EHCPs 2020: Postcode lotteries and the Hall of Shame

EHCPs 2020: Postcode lotteries and the Hall of Shame

Yesterday, the Department for Education published their annual snapshot of statistics about Education, Health and Care Plans in England. So today we have our annual analysis and infographics to explain it all with some context.

There’s something profoundly surreal about looking at these figures, because they’re from a world that doesn’t really exist right now. The data was collected back in January, and it mostly describes what happened in 2019. Since then, we’ve had the pandemic, the closure of schools and colleges for routine education, and many of the rights and duties that come with the EHCP process have been neatly (if temporarily) gutted.

Wrangling the data

Despite all that, it’s still worthwhile ploughing through the data to see what it can and can’t tell us. You can get the statistics here– the DfE’s statisticians have updated the way they deliver the figures. In theory, it’s more flexible – in practice, it takes a bit of wrangling.

Either way, when you look at these figures it’s important to bear in mind a few things:

  • The data released yesterday just covers EHCPs. It’s an important slice of the overall SEND picture – particularly if your child has complex SEND – but it’s not comprehensive. For every single child or young person who has an EHCP, there are four more children with SEND who don’t. We’ll have to wait until July to get new figures covering SEND as a whole.
  • The data mostly just tracks the progress of EHCP paperwork around the SEND system – and as anyone who’s done serious time in the SEND salt mines knows, EHCPs aren’t “golden tickets.” This data tells you very, very little about the quality of the EHCPs that came out of the system in 2019, and it tells you nothing about how well the EHCPs have been implemented. 
  • The ultimate source of this data is an annual survey, completed by local authorities in the third week of January. The DfE’s statisticians have done their best to iron out quirks and glitches in the data - but inquisitive parents have spotted mistakes in their LA’s survey returns in previous years, so tread carefully…

So bearing those health warnings in mind, what does this data release tell us? Check the infographics below for a quick guide to the figures and the local authority Hall of Shame, but if you want more detail, read on.

EHCP headline analysis

EHCP numbers continue to rise, but the growth rate is slowing – In January 2020, there were just over 390,000 live EHCPs in the system - a 10% rise on the previous year, but a slower growth rate than in previous years. 

There are now roughly 150,000 more children and young people with a statutory plan than there were in 2015. That’s a steep rise over the course of five years – but a lot of that is due to the fact that an EHCP can be kept up until the age of 25, and growth in EHCP numbers has been fastest in the post-16 age bracket. 

EHCP numbers are now rising faster in mainstream than in special schools – Over the last five years, the numbers of pupils with EHCPs in special schools has risen far quicker than the numbers of pupils in mainstream schools. That wasn’t the case in 2019. The number of pupils with EHCPs in mainstream schools (including units, resource bases, and non-specialist independents) grew by 10% year-on-year, whilst the number in special schools grew by 6% compared with the previous year.

It’s not entirely clear why this has changed – but maintained special schools and special academies are now full to bursting, and that’s likely to be a major reason. The rise in numbers of pupils with EHCPs in these schools was just under 5% in 2019, compared with 12% growth for the much smaller independent special school sector.

The formal education system isn’t working for a growing number of children and young people with EHCPs – this is something we already know, but the DfE’s stattos have tried to capture better data on pupils and students who either aren’t in school or college, or who are waiting for a placement.

Take these figures with an extra pinch of salt – they’re from a single-day snapshot in January 2020, so the numbers will be pretty volatile. Also, this part of the SEND world is where local authority data is likely to be iffiest – but here’s what they say:

  • Just under 5,000 children and young people with EHCPs were ‘awaiting provision’ in the third week of January 2020. Of these, around 3,000 weren’t currently in an education setting; the rest were in an education setting, but were waiting for their provision to be freed up. Like for like, these numbers are up by about a third on January 2019.
  • A further 4,600 children and young people with EHCPs were being educated via ‘other arrangements’ made either by the LA or by parents. These numbers are slightly down on last year, probably because…
  • For the first time, the DfE have published figures on the numbers of children and young people with EHCPs in 'elective' home education – just under 3,000 as of January 2020. Bear in mind that the definition of “elective” is probably very broad here. Too often, as too many families know, it's only elective because the alternative is nothing at all as there's no suitable school available, or the school they were in wasn't meeting their needs.
  • Equally concerning is the growing number of young people with EHCPs who seem to have dropped off the radar entirely. In January 2020, there were over 8,000 young people with EHCPs who aren’t in education, employment or training (NEET) – up from 5,900 at the same point last year. A further 2,300 are listed in the DfE statistics as “Other” – I don’t know what this means, and probably neither does anyone else.

So far, so grim. Let’s now look at the process of getting an EHCP. The headline here is that things haven’t moved on much from last year. Who got with the programme and who's in the Hall of Shame... 

Infographic: © Tania Tirraoro, SNJ, Download this as a PDF

Refused: Assessments or plans turned down

Overall, local authorities still refuse 1 in 4 EHC needs assessments – but huge postcode lotteries are still in play. Last year, 82,329 initial requests for an EHC needs assessment went into the SEND system. Of those, local authorities in total refused 18,755 of them. That’s a 23% refusal rate - ever so slightly lower than last year’s, but still extremely hard to reconcile with the legal threshold.

However, the overall refusal rate tells you very little, as the refusal rates vary widely depending on where you live. For example, if you live in Medway and you put an EHC needs assessment request into the system in 2019, then your chances were not great, as they binned 53% of all requests. In all, over a dozen LAs refused more than 40% of initial EHC needs assessment requests last year. 

At the other end of the spectrum, a dozen LAs refused fewer than 5% of them – and a handful (including Bradford, Camden, and Luton) say they didn’t refuse a single request.

If your child secures an EHC needs assessment, they are still very likely to get an EHCP – but postcode lotteries really matter here too – Once your child or young person has had an EHC needs assessment, the LA then decides whether to issue an EHCP or not. At a national level, refusal-to-issue rates for EHCPs have usually been low, and 2019 was no exception – the national refusal rate was 6%.

But again, a lot depends on where you live – these numbers are skewed by a small minority of LAs with much higher refusal-to-issue rates. Step forward Nottinghamshire, this year’s chumpion with a 29% refusal rate, nearly five times the national average. Set against this though, there’s a large minority of LAs that only rarely refuse.

EHCP timescales: Who's timely, who's tardy

Four out of every 10 EHCPs still aren’t being produced within the 20-week deadline – This deadline is a statutory, i.e. LEGAL obligation, and it’s been in place for over five years now. The burden of transitioning statements of special educational need over to EHCPs is now over. But nationally, compliance rates remain stubbornly static; in 2019, only 60% of new EHCPs were completed within 20 weeks, the same percentage as in 2018.

There’s always been a postcode lottery here, but the spread of compliance now borders on the absurd. A significant minority of LAs (36 out of 151) reported that they completed 90% of their non-exceptional EHCPs within the 20-week limit. At the other end of the clown car, a similar number of LAs are hopelessly adrift: Bristol completed fewer than 1% of EHCPs within 20 weeks in 2019. Walsall, around 5%; Norfolk and Liverpool, around 7%.

The evidence that inspection makes a difference here is extremely patchy. Sefton has been through Ofsted inspection, revisit and is now under a DfE statutory notice to improve. It managed to get 23% of EHCPs completed on time in 2019. Hampshire recently sailed through their local area SEND inspection, despite managing to complete just 5% of its EHCPs on time last year.

The question of EHCP quality

It’s also important to bear in mind that these numbers tell you nothing about the quality of an EHCP, let alone the lawfulness of its content. And there are good reasons to be concerned about quality; not just from inspection outcomes, but also from SENDIST Tribunal appeal outcomes. 

In early 2020, we asked Tribunal via FOI how many times their decisions had upheld LA decision-making in appeals against the content of an EHCP. The answer, for the 2018-2019 academic year, was 4%. It’s hard to envisage any other professional environment where this quality of product would be acceptable.

What happens next?

We’re now over five years away from the point when the SEND reforms kicked in. Last year, we asked whether the data told us whether the reforms were bedding in, or bogging down. These latest figures suggest that back in January, things had bogged down.

At the start of the SEND reforms, you had a roughly one in five chance of getting your request for an EHC needs assessment refused; that chance is now one in four. At the start of the reforms, you had a six-in-ten chance of getting an EHCP produced within 20 weeks; the same is true in 2020. 

Spend time with the local-level data, and there are maddening levels of inconsistency. Despite four solid years of inspection and improvement programmes, SEND is now more of a postcode lottery than ever. 

Worse still, if you poke around in the darker corners of the data and talk regularly with a wide range of parents, it’s clear that the system itself is simply not working for tens of thousands of families.

This is as far as these statistics can take us – probably for at least a year or two. A whole host of EHCP processes, timescales and duties were "temporarily relaxed" last week, and it will take LAs, schools and families many, many months to pick up the pieces from COVID-19. In the meantime, people in power are going to have to measure a lot less, and do a lot more.

ECHP Infographic
Infographic: © Tania Tirraoro, SNJ. Click to open full size. Find the PDF version here

Please note: All our infographics and artwork is copyright (c) Special Needs Jungle. You are welcome to share, print and download for personal or non-profit use only. For any other use, please get in touch as we do not allow free use for commercial purposes

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Matt Keer

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