I really agree with this and find it frustrating that there wasn’t much new information other than the family offered £100k to leave Kent. I get so angry that even with all the information out there no one seems to want to make changes to the system. Definitely don’t need more reviews of the system we know what’s wrong with it already.


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