The production of the ‘effective’ special needs parent
by Sharon Smith, University of Birmingham
Within the 2015 SEND Code of Practice, parents are cast as consumers, knowledge producers, knowledge seekers, budget holders and co-producers. They are required to become involved in both their own child’s education, health and social care, working towards agreed future outcomes and also, by working in partnership with each other they should engage strategically with decision makers to participate in the design and delivery of a ‘co-produced’ local offer of services. This paper will critically discuss the role of the ‘parent carer’ as constituted within the latest legislation, specifically looking at how the SEND Code operates as a mechanism of power that creates the parent as a particular subject. It will argue that the Code is operating as a technique of power, impacting on the way parents both conduct themselves and encouraging them to exert power over the conduct of other parents.
The changing roles of parents
My research was looking at the changing role of parents, as detailed within the current Special Educational Needs & Disability (SEND) Code of Practice (DfE, 2015). Having been involved in our local Parent Carer Forum during the development of the 2014 Children & Families Act, and the associated SEND Code of Practice, I became interested in the roles ascribed to parents within the Code, and how the policy document potentially constructs and constrains the possible modes of action and being of parents. My focus within the paper is specifically on the way that parents are required to act as effective participants and co-producers of education and other services (DfE, 2015, p.21).
Partnership working and parent participation
Within the SEND Code, children, young people and their parents have been placed ‘at the heart of the SEND identification, provision and reviewing processes’ (Hellawell, 2018, p.165). The new system is ‘proclaimed to be less confrontational for parents’ with its greater emphasis on partnership working and parent participation (Burch, 2018, p.95). Hodge and Runswick-Cole (2008, p.638) have described how the partnership between professionals and parents is being promoted as ‘the unquestionable ideal’, although it can often be problematic in practice. I sought to question and challenge the construction of parent carers as ‘effective’ participants and co-producers within the SEND Code. Specifically, I suggested that this positioning could be seen as a form of governance that determines ‘the way in which the conduct of individuals or of groups might be directed’ and which ‘structure[s] the possible field of action of others’ (Foucault, cited in Davies and Bansel, 2007, p.248).
Lehane (2017, p.57-59) suggests that the ‘complex and opaque’ Code was ‘probably never intended for the busy classroom practitioner or individual parent.’ It outlines a system that is ‘overcomplicated and confusing’ for parents (Nettleton & Friel, cited in Lehane, 2017, p.64), whilst simultaneously ascribing them a role that is over and above the role other parents are required to have. In order to look at how this role has changed over time, I looked at the representation of parents as policy subjects in the 1994, 2001 and 2015 Codes of Practice (DfE, 1994; DfES, 2001; DfE, 2015).
Looking back at earlier Codes
Within the earlier Codes, the primary focus is on parents being ‘professional aides’ who are required ‘to provide information and carry out the advice of professionals’ in relation to their child’s education and individual interventions (Todd, 2003, p.282). Throughout these earlier Codes, parents are described as anxious and defensive, confused by the process and worried about their child’s future, which requires professionals to be aware of parents’ feelings and given them sufficient time to discuss their anxieties (DfE, 1994; DfES, 2001). This language is in stark contrast to the 2015 Code, which is full of procedural language related to the strategic engagement of parents. For example, parents are now expected to be involved with ‘joint commissioning arrangements’ (DfE, 2015, p.41). Parents are no longer only responsible for their own child’s education, but need to learn how to ‘participate effectively’ (DfE, 2015, p.21). This requires parents to agree shared outcomes for local provision and be involved in shaping service delivery, to ensure these outcomes are achieved.
What does parent participation entail?
Parent participation is mentioned at various times throughout the Code and is one of the overarching principles that should direct how the rest of the Code is enacted (DfE, 2015, p.20-22). However, the Code fails to present a clear definition of what effective parent participation might entail. I therefore turned to published guidance from the DfE’s delivery partner Contact. They describe how parent participation leads to parents having a professional, rational and calm approach, through which they can understand ‘the constraints and limitations placed on services’, and should aim to ‘find realistic and workable’ solutions (Contact a Family, 2016, p.2). There appears to be no room for the individual’s feelings, desires or instincts, nor antagonism or disagreement with the current parent participation discourse. Instead, parents are expected to be happy with the outcome of their participation, as they were equal partners in the decision making.
The power of forums
One of the key ways parents are able to engage in parent participation is through their local Parent Carer Forum. Parents are encouraged to come together through local parent carer forums to have a collective voice about what services should be available. Parent Carer Forums also frequently develop statements outlining shared aims, objectives and values, and codes of conduct that determine acceptable ways of behaving in relation to the authorities (Contact a Family, undated). Parents joining forums are often required to sign such Codes of Conduct before they represent the forum in meetings and they receive training in what effective participation looks like, including how to behave in meetings with professionals. Forum membership can also require shared consensus of opinion, with democratic decisions, and professional and respectful approaches in meetings (Southampton PCF, 2019). Therefore, although parents are being offered the opportunity to participate they can only take advantage of this possibility if they subject themselves to the very specific behaviours and attitudes that are required from ‘participants’ (Quaghebeur et al, 2004, p.161).
My paper argued that the Code is a technique that is aimed at effective government, whereby ‘power is exercised by human beings on the actions of others, and more specifically on the way in which these others exercise power upon their own behaviour’ (Masschelein & Quaghebeur, 2005, p.54). The SEND Code can be seen as a site of disciplinary power and governmentality, which seeks to regulate the behaviours of parents by constructing them as ‘effective’ parent subjects who must act in particular ways, taking responsibility for themselves, for services and the conduct of other parents, rather than able to just ‘be a parent’ (Ramaekers & Suissa, 2012, p.27). In this way, I argued that the construct of the effective parent and the current discourse of parent participation, as seen in the Code, potentially limits the ways parents can think and act. Those who cannot or do not engage or resist this subjectivity are labelled as hard-to-reach, irrational or unprofessional and are potentially excluded from having their voice heard.
Burch, L. (2018) Governmentality of adulthood: a critical discourse analysis of the 2014 Special Educational Needs and Disability Code of Practice. Disability & Society, 33(1), 94-114.
Contact a Family (undated) Parent carer forum handbook. Available from: https://contact.org.uk/media/816817/support_for_parent_carer_forums_parent_carer_forum_handbook.pdf [Accessed 7 February 2018].
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Department for Education (DfE) (2015) Special educational needs and disability code of practice: 0 to 25 years. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/398815/SEND_Code_of_Practice_January_2015.pdf [Accessed 3 June 2019].
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