The new SEND system has now been in place for a whole term and the first children and young people are being transferred from Statements & Learning Difficulty Assessments or School Action/+ to Educational, Health and Care Plans and SEN Support.
We're one of them and we have encountered a number of teething problems that, if it hadn't been for the knowledge and contacts I have, could have ended up being catastrophic.
From anecdotal feedback, it seems that there is a lot of confusion out there on all sides and this means there is a huge danger that children and young people stand to end up with half-baked, perhaps even illegal EHC plans. Which may well end up testing the SEND Tribunal about its own understanding of the Children & Families Bill's complicated provisions for an integrated system of education, health and social care assistance for children who need it.
A few days ago, an Early Day Motion was tabled in parliament by Labour MP, Jim Cunningham:
further notes that there is wide variation between the interpretation and implementation of the reforms between local authorities, both in the funding arrangements for specialist education and in outcomes, and notes that this has resulted in young people with special educational needs and disabilities being denied appropriate independent advice and guidance, being pushed into inappropriate placements or excluded from education altogether;
further notes that local authorities are both funders and commissioners and this situation can cause conflicting incentives; calls on the Government to publish stricter guidelines on how to adhere to this Act; calls for standardised delivery of local authorities' Local Offers; and further calls for regular analysis of the quality of the Local Offers and the independence of the guidance provided to young people.
Well! EDMs are sponsored by MPs as a way to highlight issues on behalf of concerned groups but are rarely debated. So far this one has just 25 signatures, none of them Tory or Lib Dems, not surprisingly.
However, just a few days later, the Department for Education has announced a further £31m extra special needs (SEN) funding for local authorities to help them implement the changes.
SEND Minister, Edward Timpson, said:
The timescale has always been for them to bring children into the new system over the next 3 years - this extra money will help them to do that.
If it's to be divided up evenly, that's around £200k per authority (thanks to SB for the maths!) which isn't a lot of money when you consider what it needs to cover.
And to my mind, it's pretty pointless just dishing out cash without helping LAs understand where it is important to spend it. Because if an LA hasn't embraced the spirit of the reforms, then the money they spend may just go to trying to fit the new rules into the old way of working which isn't exactly what it was intended for.
Have parents noticed a change?
A new interim report from the Pathfinder evaluators, SQW, asked families who had been on the Pathfinder trials for their experience of the new EHC assessment and planning so far.
They reported statistically significant improvement in relation to:
- Their views being taken into consideration in assessment and reviews
- Their suggestions being listened to during the process
- The decisions made about their child’s support reflecting the family’s views
- The straightforwardness of the process to obtain support
- The effectiveness of information-sharing among professionals involved in their child’s assessment
- Having at least one key worker working with their family
- The length of the assessment and planning process
- Overall satisfaction with the assessment and planning processes.
However, they found no significant improvement at that stage in relation to:
- Levels of understanding about the assessment and planning processes
- Children and/or young people having a say in the support planning process
- Parents being encouraged to think about what they wanted to get out of the support their child would receive and the goals they should be aiming for
- Parents needing to explain their child’s needs on multiple occasions
- Professionals/services working closely together
- The extent to which parents agreed that decisions made in relation to the provision of support were fair compared to other children
To me, this is very clear evidence that while LA staff in the Pathfinder areas (the ones who've been doing it for three years) are going through the processes of following the new system, they are finding the really important parts - the culture or the ethos, the heart and the feeling - extremely challenging to achieve. At the very least, they seem to be finding it impossible to communicate them to parents.
This could be something of a disaster because, as we' ve always said, no amount of new procedures will work unless it is bought into heart and soul by all concerned.
Again, these are not families in LAs that have only just begun with the reforms, these are the local authorities that have since the end of 2011, been part of 20 pathfinder groups of local authorities who have helped to shape the reforms, spending millions of pounds along the way.
Many of the second list of experiences, above, are also something that Independent Supporters would be expected to have an impact on, but they were not in place for pathfinder families. They would have instead had a liaison from the area's pathfinder team (though that shouldn't have meant a worse experience it may have impacted levels of trust). It is certainly an indication of how important the Independent Supporter could be and perhaps, evidence for continued central funding after 2016, when the initial contracts are scheduled to end.
So how can those local authorities who have not been part of the trials be expected to make a success of implementing these reforms any time soon? And does this means that families who are already in the SEND system are in for a rough ride as they transfer from statement to EHCP?
As you know, we're going through a Post-16 transfer now and are also about to embark on a Y11 transfer. I am finding it quite a stressful process. Have I thought of everything? Have I included all his issues? How do I find out about any provision available from the Local Offer when the LO site is incomplete? What about Transport? Who will monitor that the provisions made are being carried out and how will I contact them if they aren't?
The SQW report concluded that there had been a, "range of positive findings" and "clear signs of improvement" around some of the processes that are central to the reforms such as being child / family centred and generating increased satisfaction with the overall process. The question remains, will this be replicated in the rest of the country's local authorities?
Accountability is key
Mr Timpson also announced today some welcome news about how local authorities will be held accountable for implementing the changes. He has asked Ofsted to formally inspect local areas on their effectiveness in fulfilling their new duties.
Alongside Ofsted in this role will be the Care Quality Commission and, so the press release says, "a local authority officer." I'm assuming this is a Quality Assurance role or similar.
It is hoped that robust and rigorous inspections will ensure that parents and young people receive as much information as possible about what is being offered. Ed Timpson, Children & Families Minister
Not that they're trying to control the news agenda or anything, but after a raft of reports earlier today, this one slipped out - a survey from Ofsted about local authority readiness and it isn't great reading (see quote further down) and now, the reason for the extra £31million becomes clear. They are needed to plug the holes in HMS SEND Reform, listing to both starboard and port.
Comms & Culture Change is King
There are a few things that local authorities (and the NHS & Social Care providers) MUST get right if they are to make a success of the reforms and they will probably take up all that £200k by themselves.
1. Changing the culture within their organisation(s) so that families really are central to the care discussions and decisions taking place.
Parents often believe (with good reason) that their views are not taken as seriously as those of the practitioners. I had a conversation with a CAMHS doctor yesterday who, when I asked why she wanted to meet with my son's other doctors without us, said, "Professionals often do this."
I reassured her that I was quite clever enough to understand medical terminology and suggested that they perhaps should think about doing it differently so that the apparent "amateurs" (me) who knew most about him, could be included in the same meeting and not just be handed down a medical decision at a second meeting afterwards. This was especially important as I happened to have extremely pertinent information about my son that none of the participants of the meeting possessed. Or was it just that they wanted to talk about us, not to us?
Culture change takes time, training and investment. Staff have to see a reason for doing it and they also need to be reminded from time to time of those reasons so they don't slip back into old, familiar ways. Perhaps they even need to be incentivised. I know that parents are part of staff development work-groups as part of the pathfinder but it's debatable how much influence they truly have. And what about those LAs that don't have a pathfinder or any parent reps involved in staff development?
As someone who manages social media for various charities & organisations, I have a little saying: Communication is a two way process, otherwise it's just broadcasting.
You can't expect parents to understand something as complex as changing the whole SEND system from getting a few leaflets through the post. Money and time needs to be put into meeting parents face to face at school hubs or similar so they can ask questions and so they have a contact to go back to. No one seems to mind spending tens of thousands on Local Offer websites, but they do when it comes to doing things the human way - by talking and listening. Parents of children with disabilities are stressed -information from wordy letters or dumbed down leaflets are not sufficient and often spark more confusion than they solve.
In other instances, they did not know how the local authority identified needs or monitored outcomes. A few parents who were not members of a ‘working group’ told inspectors that the needs of their children were not being represented adequately.
A few headteachers, in different local areas, spoke of their awareness of headteacher ‘working groups’ but said that they had no direct involvement in, or significant understanding of, the work being done by the local authority.
A few of the local authorities had formally sought the views of disabled children and young people and those who had special educational needs. In a further few areas, children and young people had been made aware of the changes by their college or school.
However, local authorities were generally unconvincing about how they were enabling children and young people to contribute to strategic decision making about how needs in their area should be met.
From: Evaluation of local areas’ readiness for the implementation of the disability and special educational needs reforms as set out in the Children and Families Act 20141 - Advice note on a study undertaken jointly by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission at the request of the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families
Local authorities: If you want to do it right, imagine you are that parent - how would you like to be informed and treated? Like an afterthought? That's against the whole ethos of the changes.
To help, SNJ has collaborated with the DfE for our very popular and free to use flow charts as a good start. Print them off, laminate then even, put them up in schools and then hold meetings or coffee mornings and evening meetings in local areas. Or maybe even host a webinar that can also be recorded and later accessed via the Local Offer website. Technology, ain't it grand?
Be enthusiastic and imaginative - and if you can't, get someone in who can (like us!)
The cost of implementation
If you're interested in how much each local authority will get in the next year for implementation of the new SEND system, the DfE have released some figures. You may have problems opening it unless you have Open Office installed. Or you can just download the PDF version I've made for you..
New Easy Read Guides to the new SEND system
Finally, if you work with or care for anyone who would benefit from an "easy read" guide to the SEND changes, Mencap and the DfE have developed guides that can now be downloaded:
- Easy Read Guide for Children & Young People for SEND changes
- Easy Read Guide for Parents for SEND changes
She is also an experienced broadcast and print journalist & author. Tania also runs a PR, web & social media consultancy, SocialOro Media. She is a Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate with Ehlers Danlos syndrome.
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