Is the Government rationing EHC plans?

MPs on the House of Commons Education Select Committee invited the Children’s Minister, Claire Coutinho, in for a chat this week about the SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan. Members of the committee mostly wanted to know about things like school places, staff shortages, teacher training and whether there’s enough funding in the system. (Except for one MP who wanted to know if the current SEND crisis could be blamed on mothers not interacting enough with their young children. More on him in a moment.) 

What’s the plan for EHC plans?

The most pertinent question came near the start of the session from the chair, former Schools Minister Robin Walker MP, who asked, “...what was the reasoning behind the Department for Education’s refusal to publish projections on how the planned reforms…will reduce demand for EHCPs?” There are many people who would very much like to know the answer to this. 

Mr Walker went on to ask whether it’s the Government’s intention to reduce the overall number of children and young people who have an EHC plan, and whether there is a central government plan to “ration” EHC plans. Ms Coutinho’s answer to this was an unequivocal “no”. 

The minister was thoughtful, sincere and articulate in her responses – and apparently completely confident that the Government’s planned SEND reforms will improve children and young people’s access to specialist support that meets their needs.

But assuming that officials have carried out financial modelling on the anticipated decline in future need for EHC plans (a Freedom of Information request revealed that DfE has this information but won’t share it), how will this work? 

How can costs be contained without provision being reduced, in a climate where children and young people are already routinely and unlawfully denied the special educational provision they are entitled to? 

Early intervention

Ms Coutinho is pinning her hopes on early intervention, which she believes will prevent enough children’s needs from escalating to the point where they need an EHC plan to reduce the overall number of EHC plans in the system – which, however it’s presented, does seem to be the Government’s aim. 

If a child needs extra support, it’s vital to identify this and put the support they need in place as early as possible. But there are many children and young people whose special educational needs and disabilities don’t work that way, who will always need support and who can’t be “fixed” by a short-term intervention. 

While the minister believes that the number of children and young people needing an EHC plan will shrink if early intervention is prioritised, she and senior civil servant, Alison Ismail, DfE’s Director for SEND and Alternative Provision, who was also giving evidence, insist that the Government “isn’t projecting to a particular target”. 

Ms Coutinho also emphasised that the reformed system would be flexible enough to support children and young people with the most complex needs. This includes the plan to introduce bands and tariffs, where the priority this year is to understand “variations in pricing structures” between different settings.

Why is there so much “demand”?

The underlying theme of select committee sessions on SEND provision these days is invariably “demand” and how to contain it. The tone was set by the chair in the very first question, with his reference to “unprecedented increase in demand” for special educational provision. 

Nick Fletcher, the Conservative MP for Don Valley, subsequently pursued the question of why there is so much “demand” (i.e., why there are so many children and young people with SEND), and why we aren’t spending money on finding out the answer rather than on things like psychologists and therapists (I paraphrase, but only slightly.) He wanted to talk about mothers’ interactions with their babies and the impact of childcare on cognitive development, and suggested the Government is spending money on all the wrong things.

The minister seemed a bit baffled by this train of thought, as well she might be. She was having no truck with any suggestion that children are developing special educational needs because of maternal carelessness or time spent in childcare settings. (A bit later, Alison Ismail neatly made the point in answer to a question on co-production that parents include fathers as well as mothers.)

Reassuring parents on tailored lists of schools

On the subject of parents, Miriam Cates MP raised parents’ concerns about the plan to introduce “tailored lists” of schools from which parents can choose. She asked if the minister could reassure parents that the plan to reduce their right to choose an education setting for their child was not based on cost. Ms Coutinho was emphatic that the intention is to improve the information parents receive and help them navigate the system. 

Asked about whether independent non-maintained special schools, which may be some distance from a child’s home, would feature on a local authority’s tailored list, the minister said that “every now and again” a child or young person may need a particular specialist setting outside their home area, and she wanted this to remain a possibility. 

But the Government’s ambition is to build new special schools and increase capacity in existing special schools, so that more children will have a school place closer to their home. DfE is currently carrying out a detailed scoping exercise looking at both capacity and demand for places at special schools (an activity that local authorities as strategic commissioners should surely already be undertaking on a regular basis).

Where’s the accountability?

The question of accountability –or lack thereof – was touched on, with Anna Firth MP asking what mechanisms are being considered, “to ensure that organisations that fail to meet their statutory obligations are dealt with”. This failure to deal with non-compliance with the law is of course at the centre of why the SEND system currently fails so many children and young people.

The answer wasn’t particularly cheering, because it seems that it’s largely going to be more of the same: an updated local area inspection framework, local inclusion partnerships, DfE improvement notices, etc. The minister says there will be a stronger “ladder of intervention”. We will wait to see what this means in practice.

Mandatory mediation – no-one wants it

One of the most eye-catching proposals in the SEND green paper was the plan to make mediation mandatory. This was raised by the Labour MP Mohammad Yasin, who asked, essentially, why – given that no one wants mandatory mediation – the Government remains committed to it.

Ms Coutinho reiterated the point she made in our webinar earlier this month that mandatory mediation wouldn’t be tested under the forthcoming SEND Change Programme, and that her aim is to make sure that “high-quality mediation” is more widely available. Again, it remains to be seen how this will work for children and families.

These are just some of the issues covered in this select committee evidence session. You can watch the full session here.

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Catriona Moore
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