How SEND parent support in England is changing, by Christine Lenehan

How SEND parent support in England is changing

For the first four years of the reformed SEND system in England, families had available to them a free Independent Supporter who would assist them through the process of transferring from their child's SEN statement to an EHCP, or for a new application.

The IS service was funded by the government, who contracted the Council for Disabled Children to run it. Although not every parent found out about this service, as many were not told by their case officers that it existed, those who used it found it invaluable. But as of today, because as the transfer process is coming to an end, so has the IS programme. Now, the IS programme is NOT the same as the Information, Advice and Support Service (IASS) that was, and continues to be, provided as a duty by local authorities, at arm's length.

So what help will there be instead? Earlier this year, the Department for Education tendered out new contracts to supply a workforce support service, a national SEND helpline and a new-look national parent support service. This was won by a consortium of disabled children's charities, including the CDC.

I confess, I've been very confused about how this is going to work and I know I'm far from alone in this. So I asked Dame Christine Lenehan, the Director of the Council for Disabled Children, who are the largest part of the consortium, to set it out in easy to understand terms for everyone and she has kindly obliged...

Guide to acronyms:

  • CDC: Council for Disabled Children
  • IS: Independent Support
  • IAS/IASS: Information, Advice and Support (Service)
  • IPSEA: Independent Parental Special Education Advice
  • DfE: Department for Education
  • IASSN: Information, Advice and Support Service Network

What's next for SEND parents' support in England by Dame Christine Lenehan

In May 2018, the Department for Education (DfE) announced a new two-year contract award to the Council for Disabled Children to lead the Information, Advice and Support Programme. This new programme of work will be delivered in close partnership with Contact and supported by IPSEA.

Alongside this announcement, the DfE also confirmed that after four years and four months, the Independent Support (IS) programme would end on 31 July 2018 - today. This was not unexpected news – IS has always been a timeline programme, initially funded for 18 months with the specific aim of providing additional capacity for the transfers from Statements to EHC Plans.

That work is mostly completed across local authority areas and therefore the demand for IS is not at the same level as it has been in previous years. As we come to the end of IS, we are pleased that the existing IS agencies and the SEND Information, Advice and Support Service (IASS), have been working together to ensure parents and young people know of the changes from 1st August 2018.

Christine Lenehan
Christine Lenehan

We would also like to emphasise that the range of support offered in previous years will continue to be available from local IAS Services, who have always had a statutory responsibility to provide support on a wide range of SEND issues, including the statutory assessment process, to children, young people and parents.

We are incredibly proud of the achievements of the Independent Support service since the reforms first began. It has played a vital role and it is unlikely that the system would have been able to cope without the additional capacity it provided. The programme was accessed by over 160,000 users throughout its life. And we are extremely thankful to IASS and all the private, voluntary and community organisations, staff and volunteers, who contributed towards its success. 

The new IAS Programme

So, what are we doing now to improve the frontline IAS available to children, young people and parents? The work of the new programme aims to look at information, advice and support for children and young people with SEND and their parents as a whole. It primarily works through and with IAS Services. If you’re not sure what an IAS Service is, or what they should do, please click here. The core work of the programme can be broken down into four key components:

  1. Seek service improvements over time

Through the new IAS programme, we will fund eligible IAS Services in the first year to conduct a detailed self-review exercise to establish how the service is delivering on its responsibilities as required by the Children and Families Act 2014 and SEND Code of Practice. Parents and other key stakeholders will be asked to contribute to their local review. After the review, each service will be required to develop a two-year operational plan that meets our new minimum standards*. These plans will be submitted to the CDC for review and if they meet the standards, that area's IAS Service will be awarded additional funding from April 2019. This extra money will enable further service improvements for the children, young people and parents it supports.

  1. Strategic Support for IAS Services

One of the issues we are aware of is the variation of how IAS Services operate nationally. Although this can sometimes be as a result of the size and needs of a local area, it can also reflect services which are significantly underfunded, or not operating in line with statutory requirements. The new programme means all IAS Services in England will be expected to follow our new minimum standards, based on relevant law and guidance. The standards will give a short, but clear, picture to professionals, parents and young people about what they should expect of their local IAS Service.

  1. Day to day support for IAS Services

A range of support will be provided to IAS Services across the country – including an extensive national training programme. This will have IPSEA’s three-stage SEND legal training at its core and will also cover relevant issues including Post-16 support, early years, mental health, disability discrimination and others. The Information, Advice and Support Service Network team here at CDC also provide a fortnightly newsletter, national e-forum and ad hoc support to services throughout the year.

  1. Contact Helpline

The charity, Contact, has been providing SEND phone support to families for some time, although the new programme requires us to look collectively at how this phone advice can complement and support the work taking place on the ground from IAS Services. This is something we will be exploring in the months ahead, and more info on their helpline can be found on Contact’s website.

The impact of our work

We have already been providing support to IAS Services for several years through the IASS Network and the IS programme. This new programme provides us with a unique opportunity to further examine practice nationally. We can then follow that up with support and/or challenge, to make sure that accurate and impartial information, advice and support is being provided.

Over recent years, we've carried out national surveys looking at IAS Service user feedback. In 2017, 95% of users said their local service was ‘neutral, fair and unbiased’, while 89% thought their local service made a difference. Additionally, most IAS services involved in a recent review had a clear focus on empowering users to navigate SEND law, policy and practice. The review also showed that despite being provided by the local authority, IAS services give a high priority to being impartial and this is firmly embedded in practice. But we also know that the vast majority of services are still facing significant issues with capacity and funding, and services are still working under LA commissioners and managers whose understanding of the true role of IAS Service varies.

The priorities and aims of the programme for us are clear. It is a significant amount of funding and we want to ensure that it results in significant change to services on the ground for children, young people and their parents. To help us understand that, the programme will be independently evaluated and our activities scrutinised by the funder. However, our overall aim is that we get to a point where, quite simply, parents, children and young people are confident they can receive free, accurate and impartial support from their local IAS Service.

If you would like to follow the progress of the programme please see the IASP website, and you can email us if you have any queries regarding this support at

*Minimum Standards for IASS - Draft for Consultation

UPDATE: The proposed minimum standards for IASS were published in 2018. The quote below if from the relevant page on the CDC website.

The Minimum Standards for Information Advice and Support Services (IASS, sometimes known as SENDIASS) were finalised in September 2018. These are part of the IAS Programme and will be the basis of future operational plans and linked funding in 2019/20.

The standards were drawn up by a group of IASS managers, parents, LA reps and the chair of the IASP board, in consultation with the DfE. They are based on the law, the SEND Code and the IASS Quality Standards (which they now supercede). The consultation process recieved feedback from IAS Services, LA staff, third sector organisations, health services and parents.

We use the term ‘advocacy’ in these standards, and we are using a definition of advocacy which we think accurately describes the work and role of IASS.

An easy read version of the standards is available here.

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Tania Tirraoro

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