Draft SEN legislation published and a response to my open letter to Sarah Teather

Well today is the day - the draft legislation has, rather unexpectedly, been published for the reform of provision for children and young people with Special Educational Needs. It had been said to have been put off until October, but that hasn't appeared to have happened.

Towards the end of last week, I was delighted to receive a response to my Open Letter to Sarah Teather, from top DfE official, Stephen Kingdom. I had intended to publish it earlier but on Friday I had an EHCP meeting and then my day job, as PR for DysNet Limb Difference Network, had to take precedence with the Grunenthal "apology" to the world's Thalidomide survivors, for which we've received much coverage. It's had me working over the weekend since Friday evening.

Anyway, first the response to the open letter, then onto the draft legislation:

Thank you for your open letter of 27 June to Sarah Teather MP, Minister of State for Children and Families, regarding the pace of reform to special educational needs and disability policy.  I have been asked to reply and I am sorry for the delay in doing so.

It was very good to meet you at the Surrey pathfinder event in July, and to hear your personal perspective on the pathfinder programme and the Government’s proposals for reform of the SEN system.  Since we met, I have become an avid reader of Special Needs Jungle.  I hope you also found the opportunity to correspond directly with Sarah Teather through the Mumsnet chat helpful.  We hope she will have the opportunity to do a follow up webchat shortly, as well as continuing to talk to parents and young people through other channels.

I know you are concerned about the pace of reform and whether the Government is allowing sufficient time to learn from the pathfinders. We do understand those concerns – which I know others share – and that is why we are ensuring we can continue to feed in learning from the pathfinders throughout the legislative process.  And, of course, the legislation is only one part of the reform story – as you know well it is getting cultural change that is key.

The SEN clauses in the Children and Families Bill, which we intend to publish in September, will be draft - that is, they are intended for discussion.  As the Minister said on MumsNet, we hope that this discussion will be a real opportunity for wide range of stakeholders, including parents and charities, to tell the Government what they think.  The final Bill won’t be published until spring 2013, and it will be debated at length in Parliament before it gets Royal Assent and becomes an Act.

The Minister also said on MumsNet that some of the legislation will need to be done at a later stage.  In Parliamentary terms, this is referred to as “secondary legislation” and is usually in the form of a statutory instrument, such as a regulation.  We will, of course, be able to build in further learning from the pathfinders into this secondary legislation.  In addition, we will in due course be updating the SEN Code of Practice, which provides practical advice to local authorities, maintained schools, early education settings and others on carrying out their statutory duties.  I open this will present another opportunity to build in learning from the pathfinders.

Ministers do genuinely want the SEN clauses to be informed by views, knowledge and experience of people like yourself.  That is critical for us to get the detail right.  I hope, however, that you can appreciate Ministers also want to maintain pace, to ensure that the reforms set out in the SEND Green Paper really do bring change for children and their families who have special educational needs or disabilities.  During the development of the Green Paper in 2010 and since, my team has heard from lots of parents about the frustrations they experience with the current system (and, of course, you are all too aware of these as well).

I hope this response is helpful, and thank you once again for taking the time to write.

It's very nice to see that SNJ is read in high places and so if you feel there is any issue surrounding SEN that I haven't covered that should be highlighted, do let me know.

I was very interested to see cultural change mentioned - having had two recent experiences of parents in my area who have received shoddy treatment at the hands of SEN panels. It is quite disturbing to see that even while we are working to improve things with the reforms, staff at lower levels in the LA feel it is acceptable to keep on as if it was the bad old days.

The draft legislation, published earlier today, will require some digestion. You can download it for yourself here. It's going to take some reading, at 65 pages, so I'm not going to comment too much today other than to highlight the following regarding assessment:

The local authority must secure an EHC needs assessment for the child or young person if, after having regard to any views expressed and evidence submitted, the authority is of the opinion that.

(a) the child or young person has or may have special educational needs, and

(b) it may be necessary for special educational provision to be made for the child or young person in accordance with an EHC plan.

Now, I can already see a problem - first of all, no one would ask for an assessment if the child clearly didn't have SEN, or if earlier attempts to help the child had not already taken place so it's a bit of a moot point. But the rub is in b). As it stands, so far, the proposals are that when an agency (parent, school, nursery, health visitor etc) refers a child for an assessment, a multi-agency meeting is supposed to take place where it is decided if anything needs to be done at that stage, or if the child's needs can be met from the local offer (what's available locally) or if an EHCP assessment is needed.

So who is going to make this crucial decision about whether to assess? Unless there is clear and complete cultural revolution within LEA mid and lower level staff, nothing will change and in order for parents to have confidence in the new system, this decision-making process will need to be totally transparent. At the moment, you get a yes or a no and maybe one line about why (if you're lucky), but a parent has no idea what went on in the panel discussion. Having the proposed key worker involved to represent the child at that meeting would go some way to making sure that all documents are present and that the best decision for the child and not just the LA, is being made.

One further, and quite startling point, for now - the draft bill states that when an EHCP is to be drawn up the parents can ask for a place in an independent special school (non maintained special school). This is a huge step forward, if I'm reading it right. There is, of course, a get-out clause - the old "efficient use of resources" line that's currently in the current system and so this really needs a closer look, because how can you give parents a right to name an independent special school if the LA then comes back and says, well we don't want to pay for that because we don't think it's an efficient use of resources?

There is much to be digested this evening but at first scan, there's also much room for improvement. Expect more on this in the next few days.

Sarah Teather is doing a live webchat over on MumsNet tomorrow at 1pm.

Tania Tirraoro
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Tania Tirraoro

Founder, CEO at Special Needs Jungle
Founder of Special Needs Jungle. Parent of two sons with Asperger Syndrome.
Journalist & author of two novels and a guide to SEN statementing. PR & social media expert. Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate.
Tania Tirraoro
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