It has been described as the biggest change to hit special education for 30 years, but many fear changes that aim to place children and young people at the heart of SEN provision will end up sabotaged before they have even begun.
Legislation currently going through Parliament aims to breathe life into reforms set out in the government's 2011 SEN green paper. The paper put forward a vision of greater choice and control for young people and families; increased collaboration between education, health and social care services; and a more seamless transition to adulthood for young people. Thirty-one "pathfinder" local authorities have been testing the proposals, and their findings have fed into the new regulations.
The Children and Families Bill, set to receive Royal Assent in March, will replace statements of special educational needs with Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans, which will run from birth to 25, rather than ending when a young person leaves school. The legislation will place a duty on education, health and social care services to work together, alongside a child and family, to establish a child's needs and deliver the support that is needed. Parents will be given the option of "personal budgets", which can be held directly or through a third party, and give a child and family more say over the kind of support they receive. And local authorities will be required to publish a "local offer", in conjunction with children and families, setting out the provision available for children with special educational needs.
While the sector has fought for various amendments, overall the legislation has been welcomed. "The government has addressed a lot of the flaws in the bill," says James Robinson, Mencap policy officer for children and young people. "It is ultimately a positive thing, addressing the problems families face."
However, when it comes to practical details, the picture is not so rosy. Last autumn, the government published a draft Code of Practice, which aims to provide guidance on how local authorities and providers such as schools, early years settings and colleges can meet their new statutory requirements. The consultation closed at the end of December and the government will shortly issue a response. The code, which replaces an existing document from 2001, has been roundly condemned by many in the special educational needs and disabilities sector, with professionals expressing their fear that without significant rewriting, the reforms laid out in the bill will not see the light of day in frontline practice.
Better explanation needed
Robinson says there is not enough detail in the code, particularly for sectors such as further education, which have been included for the first time. "It just says a college should try to identify what the needs are and address those needs," he says. "That is fine in itself, but lacking in practical advice. The code mentions concepts that are not really elaborated on."
Niki Elliot, chair of the Special Educational Consortium (SEC), says: "The draft code does not tell professionals what they need to do to enable children and young people with SEN to get the most from their education. It is not written in a way that would help parents and young people understand what they are entitled to, and the legal duties in the Children and Families Bill and the draft SEN regulations are not clearly explained."
But Elliot believes changes will be made to the code before it is approved by Parliament. "We have since had further discussions with the Department for Education and I am confident they understand our concerns and will involve SEC as they make the necessary changes."
Such an outcome would be welcomed by the sector, but the clock is ticking. Professionals must get to grips with their - as yet unclear - new duties before they kick in this September. "We are concerned about that time frame," says Mencap's Robinson. "The worst thing would be for the potential success of the new system to be undermined."
SEN charity Nasen is working with the DfE to deliver a series of free implementation events to help professionals get to grips with the practical details of how to meet their statutory duties - once the code of practice has been finalised. The events will be filmed and available online along with other resources. Nasen chief executive Jane Friswell says that while the government is keen to leave the exact details of implementation up to individual providers, many still want more practical details. Readers of the final online Code of Practice will be able to click through to read practical examples - case studies provided by Nasen - on how they might meet statutory duties.
While the exact details are in flux, some changes will definitely be made. The two levels of school support currently available to a child with SEN but without a statement will be merged. However, there are concerns the current Code of Practice gives little or no guidance to schools on when to escalate intervention. SEN charity Independent Professional Special Educational Advice fears children without EHC plans will be left worse off under the new system, particularly if they are getting most or all of their support from the "local offer", which it condemns as weak and subject to postcode lotteries.
Flexible EHC plans
While statements were based on a template, local authorities have more flexibility over what goes into the EHC plans - leading to some concern over postcode variation. But a recent evaluation of the pathfinder authorities found the EHC process placed more emphasis on gathering information from services when a child is referred for an assessment, saw more involvement from the family and resulted in a more outcome-focused and family-centred plan.
There is now a legal duty on social care and health organisations to deliver the planned provision – this was already the case for educational providers. Departments must work together, and with children and families, when putting the plans together as well as in delivering them.
Samantha Tofts' daughter was diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder and speech and language difficulties at the age of three. She says she has had to fight for the support her daughter needs. "Times are changing for the better, but we still have to push for what we are entitled to," she says. Tofts is encouraged by the new emphasis on listening to children and families. "We have touched on the subject of 'one plan' at a meeting," she says. "I like the idea that our children will have more of a say in how their learning strategies work for them. They know what their likes and dislikes are and with their own input, it should work better."
Tofts also supports the Code of Practice's focus on the responsibility of teachers. "School is supportive, but I do feel that all teachers in high authority should be knowledgeable and have full training in SEN/Autistic Spectrum Disorder to be able to have understanding and empathy with parents."
Rob Webster, research associate at the Institute of Education, last year worked on research that showed children with statements tend to have a high level of teaching assistant support. "The kids with the most needs get most of their teaching from the least qualified person in the classroom," he says.
Webster welcomes the EHC plans' focus on outcomes, as he found statements tended to prioritise "hours spent with teaching assistants" rather than what this time was supposed to achieve. "It is promising that the statutory code is putting the emphasis where it ought to be," he says.
Children with a statement will transfer to the new EHC plans over a three-year period. Friswell describes the changes as "evolution, not revolution". She adds: "If you are an education provider who is confident you are providing high-quality provision for all children and young people, then the challenge that change will bring is not that great." Others, however, see the reforms as more of a revolution. "I think it is a big change for local authorities," says Andrew Christie, chair of the Association of Directors of Children's Services' Health, Care and Additional Needs Committee. "It is quite a significant cultural shift in terms of practice."
Christie says local authorities are working hard to ensure they are ready for September, but has concerns about resources. "This is all going to be introduced at a time when local authorities are having to make very difficult decisions about spending priorities for 2015/16 and beyond – it is a difficult time for introducing new provisions that will undoubtedly raise expectations among families and service users," he says.
Pathfinder local authorities are currently working with non-pathfinders to share their expertise, and the government has made £70m available to help local authorities in the transition period. "That's around £75,000 per local authority," comments Mencap's Robinson. "That is enough to maybe recruit an individual to start gearing everything up, but if you are looking at a whole new approach you will need extra resources."
Families taking part in the pathfinder pilots reported a better experience than before, with increased involvement and improved joint working. It is clear the reforms have the potential to change the system for the better. "This is a highly ambitious thing to pull off," says the Institute of Education's Webster. "September will come, and then the learning will really start."
SEN CHAMPIONS WILL GUIDE FAMILIES
Change can be positive, but it can also be confusing. In January, the government announced the launch of a two-year £30m fund that will pay for a system of independent supporters. These supporters - who will be employed by a network of voluntary, community and private organisations - will guide families through the new procedures that come into play in September.
The initiative will be overseen by the Council for Disabled Children (CDC), which will launch a tendering process for organisations keen to run schemes in local areas in April.
The plan is for 1,800 independent supporters - about 12 for each local authority - to be in place by September. The supporters will work with families where children already have statements of special educational need and with those on the threshold of assessment for the new Education, Health and Care Plans. Local authorities will work with parent forums and the independent supporters' organisations to identify families most in need of support. Supporters will meet with the families for a number of sessions to guide them through the assessment process and help them decide on issues such as what support they want from various agencies, and whether they want to take up a personal budget.
"The requirements on local authorities are going to be huge as they start to think through the transition process and if additional support is not provided, there is a danger councils under pressure end up simply re-badging what they already do as something else," says Christine Lenehan, director of the CDC.
The body is still putting together the nuts and bolts of the scheme, although much of the delivery side will be left up to individual organisations. "We are not going to dictate the minutiae, we want it to be creative and different," she says.
PLEA FOR SERVICES TO WORK TOGETHER
Jane Raca's 14-year-old son James has severe disabilities, including cerebral palsy and severe autism. Obtaining support has been a struggle.
"James was prescribed a special classroom chair by his physiotherapist to allow him to sit more easily at a desk," explains Raca. "But the education department said this was a health issue, the health department said it was an educational issue, and they argued about who was going to pay for it for about a year. By the time they had come to an arrangement, James had grown so much that the chair was no longer suitable."
This bickering between departments, which Raca describes as frustrating, was by no means an isolated occurrence, so she welcomes the new duty on health, social care and education to work together in putting together the Education, Health and Care plans: "This should make a huge difference when it comes to carving up who will pay for support as the departments will have had to agree on the child's needs together."
But she warns that unless there is also a single point of appeal for parents, rather than having to take an appeal to either the education, health or social care complaints systems, the process will break down again. "If education and health can't agree on who will fund something or, just as important, whether it is provided at all, where do you appeal? The current systems of appeal for health and social care are not fit for purpose."
Personal budgets, another reform set to launch in September, are not something Raca feels would be helpful for her family, although she recognises that other families might benefit. "There is no way I would want anything to do with that. James' needs amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds of care and equipment," she says.
"I would not want to have to co-ordinate all the people and work out their budgets. Some parents of children with a lesser level of need might feel they want to shop around, but there's a worry they will be left negotiating contracts and trying to get prices down."
Jane Raca is author of Standing up for James www.standingupforjames.co.uk
SEN: KEY STATISTICS
- In January 2013, there were 229,390 pupils with statements of special educational needs across all schools in England
- The percentage of pupils with statements of SEN in England is 2.8 per cent and has not changed for five years
- The percentage of pupils with SEN but without a statement in schools in England decreased from 17 per cent in 2012 to 16 per cent in 2013. The figure has been decreasing since 2010
- Boys are more likely than girls to have SEN - at secondary school, 20.7 per cent of boys have SEN without a statement compared to 13.4 per cent of girls
- Pupils with SEN are much more likely to be eligible for free school meals - in secondary schools, 27.3 per cent of pupils with SEN claim free school meals compared to 12.3 per cent of pupils with no SEN
Source: Department for Education
- Nasen The charity will be publishing a range of resources to help professionals implement SEN policy changes at www.nasen.org.uk
- Teaching Assistant Research Information about and findings from a large-scale programme of research into the impact and deployment of teaching assistants. www.teachassistantresearch.co.uk
- Special Educational Consortium Group of organisations that work to promote the rights of children with SEN, working with the government to bring about reform. Hosted by the Council for Disabled Children. www. councilfordisabledchildren.org.uk/sec
- Mencap The charity has published a range of online resources on the new SEN Code of Practice to help explain the changes to parents. www.mencap.org.uk
- Code of Practice The draft SEN Code of Practice and accompanying guidance and regulations can be viewed at www.gov.uk/government/consultations