Last Thursday, I was representing Special Needs Jungle among a group of parent carer organisations and forums at the Department for Education. We were there to talk about how best the DfE could explain to parents the new special educational needs reforms as set out in the forthcoming SEN Code of Practice.
The difficulty here is that when you say 'parents' you're actually talking about a huge range of people. Parents of children with disabilities are not 'one size fits all' and come from as many walks of life as people do in general. There are two things they do have in common however: a child whose needs are significantly greater than average and the fact that that makes them incredibly busy. In many cases it also makes them very stressed, and this can have an effect on the way they take in information.
For some, the need for answers makes them voracious readers and researchers, able to grapple with complex ideas as they manage on only a few hours sleep a night. For others, such huge amounts of stress and worry can make words bounce off their brains, making helping themselves even more difficult. I don't think it has anything to do with social or education status either; people react to difficult situations in different ways, whatever their background.
So this means that the job of explaining a 250+ page document quite an undertaking as it needs to be pitched at a level that doesn't feel like dumbing down and at the same time, being accessible to all. And the DfE are, quite sensibly, looking to parents to help. Of course, if they'd had a few parents help write the thing in the first place, rather than just consulting and then "feeding back", there might be no need for an explanatory document.
But as we were told on Thursday, "We are where we are," (so please shut up and just do what you've been asked to do). They didn't say the last bit, in brackets. That was all mischievous little me. Of course we're not being asked to actually write the guide either in our spot of co-production, just help on how it should be done and presented. All the same it was very interesting and this guide will be, for many, as important than the actual code because if the system works as well as the government are hoping, there should be little need to consult the code itself in anger. Sorry, I disappeared down Alice's rabbit hole there for a second dreaming about that unlikely scenario.
To be honest, I never looked at the current explanatory booklet when I was writing either of my boys' statement applications - I just needed the parts of the Code itself that supported my arguments and I suspect many other parents did the same. But many parents will need a clear, easy to understand guide to get them started. The day's facilitator Patrick Agius, a DfE Special Needs and Disability official, had gathered together representatives from SEN legal charity, IPSEA; the National Parent Carer Forums organisation, NNPCF and representatives from various local PCFs; The National Parent Parent Partnership, NPPN; Contact a Family and, of course me from SNJ. Asked if the DfE should produce any guide at all, we all agreed that it would be unacceptable not to, especially if they want an 'official' explanation of something that's cost millions of pounds to produce.
My problem with a guide is that most parents who have children with SEN will be concerned with the lower levels of SEN assistance that will be changing from School Action and School Action Plus to the single category of "SEN Support". But, because the DfE was determined to make these levels less "prescriptive" and leave teachers with the flexibility to give children the support they need as an individual, there is very little explanation of what parents can expect as a standard measure in the draft Code of Practice.
This makes it very difficult for a parent to know if their child is getting the level of help that is nationally recommended, because there will be nothing nationally recommended. The Code, instead, makes it clear that it is for the class teacher to decide the level of help any child should get in their subject, in collaboration with the SENCo. This is underpinned by the Code's statement that every teacher is a teacher of children with special educational needs.
The SENCo (presumably) oversees all this and keeps a track of how each child is doing and if, in consultation with the child's teachers, the child is not improving despite interventions, then external specialists such as autism outreach, educational psychologists and speech and language therapists are called in to assess and make recommendations.
Without getting into the complicated area of school funding, at some point, presumably when the child is costing the school more than it receives to fund SEN for each child, or when there isn't the level of expertise required, the SENCo can ask for a statutory assessment. Parents, among others, can ask too and of course, this is why they need to work in close collaboration with the school because there is no other way to know if the levels of input would be sufficient for a local authority to grant an assessment.
Where, despite the school having taken relevant and purposeful action to identify, assess and meet the SEN of the child or young person, the child or young person has not made expected progress, the school or parents should consider requesting an Education, Health and Care assessment. To inform its decision the local authority will expect to see evidence of the action taken by the school as part of SEN support. [From the draft code]
All this needs to be explained in the Code of Practice parents' explanatory booklet. On top of this, how it is to get to parents and in which format are also being discussed. The government is saving money on printing cast quantities of booklets nowadays, but in this case, the need for hard copies is inescapable but this can be tackled using print-on-demand (POD) technology, carefully targetted. Other ways include ebooks of pdf downloads.
These meeting will continue and we, at SNJ, are delighted to be part of it and we'll continue to bring you updates. If you'd like to offer any of your own ideas, please do so in the comments and I'm sure they will be read with interest by us and the powers that be!