EHC Needs Assessments 2023: Who’s asking? SNJ’s FOI data finds it’s mostly NOT parents…

It’s been two years since the Department for Education (DfE) issued its SEND and Alternative Provision Green Paper, and one year since they issued their SEND & AP Improvement Plan. These documents lay out how the government plans to fix the SEND system. And when you read them, a couple of themes are clear.

The government wants to see more children and young people’s special educational needs met without an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP). And throughout their planning, managing ‘parental confidence’ is a big theme. In fact, ‘parental confidence’ is mentioned on 17 separate occasions in both the Green Paper and in the Improvement Plan.

You’ll also find repeated references to improving ‘parental confidence’ in the DfE’s SEND financial intervention programmes - Safety Valve, and Delivering Better Value in SEND. It’s clear the SEND system’s high-priced help views ‘demand’ from parents for EHCPs as a big part of the problem. Some council leaders say they see parental ‘demand’ as the only reason why EHCP numbers are soaring.

Is this true? Let’s take a look at the evidence. Who is actually submitting the requests, and how many are getting through?

Assessing EHC Needs Assessments— our FOI

If you think a child or young person might need an EHCP, you can’t apply for one directly. First, you have to request an Education, Health and Care Needs Assessment (EHCNA) from the child or young person’s local authority (LA). If the LA agrees, it’ll carry out the assessment, and only then will it decide whether an EHCP needs to be issued.

We asked LAs how many initial EHCNA requests they had received in 2023. We also asked LAs to tell us who had made these requests, grouped as follows:

  • Parents, carers, and guardians;
  • Schools and colleges;
  • Young people with SEND;
  • Others (in practice, usually LA social workers, allied professionals, or early years providers)

130 of England’s 153 local authorities replied, and 119 of those 130 LAs were able to supply useful data. This is what they told us…

The number of EHCNA requests

The data tells us the number of EHCNA requests is continuing to rise sharply: Based on data from the 119 respondents, the number of initial EHCNA requests that these LAs received in 2023 was 25% higher than in 2022.

That’s not going to please the people at the top of the SEND dining table. They’ve expended a lot of effort and money trying to get these numbers down.

Who’s asking for EHCNAs?

So who submitted all these requests? You may be surprised at the facts:

  • Most EHCNA requests were submitted by schools and colleges—not parents: In 2023, 63% of EHCNA requests to LAs came from schools or colleges. In some LAs, schools and colleges accounted for over 80% of them: North Yorkshire reported that 92% of their EHCNA requests came from schools or colleges.
  • Fewer than 30% of EHCNA requests in 2023 came from families: Typically, EHCNA requests from schools outnumbered requests from families by two-to-one - and in some LAs, by four-to-one.

Of the 119 LAs that provided us with useable data, only 3 of them – Derbyshire, North Somerset, and Sheffield – received most of their EHCNA requests from families in 2023. Everywhere else, most requests came from schools or colleges.

  • In all, 29% of requests came from parents, carers or guardians. The number of EHCNA requests made directly by young people with SEND is tiny – just over 500, or around 0.5% of the total. This is still not a system that’s easy for young people to navigate.

These figures need to be treated with a bit of caution. There will be some occasions, for example, where schools or colleges will have made EHCNA applications on behalf of a family who were unable, for whatever reason, to do it themselves.

But these figures do not indicate that it’s families who are driving most of the demand for EHC needs assessments – and thereby, for EHCPs.

How many initial requests are refused?

We also asked LAs to tell us how many of these initial EHCNA requests they’d refused – again, broken down by who had initiated the request. The findings here were depressing, but unsurprising:

  • The national EHCNA refusal rate rose sharply in 2023: DfE data tells us for the last few years, LAs have refused around 22% of the EHCNA requests they receive. In 2023, that figure appears to have gone up to 29%.
  • We received refusals data from 27 of the 34 LAs who were part of the DfE’s Safety Valve financial intervention scheme in February 2024. Almost every single one of those 27 LAs had a higher EHCNA refusal rate in 2023 than they did in 2022. The vast majority (83%) of the respondent LAs in the Delivering Better Value scheme reported higher refusal rates too.
  • LAs refuse most EHCNA requests from families: Just over half (50.8%) of requests from parents, carers or guardians were refused by 114 LAs in 2023. Overall, the people who were most likely to get refused were young people with SEND themselves (60.5%).
  • Twenty-one of 114 LAs refused more than two-thirds of EHCNA requests from families in 2023. The highest refusal rate was in Windsor and Maidenhead, who refused 96% of requests from families.
  • One in five EHCNA requests from schools and colleges were refused in 2023: Only the ‘Other’ group (largely made up of LA professionals and their fellow-travellers) scored a lower refusal rate.

And Safety Valve is increasing at a rate of knots, despite parent campaigners in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) seeing off their LA’s plans to apply. Bracknell Forest, Bristol, Devon, and Wiltshire yesterday signed on the dotted line, so if you’re in this area, keep alert to cost-cutting and let us know.

Why the difference?

The legal threshold that LAs must consider for an EHC Needs Assessment is set out in section 36(8) of the 2014 Children and Families Act. That threshold is low – and it’s the same threshold, regardless of whether a school or a parent carer submits the request.

Securing an assessment doesn’t mean it’s then easy to secure an EHCP – the needs assessment might well indicate that a plan isn’t necessary. But the statutory test for an EHC Needs Assessment is not a high bar to clear. So why are LAs much more likely to refuse EHCNA requests from parent carers than they are from schools and colleges?

There’s a research project there in its own right. But the most likely explanation is that schools and colleges are much more willing and/or able to navigate the Byzantine systems that many LAs have set up in-house to manage requests.

LAs will often push applicants to supply significantly more evidence than the primary legislation requires – sometimes, unlawfully so. Here, LAs will usually point at paragraph 9.14 of the 2015 SEND Code of Practice, which sets out a range of evidence that an LA should consider when thinking about whether an EHC Needs Assessment is required. However, ’should’ does not equal ‘must,’ and LAs are often less than candid about explaining the difference.

What do appeal statistics look like?

If the LA refuses to conduct an EHC Needs Assessment, the young person or their family can appeal that decision – regardless of whether they made the EHCNA request, or whether the school or college did.

There’s no clean data here, but we estimate that roughly one in every eight LA refusals to assess gets appealed at SENDIST. We don’t know whether families are more likely to appeal a refusal if they submitted the request themselves – if they are, then the actual appeal rate could be up to one in five decisions, rather than one in eight.

Based on Tribunal Service data and FOI requests, we estimate that roughly 90%-95% of families are successful when they appeal to SENDIST against EHCNA refusal decisions, regardless of whether the appeal goes to a hearing, or gets settled.

What does all this mean?

If you’re interested in special educational needs and disability, you’ll have noticed a steady drumbeat of items in national and local media about the spiralling costs of the SEND system. Many of these media pieces—particularly those that have drawn on local government briefing material—tend to see this as blameworthy, and they cast a lot of the blame for this at families.

The data in this article comes from local authorities. They clearly know that most ‘demand’ for EHC Needs Assessments comes from schools and colleges - not families. They also know that a chunk of that demand comes from their own professionals. Despite this, some local government bodies have taken a clear decision to blame families.

When parent carers submit no more than three out of every ten EHC Needs Assessment requests, it’s hard to argue that they are the primary reason why EHCP numbers are increasing. It’s even harder to credibly argue that parent carers are the main driver of EHCP numbers when LAs refuse most of their requests for assessment.

We need an explanation for the disparity —and the false rhetoric (aka gaslighting)

Councils need to explain why they are refusing EHCNA requests from families much more often than they do from schools and colleges. They can do this very easily by shining daylight on their often-opaque assessment panel processes and by explaining in detail how their decisions conform to the law. That way, they’d also likely avoid the expensive indignity of having thousands of their decisions reversed through the SEND Tribunal process.

While we now know that a strong majority of EHCNA requests come from education and other professionals, we don’t know whether it’s always been this way.

The DfE has recently asked local authorities to start collecting this type of data. In theory, they should be in a position to report it as part of standard stats releases next year.

Providing LAs can pony up the data – and our article shows that most of them can – then central government should become more clued up over time— and maybe the trope that it’s sharp-elbowed parents who are driving up EHCPs can be put to bed forever.

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Matt Keer
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