Can 30 years of policy and practice be reformed in 4 years?

13 April 2015

On 1st September 2014 the biggest reforms in Special Educational Needs provision for 30 years became effective. For those 260,000 children who currently have a statement of special educational needs it will not be long before they their parents and professionals alike step into the new and unknown world of Education and Health Care (EHC) Plans.

What is Special Educational Need Provision?

Some children have learning difficulties or disabilities that make it more difficult for them to learn than other children of a similar age. Local authorities need to provide additional or different learning options to those children to ensure that wherever possible they can continue to learn in the same environment as their peers.

What was / is the Old system?

The old system was governed by a number of laws which placed a duty upon local authorities (LA) to identify and assess children who may need special educational provision and made it mandatory for them to provide that provision. The process was known as a statutory assessment. Either a parent or school could ask for an assessment. The local authority sought the views of both the school and the parent(s) and had 6 weeks in which to decide if the assessment should take place.

If the LA determined that an assessment was needed, they would seek the views of other professionals. This would normally include an educational psychologist, doctors and social services. If the LA come to the conclusion that the child did have special educational needs and the current school was unable to provide the necessary help unassisted, it would produce a document known as a ‘statement’ which set out the child’s needs and what help would be given.

Once a child had a statement a parent had the right to express a preference for the school their child should attend but this was not a right to choose.

What are the problems with the old system?

While the old system was well intentioned there was a lack of a multi-disciplinary approach at the assessment stage and often parents would have to repeatedly tell their child’s story to different professionals. The focus was often on what the LA could provide and not what it should be providing. As a result, the child, who should have been at the centre of the statement was often side-lined and resources became the central focus.

What is the new system?

The Children and Families Act 2014 introduces new legislation for special educational needs provision including a Code of Practice which Children’s Commissioner, Maggie Atkinson considers to be a revolutionary document. It is designed to level the playing field.

Under the new system, ‘statements’ are to be replaced by Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans. Education is the focus of these plans, but health and social care are also incorporated in order to identify how best to meet a child’s special educational needs. There is a duty on healthcare commissioning bodies to provide any health care identified in the plan. The idea is to encourage a more joined up approach, so that parents don’t have to keep retelling their story and children will receive the health and social care they need to attain their education goals.

EHC plans will apply to children aged 0-19 provided they remain in education or training. In some cases this may be able to be extended up to the age of 25.

The new system kicks into action when a parent, young person (16+) or local authority requests an EHC needs assessment. The LA has 6 weeks to decide whether or not to carry out an assessment. If they decide to, they are obliged at this stage to seek the input of all the relevant professionals requited to be involved in the decision making process, which will include health and social care. Once the assessment has taken place, the LA will make a decision as to whether an EHC plan is required. A plan will be required where the needs of the child are greater than the school can provide for.

The local authority will then provide a draft plan for consideration by the parent or young person. The draft plan will also record the parent and young person’s aspirations, views and feelings. The parent or young person will then be asked what type of school or college they want to go to and if they have chosen a particular school / college. However, this information will only be included in the final plan in order to prevent local authorities from restricting choice based on financial restraints.

Parents / young people will then have 15 days in which to make any comments and discuss the plan with the LA. At this point, if there is a particular school that a parent wishes to be named in the plan then this can be discussed and included in the final plan.

Once the final plan is agreed it is then sent to the parent / young person and becomes legally enforceable. If the chosen school/college does not have the resources to provide what is required then the local authority must.

At this stage, it is possible for a parent / young person to appeal to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal in respect of the description of the child or young person’s special educational needs, the special educational provision specified in the EHC plan and /or the name/type of school or college in the EHC plan. An appeal can also be made when the LA decide not to carry out an assessment.

Additional changes

One of the key changes is the introduction of a duty on every local authority to publish information about the special educational need services they expect to be available in their area and this is known as the ‘Local Offer’. A website has been set up, to make the information more readily available so that parents will be able to find out about services, both locally and nationally, that are available to them. The site covers a wide range of resources from health and social care provision to support and activity groups.

Personal Budgets

Personal Budgets will also become an option for some parents / young people. This provides a certain degree of flexibility. It will enable them to purchase some of the provisions contained within their EHC plan, where not normally available.

Transition from the old system to the new system

For those children / young people who currently have a statement, the position will remain the same under the old law until 1 April 2018, by when they must transfer to an EHC plan and local authorities should be implementing strategies to ensure that this takes place. For the majority, this will be at key transition points in their education e.g. moving from primary to secondary school. For those young people in further education with a Learning Disability Assessment they will transfer by 1 September 2016.

Will it work?

It will be some time before this becomes clear and there will no doubt be much uncertainty and issues along the way. The message from a number of professionals, parent/carer groups and others is that we should be positive about the changes. They have the potential to make a big difference and it will only be by working together that those changes can be effected. A number of LA’s have already made a good start with pathfinder schemes and hopefully they will be able to lead the change. What will be vital to the success of these changes is making sure everyone works together to put the child at the centre of the process to enable them to be a fundamental part of the wider picture rather than side-lined.