For the last year, I've been monitoring the start of consultations and legislation for the Welsh government's reforms to their special educational needs system, or Additional Learning Needs (ALN). Now, the Additional Learning Needs and Education Tribunal (Wales) Bill has been introduced to the National Assembly for Wales.
I've been wanting to write about it for some time, so I was pleased when SEN solicitor, Ed Duff, mentioned to me he'd now moved to a practice in South Wales and was involved in the process. I've known Ed since I spoke at a conference held by his former firm and he is a firm parent champion. Today Ed has written for us about the reforms and what they mean for families in Wales.
What you need to know about the Welsh SEN reforms
The Welsh Assembly has been looking to change the system of special educational needs since 2005. The motivation for the change is that the current system lacks accountability and transparency and forces parents to 'fight' for the support their children and young people require.
A White Paper setting out the proposed changes was published on 22nd May 2014. Following a lengthy process of consultation, the Additional Learning Needs Bill was published in December 2016.
The Additional Learning Needs Bill
The purpose of the reforms is to try to make the special educational needs system more inclusive. That is the rationale behind the adoption of the term "Additional Learning Needs" rather than "Special Educational Needs". The legal definition has not changed, so this seems to be purely a change of terminology.
The general principles of the reforms are:
- Paramount consideration must be the best interest of learners;
- Opinions of affected learners, and parents, should be taken on board;
- All learners should expect to have all the needs identified and catered for;
- Securing an assessment of need, and provision for those needs, should be far simpler and less adversarial.
The Additional Learning Needs Bill aims to provide one system of support for all learners aged 0-25 with additional learning needs. The graduated system of School Action / School Action Plus and Statement of Special Educational Needs will be replaced by one document; the Individual Development Plan. The hope is that in introducing one document, disputes and appeals will be reduced.
Summary of Proposals
Below is a summary of the key changes:
- Replacing the term "special educational needs" with "additional learning needs". This will also change SENCO to ALNCO and "special educational provision" to "additional learning provision".
- Individual Development Plans (IDPs) will replace Statements of Special Educational Needs, Learning Difficulty Assessments and Individual Education Plans. The IDP must contain description of need and provision.
- The IDP will typically be prepared by schools. It is proposed that only those learners with the most profound additional learning needs will secure an IDP from their local authority. This means that the majority of learner with ALN will have to be assessed by their schools. If a school or parent believes that a learner has needs requiring local authority intervention, either may request the local authority's support in assessing the learner's ALN.
- ALN support will be available from 0 - 25. At the moment, however, Higher Education and Apprenticeships are not included.
- The duty to provide the additional learning provision within the IDP will be reduced to take "all reasonable steps" rather than an absolute statutory duty.
- Local authorities must ensure that learners and their parents are involved and have their views taken into account from the outset and throughout the IDP assessment and planning process.
- Local authorities, Local Health Boards and Further Education Institutions will need to co-operate and share information and assessing, planning and delivering provision to meet the ALN of learners.
- Local authorities must set up disagreement resolution services and "make arrangements for the provision" of independent advocacy services which will advice and assist with bringing an appeal to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal for Wales.
- The issues which the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal for Wales will have to deal with will be:
(a) a decision that a learner does not have ALN
(b) a decision not to make an IDP
(c) a refusal to review an IDP
(d) the content of an IDP
(e) a failure to make the provision in the IDP
(f) the school named in the IDP
(g) a decision to cease to maintain an IDP
(h) a declaration that the learner does not have capacity to run an appeal themselves
- Whilst there is a right of appeal against a decision that a learner does not have ALN, there does not appear to be a right of appeal against a decision by a local authority to refuse to assess a learner's ALN.
- There is no proposed template for an IDP. Originally, it was thought that this would be left to each school / local authority. Following a stakeholder event in January 2017, however, it seems that a template may be prepared.
What this means for parents and learners
Whilst the ethos of the reforms is positive, there are a number of concerning proposals which dilute duties to assess and provide for learner's needs. It also seems that there are incomplete remedies available for parents and learners.
Requiring schools to prepare IDPs for learners with ALN creates significant additional work. It means increasing from approximately 15,000 learners with Statements to over 100,000 learners with IDPs. The Bill seems to envisage at ALNCOs (formerly SENCOs) will be able to manage this significant additional work.
There are concerns that relationships between schools and local authorities may well become strained. If a school need the help of a local authority to assess and plan provision, but the local authority refuse, there does not seem to be a right of appeal. This likely means that learners with complex needs will lose out.
As the Regulations and the Code of Practice have not yet been released, there is no information about the assessment process or how IDPs should be prepared. This suggests that there may well be significant variation in quality of assessment and provision.
Increasing the scope of support to include 0 - 25 is positive. But that will require significant additional sources of time, professionals and money. These resources simply do not exist. The budget for the reforms currently appears to be £20 million. The reforms in England have already cost well in excess of £600 million. Those reforms are facing serious difficulties. Whilst the population is bigger, the disparity in the budget is very concerning.