Following Matt's post last week about Transfer Deadlines and zombie statements, we got in touch with the Department for Education and posed a few questions that we thought you'd like the answers to and they have replied, so I'm sharing everything with you today. Sharing is caring, after all.
As their replies were not "official" statements but just answers to my questions, I'm going to paraphrase their responses, while ensuring that the meaning is intact. At the end, I'm also going to share information about plans for changes to the way SEND support is delivered nationally, so read on to the end.
The DfE will come knocking if a local authority missed the transfer deadline
As we know from Matt's posts, approximately 21,000 children with SEND are still more than likely to have a "zombie" statement rather than a legally binding Education, Health and Care Plan on April 1st after the transfer deadline has passed. I asked what action, if any, could the DfE take against local authorities who miss this legal deadline and was told that any local authorities that have not met the deadline for statement transfers will be followed up with by the department but actions that are taken will be proportionate to the position that the local authority finds itself in. I'm not sure quite what this means - in fact, it's quite intriguing. What could the Department have in mind? A sharp telling off? Detention? Lining up before the SEND Minister with hands out for a caning? I'm not sure quite what they have the power to do, but it will be fun to find out.
The DfE have been having monthly reports about how far LAs have got each month with transfers, but those figures have not been published. SNJ's Matt Keer, of course, did his own FOI searches as per his post. (Please note, Matt is not able to help with your own FOI requests, but we will soon be providing you with information on how to do it yourself) So the DfE MUST have known for some time that this deadline was likely to be crashed. I asked what they had said already to these LAs.
In reply, the department says that since April 2017, they've had communication with senior leaders of LAs they had concerns about and encouraged "a range of solutions", including the expansion of the workforce involved in the process. And of course, some of those LAs have done just that, as Matt explained, by hiring untrained people on short-term contracts to cram the text from statements into EHCP templates and never mind those "difficult parents" who want an actual assessment of their dear child in the process. To be fair, it's a pretty impossible situation (though it's the LAs own fault for not getting with the programme right back in 2014/15). The big boss says DO IT, so you do it, but the end result isn't pretty. It's just a tragedy that the pretty ugly end result happens to be inadequate SEND provision for a disabled child.
Next, I enquired as to what help the regional SEN Advisors- the DfE fixers swooping down to whip LAs into shape- have been giving to LAs stuck in the transfer quagmire. Were they checking the quality of EHCPs that were being churned out? I was told that SEN Advisers have worked very closely with local authorities throughout the year and have helped 'problem-solve at early stages'. They've also carried out random spot-checks of EHC plans in some LAs to ensure they are high-quality as well as some targeted analysis where a potential problem over quality has been drawn to their attention by, for example, the local Parent Carer Forum (if there is one, of course)
Ring-fencing isn't on the agenda
Ever-looming are the cuts that are hitting SEND budgets across the country, despite the DfE giving them more money. I am one of many who believes that government funding for SEND must be ring-fenced to stop LA council leaders syphoning-off money meant for disabled children to pay for other cash-starved services. However, funding for children’s services is an "un-ringfenced part of the wider local government finance settlement, which is worth £200bn over four years, up to the next spending review in 2019-20."
I asked if ring-fencing was likely but I was just reminded that only last November, the DfE announced, "A package of further support worth nearly £45 million pounds to continue driving momentum with implementation of the reforms. This is made up of £29m for councils, £9.7m to establish local internship forums, creating work placements for young people with SEND and training work coaches to provide support; and £4.6m for parent carer forums, which bring parents together with local decision makers and help provide them with a voice."
So if the DfE is even thinking about ring-fencing, they're not saying.
A new-look future for national SEND advice, information & support?
Earlier this month, the DfE announced it was putting a new contract out for tender for what looks like an amalgamation of the three existing national SEND support services that it wants in place by April 2019 or sooner.
A key principle of the SEND reforms is that children and young people with SEND, and their parents and families, should be supported to participate in decisions that affect them, and receive appropriate information and advice. DfE implementation newsletter January 2018
Yesterday they send round further background information and I will update this post if I get more. At present there is the following set up:
- Independent Supporters: Between April 2014 and March 2018, the Government spent £60m on the Independent Supporter programme. This money was given to the Council for Disabled Children who contracted a number of organisations across England (including some IASS services) to provide support workers to help parents through the EHCP process. To many parents, this will come as a surprise as their LA never told them they could have one, and for free. Nevertheless, it was there and is ending in its current form, apparently, this March.
- IASS (formerly parent partnership): Local authorities are statutorily responsible for providing children, young people and parents with an impartial information, advice and support service on SEND in their local area. This is supposed to be an "arm's length" service from LA interference, but many parents have, before now, complained that this hasn't been the case for them. IASS HQ don't like to hear of this happening, and offer IPSEA training to IAS services, but this is what parents say so we have to believe that it does, sometimes, happen.
- SEND Helpline: The Government also funds a national helpline for families, run by the charity, Contact. The DfE says that demands on the service have been consistently high, and so they want to continue to provide resources for this service. It also says, "In recent years, innovations in technology have helped to develop the service beyond phone-line support. The national helpline already works well with a range of other support services, including local information, advice and support services, but further synergies could be achieved."
Soooo.. is it all change? And by April 2018?
As I said, on 8th January 2018, the Department published a tender for ONE new contract listing ALL THREE services together, providing families with access to information advice and support, to come into effect from 1 April 2018. The estimated value of this contract is up to £12.5m in 2018-19 and up to £10.5m in 2019-20. This contract will build on work which has previously been carried out, so that:
- Children and young people with SEND and their parents in every local authority area have access to information, and impartial advice and support, which meets a set of minimum standards based on local authorities’ existing statutory requirements (set out in chapter 2 of the SEND Code of Practice). These services will provide a wide range of information, advice and support covering SEND issues across education, health and social care, both directly and through signposting families onto more specialist support as appropriate; and
- A national helpline – including a dedicated Freephone service – and access to online information, advice and support is available to families who have children and young people with SEND. It is critical that the national helpline service works effectively with local support services to ensure consistency and accuracy of information and advice.
So, it appears that the IS service and the IASS service are to be merged into one. It does not say that parents will continue to get individual hand-holding through the process as with the current IS. The DfE said Independent Support was supposed to be while the system was 'new'. But we have seen that doing it right isn't still just new to some LAs, it's virtually a mystery. And for new parents coming into the system, it will ALWAYS be new.
However, it does say that existing Independent Supporter sub-contracts will "novate", which means agree to be taken over by, the new contractor (if it is different from CDC) in the first instance, pending the development of new arrangements in each local area.
Does this mean IASS is separated from local authority overlords?
It doesn't look like it. The information says local authorities will continue to be under a statutory duty to commission information, advice and support services and the new contractor will work to ensure that IAS services across England are supported to develop and improve their quality so that they meet - or exceed - minimum standards, "including providing financial incentives". Whatever that means.
What the DfE wants: Minimum standards
The Department for Education is stipulating that the "successful bidder" will develop "clear minimum standards for local services delivering information, advice and support, based on the legal requirements set out in the SEND Code of Practice and the standards already developed by the Information, Advice and Support Services Network. These requirements will need to be developed early in 2018-19."
The DfE envisions the "successful bidder" to "support and encourage local information, advice and support services to meet or exceed these minimum standards".
They envisage a proportion of the contract value – potentially a majority – being passed to local information, advice and support services through sub-contractual arrangements and to, "Design and implement an approach that incentivises areas to strive for high-quality local services, rewarding those which have strong positive feedback from users, and to incentivise areas to move quickly to meet the minimum standards".
Ongoing "challenge" to local services
Oh, now this is interesting, isn't it?
"The successful bidder will provide ongoing support and challenge to local services, ensuring they can access high-quality training, networking and good practice sharing opportunities."
So, presumably, they will have DfE backing to actually challenge local authorities and local NHS when they are not providing what they are supposed to. But what actual authority will they have? Will they be SEN advisors on steroids? They'll also have to provide support and training to carry out the principles of the SEND reform. This is a major shift in the current paradigm, if I am reading this right (and if I'm not, do tell me!)
At present, Contact provides the dedicated helpline for SEND. The new contract holder, whether this is Contact or anyone else, will be expected to develop, trial and implement proposals for how the national helpline can complement local information, advice and support services and other national helplines aimed at families who have children and young people with SEND. "This could include ‘out of hours’ services, a single national ‘front desk’ redirecting to local or specialist helplines, and the use of online chat, video calling to maximise effectiveness." Crikey, that's ambitious. What exactly does "out of hours" mean?
The DfE have included transition requirements in the contract (let's hope that goes more smoothly than the EHCP transition) to parents are not left without support.
The successful bidder will ensure every local area develops a viable and sustainable approach to delivering high quality information, advice and support services. This will need to take account of existing cultural and organisational arrangements in each area; the views of children, young people and parents; and will ensure the approach provides value for money.
Who could it be?
The Council for Disabled Children (of whom we are members) and Contact are the main charity players in SEND support. I find it hard to believe that, given the time-frame for bidding, the winning bidder(s) will be anyone other than CDC, joining up with Contact for the helpline, though I have no 'inside knowledge' at this time. Who else would want to, anyway? I will update this post when I do. In the meantime, if you're feeling really ambitious or are just curious, you can find information on how to request the Invitation to Tender documentation here: https://www.contractsfinder.service.gov.uk/Notice/154f602a-ce17-4643-9716-0f3f813353b5.
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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