Yesterday’s new SEND statistics reported worrying progress on SEND reform up to January 2016, amid soothing words from the Ministers in charge that the reforms are "boosting the life chances of children with SEND". The facts speak for themselves: according to the DfE's data, the pace of reform is slow, uneven, unfair and unchallenged. So here's an urgent message to get the process back on track.
The EHCP numbers came just as Ofsted’s first local area SEND inspections got under way, in Brighton & Hove and Bolton. Both councils can breathe a small sigh of relief that they completed more than half their EHCPs on time last year and so are within the national average. But parents in 28 authorities had just a 1-in-5 chance of getting their plan within the 20 weeks allowed. Not a single child in Derbyshire, Kingston Upon Hull or Surrey had their needs assessed within the legal time-frame. Not. A. Single. Child.
"Councils are learning new ways of working..."
Okay, it's still a new system and they're also having to cope with the old system as it runs out. But they can’t use high volumes as an excuse: neighbouring Kent issued more EHCPs than zero-rated Surrey yet 86% met the target; Hertfordshire sent out a whopping 585 plans and, even allowing for delays permitted under the rules, 97% ticked the box.
The lead Ministers for SEND (Ed Timpson and Jane Ellison) gave us their view of progress, stating that “Councils are learning new ways of working…” Well, some are... The Ministers had a lot of positive things to say while acknowledging there are some real concerns. Ten days ago Amy Skipp wrote about her research on the experiences of parents, carers and young people in the new system, reflecting the same mix of optimism and disappointment. It’s true that, overall, LAs are gradually getting to grips with the 20 week time limit for new plans. But we learned yesterday much more of the reality behind reform and it isn’t pretty; not pretty at all. So here's my...
Message to the Ministers
Dear Mr Timpson and Ms Ellison,
Please take another look at yesterday's numbers, and think ahead to this time next year. How would you like to see them change? What can you and your teams do to make the change happen?
- Last year, almost 11,000 requests for assessment of SEND were refused: that number needs to come down. It tells us either that criteria are unclear or LAs are not following them. It leaves families and SENCos frustrated, confused and weary. What is your target for next year?
- It’s a ludicrous postcode lottery: how can the city of Bedford produce every new EHCP on time while Central Bedfordshire managed fewer than 1 in 10? Where is the accountability?
- There was a sharp increase in the number of children and young people who were assessed for EHCP but for whom provision arrangements are unclear, including young people who have no education, employment or training at all (NEETs). The system hasn’t worked for them and some of them may now be held in secure units. Last week the government issued new proposals for prison education but we already have commitments in the law for EHCP assessments to extend to the youth justice system. Where is the evidence of progress on that?
- A quarter of a million children and young people can't rely on the Local Offer alone and so require an EHCP. That tells us more could and should be done to improve the quality of basic support available in the early years and in schools and colleges. That way, fewer families will have to jump through the hoops of statutory assessment. So we need a funding system which is fair, based on robust data (how long will the DfE sit on the ISOS plan?); and we need rigorous inspection of schools and colleges’ SEND provision to examine how often it leads to better outcomes without the need for an EHCP.
- LAs utterly failed to get to grips with the system for young people with a Statement moving to college and for those with a Learning Difficulties Assessment needing to be transferred to EHCP. The DfE statistics are only experimental at this stage but just 5.5% of those with an LDA were transferred to the new plans. Independent research by Simpson Millar LLP has recently shown that many authorities are taking no action on plans for young people moving to college. Liverpool failed to complete a single plan by the deadline of 31st March this year. The situation is unacceptable: all the work and support at school is wasted if these young people are failed by the system at age 16, arriving at colleges which know nothing about their needs and have no personalised support in place. Please publish an action plan for SEND transitions to further education.
- Personal Budgets are a core element of the reform agenda but so far just 55 children with disabilities in the whole country are benefitting from Direct Payments for their health needs and only 2,095 were using their Personal Budget for social care needs. This is after the DfE has spent nearly half a billion pounds reforming the system and propping up local authorities to make it work. Why are Personal Budgets such a low priority?
- We know that Independent Supporters have been welcomed by parents in many areas and are making a difference. But in some areas they're just not able to get through to the local authority and, if you map the problem against yesterday's worst performers on EHCP deadlines, you'll find some common concerns.
- In some respect, mediation seems to be effective: only a quarter of cases which went to mediation were followed by an appeal to the Tribunal. Next year, the DfE should sharpen this picture by asking Amy Skipp to do another piece of research with parents and carers to find out how these cases were resolved and how their children have progressed.
In their statement yesterday, the Ministers talked about the need to “strike the right balance between timing of assessment and quality of the finished plan”. If that means we can have one or the other but we can’t have both then I’ve another message for the Ministers: the law says we can and we should. Nowhere in the Children and Families Act does it say that we can get our Plan in 20 weeks but it won’t have any useful aims, or any advice from a professional who has actually met the child within living memory, or any specific, quantifiable provision. Those of us working in SEND are seeing EHCPs which are, I’m afraid, abysmal. I hope the Ministers have read Bren Prendergast’s excellent take-down on the quality of the assessments coming out of County Hall. In fact, I hope the Ministers read SNJ every day: because the reality of SEND reform is written in painful detail right here.