Speaking volumes and silent echoes: uncovering government priorities for disabled young people in the SEND review

“Language exerts hidden power like the moon on the tides.” Rita Mae Brown (2011)

In a recent paper from the Right to Review project, we analysed the SEND Review (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities), a Green Paper that set out the government’s proposed reforms for the SEND system. Our aim was to interrogate “the hidden power of language” in the document. Ball (2016) tells us that, “reform is made up of small, incremental moves and tactics […] Things that at one time seemed unthinkable become over time the common sense and the obvious of policy, as ‘what works’ and as ‘best practice’ […] indeed necessary’ (Ball, 2016, p.1048). This means that close attention to reform is an essential part of educational analysis. Our position is that the linguistic tactics in the case of the SEND Review subtly work to present cuts to SEND-related spending as virtuous and prioritise the needs of ‘the system’ over the needs of our young people. Here, we reveal how these tactics operate and consider their consequences.

The dark side of the moon

Let’s talk about language. We have to question the use of language and its implications, especially when dealing with policies affecting some of the most marginalised in our educational system. For example, our analysis uncovers how the ambiguous use of ‘we,’ a pronoun that can encompass both authors and readers, either draws readers into a shared vision or distances the review’s authors, the Department for Education, from accountability for the system’s shortcomings. In our analysis we found that even seemingly commendable calls to action can be seen as cautionary tales that cleverly sidestep responsibility for the current system’s deficiencies. Another example is the commodification of young people’s ‘needs,’ which can lead to their eventual omission or erasure. This shift in focus from individual student needs to a marketised approach echoes broader long-standing criticisms of market-oriented education. The Green Paper uses the term ‘inclusion’ in a way that lacks any explicit commitment to inclusive education, a practice that should be at the heart of our educational system. The SEND Code of Practice (2014), which still stands as the legislative framework in England, strongly advocated for inclusive education, both in principle and practice, by using inclusive language. Given this explicit commitment as an overarching driver of the system, ‘inclusion’ is notable in its absence in the 2022 SEND Review. Within the current Green Paper, neither ‘inclusive education’ nor ‘inclusion’ as a practice (in verb or noun form) appear. The only use of the words ‘inclusion’ or ‘inclusive’ are as adjectives or nouns to pre-modify other nouns: ‘an inclusive system’, ‘inclusion plan’, and ‘inclusion dashboard’. In each instance, ‘inclusion’ is not something young people can anticipate, nor are practitioners within the system obligated to facilitate it. Instead, it becomes a tool or object in the system’s operation. This nominalisation of ‘inclusion’ parallels the nominalisation of ‘need,’ which removes the call to action and diminishes the state’s responsibility to act or enable action. This move away from an active commitment to a young person’s right to a full and inclusive education is in conflict with international conventions like the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Articles 7 and 24) and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 28).

The Review was carried out within a global pandemic alongside spiralling public spending within the SEND arena. These factors undergird the spirit and the letter of the Green Paper: ‘despite unprecedented investment, the system is not delivering value for money for children, young people and families’ (Challenge 3, DfE, 2022f). This warrant is used to justify reforms and proposals that centre on decreased spending on SEND. One of the key mechanisms for this reduction of the number of young people with SEND is ‘early intervention’. However, the review refrains from offering a specific definition of this intervention, leaving it ambiguous in terms of its practice. The document merely asserts that early intervention should be strengthened (p.11), focused on (p.15), and delivered more extensively (consultation question 14). Upon closer examination, we soon see that the intended reduction in SEND numbers is not rooted in the pursuit of a novel, inclusive educational approach that genuinely prioritises the unique needs of diverse bodyminds. Instead, it leans on the presumption that a substantial portion of young people with SEND might not genuinely require Special Educational Needs support but have, perhaps, faced inadequate teaching (p.12) or would not have required such support if intervention had occurred earlier.

Turning the tides

But there is an alternative. We can envision a different future for disabled young people’s education, one that reimagines policy and practice, one that stands in stark contrast to the SEND reforms. The field of Disability Studies in Education (DSE) offers promise for disabled young people in the UK and other market-driven educational systems. While policy remains a significant challenge (Connor and Gabel, 2013), our paper uses the ethics and practices of DSE to critically analyse the marginalisation of disabled children’s education. We call on academics, practitioners and communities to be ‘demanding social critics and creative inventors of new ways of living and learning together in diverse communities’ (Danforth & Gabel, 2008, p.1). In a world where education plays a pivotal role in shaping young people’s future, we remain vigilant, critical, and informed about educational policies. And we continue to challenge the current educational regime through scholarly critique of policy like the one described here, submissions to public consultations, and active advocacy for a genuinely inclusive system.

Dr Jill Pluquailec, Senior Lecturer in Autism
Gill O’Connor, Researcher


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