There are significantly fewer children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) still waiting to be transferred to new education, health and care (EHC) plans following the 1 April deadline than initially feared, according to figures published by the Department for Education.
The statistics show that as of 1 March, there were 14,305 children who had not yet been issued with an EHC plan - just six per cent of the 236,225 children who had a special educational needs (SEN) statement when the transfer process began in September 2014.
The situation appears to be better than was widely expected. In May 2017, the DfE reported that the number of children transferred to EHC plans had yet to pass the halfway mark, leading to concerns many would still be waiting for or undergoing transfer assessments when the April deadline passed.
Children's minister Nadhim Zahawi conceded it had been a "huge task" to transfer almost 222,000 cases since 2014, adding that the department is now working with councils to ensure they carry out the remaining reviews and the new EHC plans are of the highest quality.
However, there are concerns that the struggle to meet the deadline has resulted in poor quality EHC plans being produced.
In March, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman warned of shortcomings among local authorities implementing the reforms, including failing to involve parents and young people properly in the decision-making process, not gathering sufficient evidence to inform decisions, and a lack of proper forward planning when young people move between key educational stages.
DfE-commissioned studies have so far painted an arguably positive picture. The most extensive research, involving a survey of 13,643 parents and young people, found that two-thirds of parents and young people were "satisfied" with the overall process of getting an EHC plan, a similar proportion agreeing it would achieve the outcomes agreed for the child (see graphics).
Meanwhile, almost three-quarters thought their EHC plan led to the child or young person getting the support that they need.
However, that study, published in March 2017, is based on a survey of children and young people with an EHC plan that had been created in 2015. Two full calendar years have passed since then and the concern is that, despite significant additional resources from government, many councils have rushed through plans to meet the deadline (see expert view).
Philippa Stobbs, vice-chair of the Special Educational Consortium, believes the quality of plans and the statutory entitlement to an EHC needs assessment have been "compromised" to meet the deadline.
"We're concerned that instead of getting EHC plans, children are having their SEN statements cut and pasted because the focus is on completion before April," she says. "Our members suggest this has happened on an extensive scale."
But children's services leaders have denied the claim.
Charlotte Ramsden, chair of the ADCS health, care and additional needs policy committee, says that while the process has been "challenging", councils have been clear that they "cannot compromise the quality of statements to meet arbitrary timescales" (see expert view).
Meanwhile, there are fears that the remaining 14,000 children on statements could be the most complicated cases to resolve.
"Significant challenges remain for councils in implementing the reformed system, not least due to the extension of support to young people up to 25 and insufficient funding," Ramsden adds.
Expert view: A real opportunity to move forward
By Justin Cooke, policy and public affairs manager, Ambitious about Autism
EHC plans protect those pupils most at need, ensuring they get extra support to learn, thrive and achieve - so it's crucial the system is working properly.
The news that 94 per cent of all statements of educational needs have been transferred to EHC plans is positive - and a much higher proportion than many expected. However, the transfer and deadline has masked some real problems inherent in the system.
One of the best ways to test the health of the SEND system is to look at the number of SEN children being excluded from schools. Sadly, this points to a system still failing many of them - with SEN pupils making up half of all exclusions - and children with autism disproportionately affected. We hope that the government review of school exclusions led by Edward Timpson will be the catalyst for real and lasting change.
If exclusions are the barometer then funding is the underlying problem. The recent welcome rise in higher needs funding has not kept pace with pupil numbers and all schools are facing budget pressures. There are real concerns this shortfall is creating perverse incentives for schools to "off -roll" SEN children via exclusions. When this happens it's up to local authorities to fund alternative provision for the child - increasingly long term placements in specialist schools. We think schools should become financially responsible for alternative provision for excluded pupils to remove this incentive.
Another issue with the EHC system remains the smooth joining up of support across education, health and care. A case in point is the current delay between a child getting a medical diagnosis of autism and receiving an assessment for their educational needs. In a truly joined up system this should happen automatically to ensure the child's needs - whether that be an EHC plan or another form of support - are met promptly.
Now the EHC plan deadline has passed, all schools, colleges and local authorities should be working within one system, which is a real opportunity to move forward and make it work. But to ensure this can happen the government must be ready to step in and fine tune problems - so that all pupils with autism can access quality education.
Expert view: Concerns raised over quality of the plans
By Amanda Batten, chief executive, Contact
We supported the new legislation as it has many positives and covers gaps in the previous system. However, the ambitious changes have been implemented at a time when local authorities are facing a really challenging financial environment. SEN support has historically been underfunded. So while some additional funding was provided to help local authorities implement the reforms, there are significant wider financial pressures on local government, which means the system continues to be under-resourced and not working as well as it should be.
Headline figures for transfers to EHC plans may be at 94 per cent but we are sceptical about the procedures followed and the quality of the plans. We had an increase in calls to our helpline just before the 31 March deadline - EHC plans rushed through with parents not being given time to put forward their views or meet with the local authority. We also have significant concerns about the quality of many EHC plans as we are aware that in some cases the statutory transfer process has not been followed. We have seen a sharp increase in the number of calls about tribunal appeals.
Better joint working across education, health and social care is an important ambition of the reforms. But, in practice, this is still patchy and we have heard from parents whose children have significant health and social care needs but this support is not included in their EHC plan. Many EHC plans for young people lack the necessary focus on preparing for adulthood.
Of course EHC plans only cover two to three per cent of children and young people with SEND. The majority are reliant on non-statutory SEN support from their education setting. We know that there are many schools and colleges who support and include children and young people with SEND very well. But we hear of examples of poor and unlawful practice, where pupils with learning, behaviour and medical needs are not receiving the support they need. Many such pupils end up being excluded, or develop emotional and mental health difficulties which affect their attendance.
These reforms were about more than a transfer of statements to EHC plans, they were intended to bring about cultural change in the best interests of children with SEND - and we should hold them to that.
Expert view: Inspections highlight areas of weakness
By Alison Fiddy, chief executive Independent Parental Special Educational Needs Advice (IPSEA)
At IPSEA we know that the surge in the rate of transfers from Statements to EHC plans is not reflective of local authorities suddenly understanding and complying with their legal obligations.
Since the process of transferring SEN statements to EHC plans commenced, we have seen countless examples of local authorities operating non-compliant transition processes across the country in order to meet the transfer deadline, including failing to undertake lawful EHC needs assessments, making unilateral decisions to use existing evidence to draw up an EHC plan even when it's very out of date, and failing to arrange a transfer review meeting.
The result is often poor quality EHC plans which fail to adequately reflect a child or young person's needs or the provision required to meet their needs. Sadly, the situation is not much better for those who are going through the EHC plan process for the first time.
Through the training we deliver and the advice services we provide, we are continuing to see unlawful practices in local authorities across England. We frequently learn of local authorities developing internal policies which apply a different test or standard to that set out in law, and the lack of a universal template for EHC plans inevitably causes confusion for parents, particularly when local authorities insert additional sections to those specified in the SEND Regulations.
Many of the issues that parents experienced under the old regime also remain, including local authorities failing to adequately specify the provision for meeting a child or young person's needs. The system places a great deal of reliance on parents and young people appealing poor quality plans and many of them will not do so.
We also frequently hear from parents about the inadequacy of the health and social care elements of their children's EHC plans. We hope that the Single Route of Redress National Trial, which launched on 3 April 2018, will go some way towards addressing this problem.
The trial extends the powers of the first-tier tribunal to make non-binding recommendations about the health and social care aspects of EHC plans. However, the tribunal still doesn't have the power to make orders about health and social care provision, meaning that any recommendations made by the tribunal which are not complied with will only be enforceable by way of judicial review or a complaint.
The Local Area SEND inspections reflect our view that all is not well. These inspections, which are being carried out jointly by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission, are evaluating the effectiveness of local areas in fulfilling their duties under the Children and Families Act 2014. Of the 53 local areas inspected to date, 22 have been required to produce a written statement of action because significant areas of weakness have been identified.
Expert view: ‘Good progress has been made, but we are at the beginning not the end of the journey'
Charlotte Ramsden, chair, ADCS health, care and additional needs policy committee
Local authorities are absolutely committed to ensuring the best possible outcomes for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
The Children and Families Act (2014) necessitated the re-imagining of services from the bottom up and top down, requiring partners to join up and plan holistically to meet the education, health and care needs of children with SEND.
It makes sense for agencies to come together to harness our joint efforts to ensure we're all working with children, young people and their families towards the same goals.
Some good progress has been made in implementing the SEND reforms - all local authorities now have a local offer in place and local authorities continue to work hard, with partners in health and education services, to move the small proportion of children who continue to have statements of SEN to education, health and care plans.
The transfer process has been complex - it is not a simple rebadging of existing statements, and local authorities have been clear throughout the process that we cannot compromise the quality of statements in order to meet arbitrary timescales.
The DfE is clear: any statements not yet transferred continue to remain in force from 1 April, so no child's provision will be disrupted.
Some significant challenges remain for local authorities and their partners in implementing the reformed system, not least due to the extension of support to young people up to 25 and insufficient funding.
This is creating pressure for all local authorities, particularly in the high needs block of the dedicated schools grant, all of which cannot be considered outside of the context of cuts to local authority funding.
Rising demand for support is in part down to better identification of need, particularly in the early years, as well as greater awareness among parents/carers - all positive developments in terms of meeting the individual needs of children and young people. However, the system was not designed or funded to cope with the additional demand it is facing. The shortage of skilled staff, such as education psychologists, is a particular challenge.
The scale of this reform programme requires further significant cultural and systemic change on a partnership basis and while progress has been made, we are at the beginning not the end of the journey.
More focus and, crucially, investment is needed to enable the aspirations for the reforms to be realised.
GOVERNMENT SEND FUNDING
- £70m SEN Reform Grant in 2014/15 to help councils plan for the reforms
- £181.7m between 2014/15 and 2018/19 in SEND Implementation funding (£45.2m in 2014/15, £31.7m in 2015/16, £35.8m in 2016/17, £40m in 2017/18) and £29m for 2018/19
- £60m for independent supporters to provide key workers to help families going through the assessment process
- £9.2m for Parent Carer Forums to support families through transition