Coproduction is an illusion for parents and SENCOs

with Professor Adam Boddison

Many parents of children with SEND will have come across the term "Coproduction". It means having an equal and active role in designing whatever it is you're involved in. For parents, this is usually preparing the Education, Health and Care Plan.

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What is Coproduction?

Coproducing an EHCP is enshrined into law, but does it really happen? There was a big buzz around the term when the Children and Families Act 2014 was being "co-produced" with families. But while I and many parents were involved in discussions and workstreams, the CFA that went to the commons was written by civil servants, without a parent of disabled children in sight.

As you can see by the slide (from our Working with Parents training) coproduction is not the same as consultation or participation. Unfortunately, most "coproduction" is actually one of these and not a true partnership where the plan or service is designed, planned and the decision taken alongside parents.

For EHCPs, indeed, this is almost never the case because the final decision is taken by a nameless, faceless SEND "panel" in which the parent has no part. And this is exactly why so many LAs find themselves at the Tribunal, where they inevitably lose.

Ofsted and the CQC's SEND area inspections have repeatedly revealed the lie of coproduction. But does it happen anywhere?

But it's not just parents that feel this frustration of being left out - SENCOs often also feel that they have been excluded from the process by the local authority. This is particularly important when a parent is relying on the SENCO to advocate for their child. But should it matter who it is that applies for an EHC needs assessment?

New research into coproduction and SENCOs has just been published, led by Professor Adam Boddison, who until recently was the CEO of nasen. We're grateful to Adam for writing this article about his research and what it has revealed about the "Illusion of Coproduction"


The Coproduction Illusion: Frustrated SENCOs and families

by Professor Adam Boddison

It was during my tenure as chief executive of nasen that one of the charity’s Trustees, Dr Sue Soan, approached me with concerns that SENCOs felt their requests for an EHC needs assessment for learners in their schools were being treated less favourably than similar requests from families. Numerous SENCOs shared with me their frustration of not being able to secure an EHC plan for learners with SEND, when they were convinced an EHC plan was needed and that the learners were eligible for additional support. 

These SENCOs often felt that their good will was taken advantage of because being employed ‘within the system’ made it more difficult for them to argue their case with decision-making colleagues. They also felt it was made more difficult for them to support families with a formal appeal to the First-Tier Tribunal. For this reason, some SENCOs believed that a request for an EHC needs assessment submitted by a family would have a greater chance of resulting in an EHC plan being issued, than an identical request being submitted by an education professional. 

At the same time, numerous families shared with me their belief that if they submitted a request for an EHC needs assessment directly, then it was less likely to result in an EHC plan being issued, even if it had the support of the SENCO. These families believed that decision-makers would be more favourable to requests for an EHC needs assessment from SENCOs or other education professionals because they were seen as more objective than families.

Dr Adam Boddison
Prof. Adam Boddison

Effective coproduction?

The reality is that any requests for an EHC needs assessment should have the support of both education professionals and families. Coproduction demands equal, meaningful partnership between education professionals and families. If coproduction is effective, then the proportion of requests to assess resulting in an EHC plan being issued should not vary depending on who submits the request. Similarly, there should be no variation in the proportion of plans being issued within the statutory timescales. 

To gain some insights into the effectiveness of coproduction, a Freedom of Information request (FOI) was submitted to every Local Authority in England asking for data on requests for an EHC needs assessments for the year 2017/18. A study analysing the results was peer-reviewed and published in JORSEN (Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs). The study compared data from 122 Local Authorities and found evidence that coproduction was consistently ineffective.

summary of success rate by source
Summary of success rate by source Click to enlarge.

The coproduction illusion

Requests for an EHC needs assessment submitted by education professionals were found to be 1.4 times more likely to result in an EHC plan being issued than requests from families. To put this into context, it is useful to think about the number of local authorities in which fewer than half of requests for an EHC needs assessment resulted in an EHCP being issued: 

  • For requests submitted by education professionals, this only happened in two LAs. In other words, education professionals had a greater than 50% chance of securing an EHC plan in almost every local authority. 
  • For requests submitted by families, this happened in around one-third of local authorities. In other words, requests from families were less likely to result in an EHC plan being issued than requests from education professionals. 

Similarly, where EHC plans were issued, more than two-thirds of local authorities were more efficient at responding to requests for an EHC needs assessment from educational professionals in comparison to those from families (i.e. within statutory timescales). 

The statistical differences reported in this study suggest that coproduction is not working as effectively as the intentions set out in the SEND Code of Practice (January 2015). This means there is a discrepancy between families’ perceived level of involvement and the reality: a ‘coproduction illusion’.  

Part of the issue is that the Children and Families Act 2014 uses numerous alternative terms for partnership, some of which suggest a continuation of a power in-balance between education professionals and families. For example: ‘inform’, ‘advise’, or ‘consider’. It seems that the aim of coproduction is widely acknowledged and understood, but insufficiently prioritised due to operational constraints, including funding and accountability. Furthermore, the inconsistent use of terminology has caused confusion and multiple interpretations of specific terms. 

The statistical differences reported in this study suggest that coproduction is not working as effectively as the intentions set out in the SEND Code of Practice (January 2015). This means there is a discrepancy between families’ perceived level of involvement and the reality: a ‘coproduction illusion’.  

What next?

Looking ahead, policymakers are at a T-junction and an important decision needs to be made about which route to take. If we are serious about coproduction and we want to make it work, then we need to remove the financial disincentives by appropriately resourcing SEN Support and by properly funding the high needs budgets in local authorities. Similarly, the Children and Families Act 2014 and the SEND Code of Practice both need to be more explicit about the implementation of coproduction, including an identification of the enablers. 

If genuine coproduction is not possible to achieve in practice, then this should be acknowledged. In this unwanted scenario, there should be honest dialogue about the supported decision-making approach, which is increasingly prevalent and prioritises some stakeholders above others. Such honest dialogue would help to manage the expectations of both education professionals and families and would provide an opportunity to clarify joint working. 

Coproduction is clearly superior to supported decision-making. However, claiming that coproduction is happening, whilst in reality there is only supported decision-making, is the worst of both worlds. It is a claim that over-promises and under-delivers. If the government is serious about having genuine coproduction, then rapid steps should be taken to incentivise and empower education professionals and families. It is not too late.

*This blog is based on Adam's research article here (paywalled)

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About Professor Adam Boddison

Professor Adam Boddison is CEO of APM (the Association for Project Management) and former CEO of nasen (National Association for Special Educational Needs). He is Chair of the Corporation at Coventry College, Trustee at two Multi-Academy Trusts spanning 80 primary, secondary and specialist settings, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Wolverhampton. 

@adamboddison 

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