Last Friday, our parent-carer forum in Surrey, Family Voice joined with Surrey LA and local voluntary and community services to host an SEN reform pathfinder update.
Surrey is one of 31 Local Authorities that make up the 20 pathfinder areas, with Surrey being part of the largest group, the SE7.
We had a great line-up of guests including Stephen Kingdom from the DfE, SEN barrister Gulshanah Choudhuri and Susie Campbell, the woman who has been responsible for pulling together all Surrey's different streams of work for the pathfinder trials - a huge job.
This was an important conference and the right time to update parents whose children these reforms will affect. The draft bill was published last September and since then it has been picked over by parliamentarians, local authorities, charities and lawyers.
Stephen Kingdom, for the DfE, re-stated the Minister in charge, Edward Timpson's assurances that no rights would be taken away from parents or children and that there was definitely scope in the draft bill for a tightening up of the language to make that clear. He said they were working with the Department of Health on structures for redress if a stated provision is not made by a health organisation.
On timescales, he said they would be shorter than they are at present and the requirement for mediation would not extend the timescales for appeal. As mentioned on this website last week, Mr Kingdom confirmed that Speech and Language would stay under the remit of education and said that an ECHP must be as clear and specified as statements "should be".
The Good, Bad & Ugly
Gulshanah Choudhuri of SEN Barristers, called her presentation "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" and addressed some of the legal concerns over the bill's wording, in particular that there is no duty on health to come up with the provisions in the proposed Education, Health and Care plan, beyond a stated commitment in the new NHS Mandate for 'joint commissioning'. She called on the government to make sure that children who may not have an educational need but do have a significant disability and so will need health and care provision are included in the final bill.
Gulshanah also called for the new SEN Code of Practice that must accompany the bill to undergo parliamentary scrutiny because it is the bible that parents, SENCos, lawyers and Local Authorities use and as such it is vital that it is closely inspected to ensure that it is the best it can be. Make it updateable by all means, but first of all, it has to be right.
Co-production a "no-brainer"
I spoke on behalf of Family Voice Surrey as co-producers of the conference and this, in itself shows how far we have come in changing the relationship from being on opposite sides to having our opinions given equal weight. If this government is to be lauded for just one thing it is that parents have been put at the heart of the reform and mandated to be closely involved with any decision-making processes that will, of course, affect our children. Even though my boys are now 15 and 13, with an EHCP going up to 25, we'll be in the system for at least another ten years.
Family Voice Surrey is still a relatively new parent carer forum. We had our launch about this time last year it's been quite a challenging year so far because we had to plunge straight into the pathfinder workstreams as parent representatives.
Fighting to get the right support can be lonely and isolating and frustrating, especially when it seems that the services you need are not available or you're told your child doesn't qualify for them or that you've have to fight for the educational help they need every single step of the way. Expensive legal battles for assistance have become far too common and unacceptably adversarial. We all have many horror stories and they are still being created as this culture change has most definitely not yet filtered through to the coalface of SEN departments up and down the country.
Changing all this is what the reforms are supposed to be about. As parent representatives, we're not there to window dress. After a tentative beginning on all sides, we've worked together for the best part of a year, and our views are listened to. I think that co-production has largely so far been a positive experience. It has most certainly given us a voice as parents and, I think, Surrey has seen the benefits of having the first-hand perspective of SEN services that we bring - even though our views are not perhaps always comfortable to hear.
It's a no-brainier when you look at it. How do you know if you're delivering the right support and services if you don't speak to the people using them and their families?
The Minister, Mr Timpson certainly seems to be listening to those concerns that have been voiced and I hope that the bill's wording is tightened up as soon as possible. Good intentions and assurances are fine, but I think everyone would feel much better if it was down in black and white in the Bill itself.
Reform - expensive but worth it
As for the trials themselves- they are only just beginning. Some families have been recruited, but this is an ongoing process. Key workers- the person who is to guide a family through the whole process- are still being found and trained. The trials will need to be monitored and evaluated and, at the moment while there is nothing in law, a child who qualifies for an EHCP will still also need a statement as their statutory protection.
There is still much work to be done, and as the trials have been extended until September 2014, more money will need to be found to support this. There's no doubt it's going to be hugely expensive by the time the new system is finally in place, but if there's something worth doing, it's this.
In the same way that it is right to support children from difficult backgrounds so that they do not perpetuate the expectation of a life on benefits, it is right to support children with special needs and disabilities because many, though obviously not all, will have a much better chance of becoming a contributing member of society with the right assistance when it counts - in their school years and early adulthood.
This is the way to cut welfare - over a generation of helping our adults of tomorrow reach their potential, have a positive outlook and believe that they can achieve their dreams, wherever they lie. It is the responsibility of today's adults - all of us - to help make that happen.
She is also an experienced broadcast and print journalist & author. Tania also runs a PR, web & social media consultancy, SocialOro Media. She is a Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate with Ehlers Danlos syndrome.
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