Early Thursday morning, whilst thousands of families and allies were preparing to march to draw attention to the national crisis in SEND, the Department for Education published their annual set of statistics about Education, Health and Care Plans in England.
These figures are usually published around this time of year on a Thursday, so the timing is unlikely to be dastardly. But it’s worth looking at the DfE’s figures closely – as they reminded the House of Commons Education Select Committee last week, we’re now in a new stage of our long, long journey to embed England’s SEND reforms.
So are the reforms bedding in, or bogging down? Let’s see what the numbers are suggesting…and if you like pictures, Tania has created our usual infographic at the end...
First things first – what’s in this data, where does it come from, and can we trust it?
- These figures just cover EHCPs and the statements of special educational need that came before them. 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 a statement or 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 figures include two different datasets: a snapshot of the world of EHCPs in mid-January 2019, and what happened in 2018. It’s also important to remember that this data is mostly just tracking the progress of paperwork around the SEND system. It tells you very, very little about the quality of the EHCPs that emerge, and it tells you nothing about how well the EHCPs are being implemented.
- These figures come from an annual survey completed by local authorities at the start of 2019. The DfE’s statisticians have done their best to weed out quirks, glitches and data returns that don’t add up or make sense, but it’s entirely possible that there are mistakes, accidental or deliberate. Inquisitive parents have spotted mistakes in their LA’s data return in previous years – so tread carefully…
With that warning out of the way, let’s walk through the EHCP process to see what’s been happening in 2018…
Getting an EHCP
If you suspect that your child may have special educational needs and or a disability, and if you believe that your child may need provision via an EHCP, then you can apply for an EHC needs assessment. That’s a well-established legal threshold – but it’s a threshold that many local authorities find irksomely low.
The DfE’s latest figures tell us that last year, LAs refused one in four initial requests for EHC needs assessment – a refusal rate that’s slightly higher than 2017. It’s hard to square this refusal rate with the legal threshold. Most local authorities operate their own local secret sauce thresholds for EHC needs assessments, and when you drill down further into the DfE data, there’s a ludicrously wide spread of refusal rates for what’s a simple legal test.
- If you’re in Sutton, then I have bad news for you: they refused over 60% of initial EHC needs assessment requests last year. Plymouth refused half of them - and in all, 29 English LAs refused more than one in three of the initial EHC needs assessment requests they received in 2018.
- But elsewhere in the country, you get much better odds: 19 LAs refused fewer than one in 10 initial EHC needs assessment requests, and four of these 19 accepted every request they received.
If you’re looking for a perfect exemplar of a postcode lottery, then look no further. Education Select Committee MP James Frith compared it recently to turning up at a hospital A&E ward and being triaged by the receptionist rather than a trained medical professional. That seems like a good analogy to me.
Furthermore, in School’s Week, Karen Wespieser rather horrifyingly correlates that areas such as East Sussex, where schools have been urged against applying for EHC plans, have seen requests plunge. Could it be, she suggests, “..that schools have listened and are now reluctant to put in EHCP requests, despite them being needed.” Parents/advocates in these areas be aware, and please tell us what you have experienced.
Assessments tend to result in EHCPs but are taking too long
However, if your LA agrees to assess your child, then there’s a very good chance that they’ll get an EHCP – nationally, 95% of new EHC needs assessments result in an EHCP being produced. But in some local authorities, you might well be less lucky: the rate in Oldham, for example, is just 66%. In all, 22 English LAs had refusal rates running at double the national average.
How long is it taking LAs to issue new EHCPs? Again, there’s a clear statutory timescale here, and it’s been clear for four and a half years – the process is supposed to take no more than 20 weeks, end-to-end. This is an area where many LAs have long fallen short of their statutory obligations – and in a system that was properly bedding in, you’d expect to see steady improvement over time, to a point where almost all EHCPs were being produced on the dot of 20 weeks, like they’re supposed to by law.
Is this happening? In some places, yes. But nationally? Not even close. The DfE’s figures tell us that nationally, just 60% of new EHCPs were finalised within the 20-week deadline in 2018. That’s worse than 2017 – in fact, that’s worse than the 64% achieved in the first year of the SEND reforms.
And once again, there’s no consistency between local authorities – your LA might be doing a lot better than this 60% rate, or it might be doing a hell of a lot worse.
Take Newham, for example - where for the second year running, just one in fifty of the EHCPs it produced in 2018 was issued within 20 weeks. The Director of Newham’s Childrens Services team appeared before the Education Select Committee this month, a process he described in a team newsletter as “theatre”. Given the track record of his own SEND assessment team, he’s obviously no stranger to expensive farce.
Not every LA is this poor. But in all, there’s very little consistency, not even from one year to the next. Many LAs that failed to meet the 20-week deadline by miles in 2017 did much better in 2018 – but at the same time, other LAs that did OK in 2017 did much worse in the following year.
And even then, you have to look carefully, because these numbers are easily gamed. A couple of years ago, we pointed out a loophole that allowed LAs to make their EHCP deadline statistics look better by shoving large numbers of cases into an “exceptions” category - allowing them to take longer than the standard 20 weeks to produce an EHCP. These “exception cases” are supposed to be just that – exceptional, rare, and most LAs use this get-out option responsibly. Nationally, just 7% of new EHCPs issued in 2018 were classed as exception cases.
But a small number of LAs have some serious explaining to do: Plymouth, Harrow, Stockton, Peterborough, Ealing and Hackney decided to classify at least 30% of their new EHCPs as exception cases, boosting their EHCP completion timeliness stats substantially in the process. Put these cases back in the mix, and their stats look very poor.
A Statement of fact
There’s also another area where serious questions need to be asked – and that’s the tail end of the transition into the new SEND system.
2018 was supposed to see the end of the statement of special educational need – back at the start of the SEND reforms in 2014, the DfE told local authorities that they had to put all 235,000 statements of special educational need through a transfer process by the end of March 2018. The DfE also told LAs that no child should lose out on provision just because of this transfer process – they clearly expected the overwhelming majority of statements to be converted to EHCPs.
In reality, the process of converting statements into EHCPs was a clown show. We covered it extensively at Special Needs Jungle, and you can find damning testimony studded all the way through the written evidence submitted to the Education Select Committee’s SEND inquiry – this submission from the Special Education Consortium is the best single go-to source.
By early 2018 – just weeks before the deadline – local authorities still had tens of thousands of young people’s statements to convert over to the new system. Many LAs missed this deadline, some by miles – and appallingly, the latest batch of DfE data shows there were some pupils out there who still have a zombie statement of special educational need.
And yet - a loss of provision
We have major concerns that many of these rushed EHCP conversions ended up being worse than the statements that preceded them. However, the most recent DfE data sheds some limited light on a related problem – the kids who never made it over from the old system to the new, because their LA decided to bin their statement instead of converting it into an EHCP.
Mercifully, this doesn’t appear to have happened across the board – but there are some LAs who still had a big, big backlog of statements in early 2018, and appear to have binned off an implausibly large number of them rather than convert them into an EHCP.
Take Derbyshire, one of England’s most dependably despicable SEND services. By mid-January 2018, Derbyshire had over 1,200 statements to convert, and only a few weeks to get the job done. Derbyshire took a number of decisions to whittle the backlog down – and as part of that, they decided not to convert 135 of their remaining statements into EHCPs.
"No one should lose their statement and not have it replaced with an education health and care plan just because the system is changing."Edward Timpson, former Minister for SEND,
In the first few weeks in early 2018, Derbyshire binned off more statements of special educational need than they’d binned in the entire previous three years of the SEND reforms. The DfE could not have been clearer – no child with a statement of special educational need should lose out on support simply because of the shift over to a new SEND system. And yet, that appears to be exactly what happened to hundreds of children and young people with SEND in Derbyshire.
What else is happening nationally?
Nationally, most of the long-term trends that emerged from the SEND reforms appear to be continuing:
- The number of EHCPs continues to rise – in January 2019, there were just under 354,000 children & young people with an EHCP or a statement of SEN. That’s 11% up on the same number last year – and roughly speaking, it’s a 45-50% increase since the SEND reforms became law in 2014.
- By age group, the largest single chunk of the growth in EHCPs in the last year has come from the primary school sector. That’s a surprise, as most of the growth in EHCP numbers has previously been in the post-16 sector, particularly in further education.
- You’d expect to see the biggest rises in the post-16 sector, as the SEND reforms have increased entitlement out to the age of 25. However, that’s not happened this year – and there are signs buried deep in the data indicating that some LAs might be aggressively gatekeeping post-16 EHCP entitlement.
- For example, nationally the number of EHCPs that LAs decided to terminate at the end of compulsory school age shot up by over 50% this year - but as with practically everything else here, it’s a postcode lottery. Some LAs are terminating these EHCPs with gay abandon, whilst others barely terminate them at all.
A landmark in specialist provision
The drift towards the specialist sector continues – as of January 2019, there were 136,630 children and young people with EHCPs in special schools. That’s 8% up on the previous year, with growth rates much higher in the small non-maintained and independent part of the specialist sector.
There are now more children and young people with EHCPs in special schools than there are in mainstream state schools. That seems like a landmark to me; whether it’s to be celebrated or deplored depends largely on your own outlook on inclusion, but it’s likely to be bad news for local authority and DfE bean-counters.
There are still thousands of children & young people with EHCPs waiting on SEND provision – this is a figure that gets quoted a lot in the media – it’s a snapshot of a single day in mid-January each year, and it’s a volatile number. Back in January 2017, it was over 4,000, but in January 2018 it had dropped to 2,060.
This year, the overall figure for has gone back up again: in January 2019 the number of children & young people with an EHCP who are awaiting provision stood at 3,486.
This year though, the DfE have helpfully broken this number down a bit:
- Most of the 3,486 awaiting provision aren’t in school, but are waiting for a placement - the rest are in a school or post-16 education setting, but are waiting for the placement or provision in their EHCP to be sorted out.
- Just under half of the 3,486 awaiting provision are over 16 years old.
- Remember, this only includes pupils with EHCPs – it doesn’t include anyone on SEN Support.
Bedding In, or Bogging Down?
We’re now over four years away from the point when the SEND reforms kicked in. These figures don’t provide much comfort for anyone working within in the SEND system, and they don’t provide any comfort to children and families who are subjected to it.
At a national level, there’s little evidence of progress here. 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 2019.
Spend time poking about this data at local level, and there are maddening levels of inconsistency – it’s probably never been more true than right now to say that SEND is a postcode lottery. Optimists looking for solid evidence of sustained progress over time are likely to be disappointed. And astonishingly, there are still some local areas that do not have a designated clinical or medical officer in place to integrate health into the local SEND system.
This is where the system is at. And it’s hard to see where and how it goes upwards from here.
Tomorrow: A look back at the SEND marches
Infographic EHCPs 2019
You can see the data as an interactive map below. If you have a problem viewing, the link is here