Uncertainty over SEN reforms

17th September 2013

  • It’s been hailed as the “biggest overhaul of the special educational needs (SEN) system in 30 years” – but with less than a year to go until full implementation, families are still unsure what the reforms will mean in practice.

    Given the complexity of the SEN system, this is perhaps unsurprising – after all, who’s got time to read through pages and pages of draft legislation? And even if you did, that would still only give you the high-level architecture of the reforms. Much of the detail will reside within the new SEN Code of Practice; but a rough first draft of the Code, published in March, fails to provide clarity on many key points. This may be because the Department for Education is waiting to incorporate learning from the pathfinder authorities who are currently testing out the reforms. There is also a possibility that some crucial details (such as eligibility criteria, or the format of EHC plans, see below) could be left to local authorities to determine.

    So, what DO we know? The Children and Families Bill, which is currently before Parliament, tells us that statements of SEN will be scrapped and replaced with Education Health and Care (EHC) plans, which are intended to be more holistic and person-centred, and can go up to 25 years. Families with an EHC plan will also have the option of receiving a personal budget to purchase support for their child. Local authorities will have to publish a “local offer” detailing the range of services available for children with SEN and their families. And School Action and School Action Plus will be replaced with a single category called “Additional SEN Support”.

    Overall, the Children and Families Bill is a mixed bag – it extends some statutory duties (e.g. to academies) but reduces others, and frequently falls short of the “root and branch” reform that’s really needed to address the failings of the current system. To give you an example: the government has introduced a very welcome new duty on Health to make the health provision set out in the EHC plan. However, there is still no equivalent duty on Social Care, and no single point of appeal – which means that parents would have to use three different appeals procedures for the health, education and social care elements of the plan. Several national charities are campaigning vigorously for these shortcomings to be addressed.

    Legislation, however, is only a part of the equation. Children’s Minister Edward Timpson has said that he wants to see a culture change across all services, which puts children and families at the heart of the process. The current buzzword is “parental co-production” – that is, parents being involved in strategic decision making as equal partners from the start. It is what parent carer forums across the country have been trying to do for years, with varying degrees of success, but with unwavering enthusiasm.

    Here in Sheffield, parents have yet to be involved in the implementation of the reforms. We know that a local EHC plan template has been developed, and that there will be a consultation with parents later this year – but that’s not really “co-production”, is it? Work on Sheffield’s local offer has yet to start, but we are hopeful that we’ll really get cracking on it this autumn – with parents driving the process.

    And let’s not forget the elephant in the room: cost. Compiling and maintaining a local offer is a huge task. EHC plans will probably be more time-consuming to write and maintain than statements. If Personal Budgets take off, economies of scale could be lost. Where will all this extra money come from? Some of the pathfinder authorities have indicated that a tightening of eligibility criteria may be on the cards. Watch this space.

    Save the date: We’re planning an information day for parents about the SEN reforms, and have pencilled in the 14th of March 2014. To be confirmed shortly!