Tania writes: Ask anyone who's been through England's new special educational needs statutory assessment as part of the EHCP process, and you're more likely than not to hear a sorry tale. Reality is still far removed from the Utopian vision of parents and practitioners working happily in co-production, that the Department for Education's plans first envisaged.
Later in the week, we'll look at how local authorities and parents have responded to recent surveys on how the implementation are going. However, today I have something that will interest both LA staff and parents.
I recently connected with Helen Gifford, an SEN consultant working with families and schools to help them through the EHCP process. Helen has over 10 years of experience working in the SEND Team of a local authority, initially as a Statement and Review Officer, writing and reviewing statements of SEN, and then as the Team Manager.
Helen has kindly written for us, below, from her experience, her top tips for both parents and case officers in getting through the ECHP process with your sanity intact!
What is going wrong with the SEND reforms and the EHCP process?
In September 2014, the Children and Families Act came into force with promises of a much better experience for children, young people and their families. The days of feeling as though you were engaged in an ongoing battle for services and support were going to be over, and collaborative working with families across services were going to start.
So far, it has mostly not turned out to be quite like that, so what is going wrong?
We can be certain that many local authority SEND teams are still struggling to manage all the changes a year and a half on. There are also significant backlogs of work in many authorities. It is very easy to sit outside the local authority and blame this on staff incompetence. However, I believe that the seeds of the current difficulties were sowed before the Act came into force.
There was a very tight timetable for such a significant change with the Green Paper consulting on the reform published in March 2011, and the new arrangements coming in for September 2014.
This timetable was so tight that the final report on the testing of the new system by selected authorities was only published in July 2015, after the reforms had been in place for a whole academic year. So, the practical side of the run up to the new legislation coming into force was too short.
The pathfinders not having run large scale trials and there being no time after the pathfinders reported and before the new legislation came into force meant that the lessons learnt by the pathfinders were not generally translated into authorities' practice. Therefore, everyone is trying to do this now, whilst running the new system, alongside the old one, which was always going to be challenging.
Another difficulty is that the new system of Education Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) is significantly more labour intensive for SEND teams if done properly. The level of this was underestimated in many authorities at the start. It used to be possible to write a statement without the SEND officer having ever even spoken to the child, parents, school etc., but now a much more collaborative approach is needed so that the EHCP is produced with families - and that takes time.
In my view, the vast majority of front line staff are committed to working with families and have come into this work because they want to make a positive difference to children with SEND. However, the sheer volume of work, and continuing confusion around the new rules at every level and in all the organisations that are involved, is a significant barrier.
Compounding this, where additional staff are being brought in, it is often on short contracts, as we are in a time of funding cuts to authorities. To make things worse, the extra staff may not have experience of this area of work and so all the time they are there, they are learning rather than fully competent, and then their contract ends. The high level of pressure in EHCP work certainly appears to be having a negative impact in many authorities on staff retention, and staff sickness, which just compounds the difficulties.
One more complication is that a number of authorities have used this significant change as an opportunity to tighten up on 'criteria' for assessing children and young people for EHCPs compared to the ‘criteria’ that were used for statements. The Department for Education has been clear that the change to ECHPs should not change when an authority decides to produce an ECHP (statement in the past). However, if an authority had not already updated their ‘criteria’ to reflect earlier funding changes (schools having delegated funding of up to £6000 per child to make special educational provision), it made sense in terms of the organisation to do so when already rethinking your authority’s SEND arrangements to fit EHCPs. Unfortunately, this does nothing to help schools and families and SEND teams adjust to EHCPs if the underlying assumptions of who needs a ECHP/statement have also changed.
What can be done? My views
The continuation of the extra funding to local authorities to support implementing the reforms for another year is helpful, as long as it is spent on training, staffing, and work to improve systems and cross agency working, including pooling budgets.
- The most urgent needs appear to be getting staff up to speed on the new legal framework, and developing collaborative working skills. IPSEA offers an excellent online legal training course which is well worth investing in, although staff new to this area of work will be likely to need support from more experienced staff to work through it, as it will be best studied with real life examples of how the law is applied in different cases. Staff with experience will know of cases they can relate the training to. I also highly recommend Jordan’s annual SEN Law and Practice Conference for updates on developments in case law, as well as an overview of the system.
- To turn to collaborative working training, person-centred planning skills need more development in quite a number of authorities. There may well be experts in this in social care departments who can help and there is expertise outside LAs. The Council for Disabled Children (CDC) also offers a range of training and support for professionals, and their involvement in the Delivering Better Outcomes Together consortium has contributed to helpful advice.
- For SEN caseworkers, I would also recommend developing active listening skills in order to hear what others are really saying– a quick Google of ‘active listening’ skills will bring up lots of ideas that can be explored in teams. I also think that time needs to be found for more experienced members of staff to co-work cases with new staff, and for the more experienced staff members to be supported to develop coaching skills, so that they can coach new staff as they develop. I would recommend coaching for everyone in time. With these plans in place, then there will be the underlying support that new, inexperienced staff need to develop their skills.
- All local authorities have designed their own systems, which is entirely understandable given the timescales of the reforms, but this means that best practice has not yet been disseminated across the country. Therefore, I would recommend local authorities getting together to compare and contrast systems, and share ideas and experiences. In London and the South East, there is termly SEN Officers Conference that supports this, but in my time in the local authorities, I think the most valuable thing we did was when the whole SEN Team got together with another authority’s SEN Team and we looked at our practice together over a day in the summer holidays. Cherished ideas were challenged by people who understood why we were doing what we were doing, and there was lots of mutual support. Such an approach could also help with cross-agency working – some shared meetings across different teams from the different agencies to examine where there are difficulties, and agree mutually acceptable solutions.
- Pooling budgets is envisaged by the reforms and was always going to be difficult. We seem to be a long way off this yet, and I think that the engagement of senior staff across local authorities and the NHS with responsibility for these budgets is still an area that needs development. I can understand that senior staff are likely to feel a long way from these reforms which are heavily focused improving on individuals’ experience and outcomes, but their buy in is essential to start movement on pooling budgets. It is not always easy for staff closer to the front-line to influence up, but passing ideas up the organisation structure with clear benefits to children and compliance with the new system may help. One way to start pooling budgets may be to pick a small area like funding for AAC devices where authorities and the NHS often already share costs, and pool that budget, and build from there.
What to do as parents when it doesn't go as planned
For families, the most important thing is to get support and advice as you feel you need it in dealing with EHCPs. Do try to keep in mind that any problems or refusals are unlikely to be personal. Here are some tips to remember:
- While it is helpful to bear in mind the difficulties in local authorities at this time, this does not mean let them off the hook. Do hold the authority to account for their decisions and actions where that needs doing. This is the major way that authorities become aware of where things are going wrong, which creates the opportunity for them to do something about it.
- If you feel that a decision is wrong, I would suggest raising this with your SEN caseworker first and if you are not satisfied with the reply or do not feel that your caseworker will be helpful, contact the team manager.
- Ask for face to face meetings, and mediation or dispute resolution is also helpful. Moving your situation from paperwork to personal by actually meeting the decision-maker face-to-face really can help.
- If your school support you in challenging the decision, ask the authority’s decision-maker to meet you with the school so that it’s clear that you are supported in your concerns.
- In terms of paperwork, do make sure that your child’s difficulties, what is currently happening, what is helpful, what is not or less helpful, and what you would like to happen are clearly spelt out. It is really easy to submit paperwork for EHCP requests that isn't sufficiently clear for people who do not know your child at all and who might not know the school either. This means they may not grasp how difficult things are – and nearly everyone on the panel who considers your request will fall into this category of a stranger to school or child or both.
- If you can get someone who does not know your child to read through any submissions and let you know the impression that they have got from the submission, that can be really helpful to make sure that it makes the points you need it to. Your local Information, Advice and Support Service (IASS), formerly known as Parent Partnership or independent supporters should be able to do this, or a friend from work may be able to help.
I do still think that the reforms have the potential to improve the experience for families in the EHCP process as opposed to the statementing process, but there is still a long long way to go. Let’s keep our hopes and expectations high for the longer term, and see if we can pull the system along with us.
- Top tips for navigating an EHCP process – for both parents and SEN departments! - February 21, 2016