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SENPRF blog series SEND Green Paper: What exactly is co-production and is it necessarily a good thing?

What exactly is co-production? And is it necessarily a good thing for children, young people, and their families?
by Sharon Smith

‘co-production with children, young people and families is a fundamental principle of the SEND system and enables children, young people, parents and carers to be valued partners in decision-making’ (SEND Review p28)

‘Children, young people and their families: will be a partner in local decision-making with their views and wishes taken into account and reflected in the support they receive, with co-production embedded at every level of the SEND system’ (SEND Review p66)

‘We will therefore embed co-production with children, young people, and their families at every level in our delivery planning’ (SEND Review p75)

As Tania Tirraoro from Special Needs Jungle describes, there was ‘a big buzz around the term when the Children and Families Act 2014 was being “co-produced” with families’. The introduction of principles of co-production, embedded throughout the system, was intended to herald a shift in culture, with children, young people and their families having a more meaningful say within a less adversarial system. Although this has not consistently been achieved since the implementation of the reforms, it is clear from the SEND Review green paper that co-production remains a key principle underpinning the SEND system.

Whilst is being lauded as the way to conceive relationships between parents and professionals working in education, health and social care, with notions of partnership working and consensus, co-production remains an elusive concept that continues to defy clear definition. Given how co-production should act as a scaffold, holding up and shaping the way that the SEND system is to be planned and delivered, it is important that we spend time considering how it is understood and the implications of current definitions and practices. Maybe we should be asking critical questions about co-production – what it is and what impact it has – rather than just accepting it at face value as a good thing? The green paper consultation provides us with an opportunity to think about what meaningful co-production is and to ensure that practices do not cause further issues for some parents. Within this short blog post, I ask some questions in an attempt to start these discussions…

Co-production is frequently described as operating at two different levels: strategic and individual. Within strategic co-production, parent carer forums are frequently understood to be the key partner – parent led organisations who gather the collective views of local families and then work in partnership with education, health and care to make sure services meet their needs. At an individual level, parents are to be included within the graduated response, engaging in person-centred Assess, Plan, Do, Review processes to improve their own child’s outcomes. Both approaches rely on the notion of ‘equal partnerships’ and co-operation, yet current understandings of co-production appear to fail to recognise:

Can co-production and equal partnership be anything more than an illusion in the context of the SEND system which allocates distinct roles, duties and accountabilities to different policy actors?

What are the relationship and tensions between strategic and individual co-production?

How could the national standards for co-production lead to some parents being blamed or labelled in negative terms if they cannot or choose not to engage within the way that co-production is set out?

Is co-production currently too limiting in its scope?

It is unlikely that anyone would disagree with the idea that children, young people and their parents bring valuable knowledge to discussions about their experiences of disability, exclusion, challenges they face and their experiences of education, health and care services. They absolutely should be listened to and engaged in discussions about what support might be most useful and they should be at the centre of shaping their own lives and futures. It therefore goes without saying that it should also be important to ask them about what is important to them and for them in relation to communication and engagement with local authorities and education, health and care services.

Within the research I am currently undertaking with parents of disabled children, it is clear that parental ‘experience’ of the SEND system is not limited to decision-making processes specifically in relation to SEN Support or an Education, Health and Care plan. Instead, parents have described interactions with every aspect of a school setting, not just SEND processes. For parental confidence and trust to increase it is necessary to think outside of the SEND ‘box’ and think about the wider context within which children, young people and their families are engaging. It is necessary to consider how wider school policies such as accountability measures or behaviour policies impact on the willingness of schools to include and support the learning of all children in their setting. Parents have described how, when things go well, it is frequently due to a the ‘can-do’ attitudes and goodwill of individuals working directly with their child who spend time getting to know them and who are willing to thinking creatively about how to include them and how to support their learning. Additionally, they have mentioned the importance of a positive atmosphere within a school, honest and open relationships, and timely and appropriate communication when things might start to go wrong. These demonstrate how it is responsive relationships that matter, rather than potentially the need for co-production standards and accountability measures for settings to work towards.

What are the risks if we attempt to formalise relationships between parents and professionals against pre-defined standards rather than recognising the need to decide what these relationships look like in local contexts?

How can wider education and SEND accountability measures recognise the importance of responsiveness and relationship building?

We have an opportunity within the green paper to provide input to what meaningful co-production looks like and we should not be just accepting the principle of co-production as something positive without asking some critical questions. I have attempted to start these discussions within this blog post but would be keen to hear your thoughts and to understand what you mean when you talk about co-production.


Sharon Smith is a 3rd year Doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. She has a daughter who is 17-years-old who has Down syndrome. Her research interests include the subjectivity of parents of disabled children, co-production/parental engagement, risk/vulnerability, belonging and inclusion. Her PhD is supported by a BERA Doctoral Fellowship.

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Christopher Mark Lewis Robertson
1 year ago

Hi Sharon – thanks for this commentary.

When co-production entered the SEND lexicon in the lead up to drafting and implementation of the Children and Families Act (Part 3) 2014 I was concerned that it might promise more than could be delivered. This was because many local authorities I knew seemed to be operating with very poor staffing levels (especially in assessment services) and were ill-equipped to work in ways envisioned by politicians and policymakers.

I am not at all sure that new Standards will have a significant impact unless local authority staffing levels – with accompanying professional development – are improved.

There is something too, about getting the basics right. It does not, for example, require much in the way of co-production, to ensure that Annual Review procedures for children and young people with Education and Health Care Plans (EHCPs), are carried out in accord with statutory guidance.

Yet time and again both parents and teachers report that guidance is only partially followed by local authority assessment services, or not followed at all. Staffing shortfalls may be a primary reason for this kind of policy implementation failure but I suspect that cultural change is also required so that staff and services acknowledge difficulties and address them.

Sorting a straightforward problem like this, would, I think, make real difference to parental confidence.

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