Uncovering the origin of the evil EHCP ‘Golden Ticket’ Narrative

The SEND trope of the EHCP “Golden Ticket” has recently once again raised its pernicious head on social media. Over recent years, the term has been employed to imply the wrong-headed idea that having one can open doors to better educational opportunities and support. Frequently, it is insinuated—as Iain Mansfield’s tweet shown does – that while some EHCPs are as a result of ‘genuine need’, others are being issued because parents are “demanding” them when they are not needed.

It’s not the first time in 2023 the narrative has been used. Earlier this year, we at Special Needs Jungle published an article refuting the claim by Tony McArdle (an adviser to the Department for Education) that the SEND crisis is a ‘demand problem’ and that the increase in EHCPs (also, apparently, known as ‘Golden Tickets’) is indicative of families “playing a game” and fighting for plans that offer ‘too much’ provision. It is infuriating, five months later, to see the Head of Education at Policy Exchange ‘the UK’s leading think tank’ spouting the same rubbish as McArdle. But it did get me thinking… where on earth did this idea of the ‘golden ticket’ come from and why is it so pervasive?

Let’s look at that, explore its impact on the discourse surrounding EHCPs, and critically examine its implications for disabled children and their families.

The Emergence of the 'Golden Ticket' Narrative

While this might not be the very original source, the earliest reference I can find to EHCPs as a ‘Golden Ticket’ came in a CQC and Ofsted Report in 2016— although it seems a lot longer ago. If you have evidence of it being used earlier, especially in professional reports, please let us know.

In Local area SEND inspections: one year on, it states (p13): 

30. Children and young people who were identified as needing SEND support but without an EHC plan did not benefit as consistently from a coordinated approach between education, health and care as those with a plan. Consequently, parents reported that getting an EHC plan was like a ‘golden ticket’ to better outcomes, even though an EHC plan was rightly not issued because the complexity of the child’s need did not require it.

Ofsted, EHCPs One Year On

This is not referenced further. It does not state which of the 30 local area inspections that had taken place by then this had originated from, nor how many parents had used the term. Indeed, to me, it sounds as though one parent referred to an EHCP as being ‘like a ‘golden ticket’ to better outcomes’ even though their child’s needs could be met at SEND Support. 

I have been through each of the 30 local area inspection reports that this report relates to (between Summer 2016 and Spring 2017) and cannot find a reference to a golden ticket in any of them. 

More official “golden ticket” references

The Golden Ticket term was repeated in The Annual Report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills 2016/17 (page 19), and the term obviously caught people’s attention as it was then used in a range of places including:

  • a presentation by Joanna Hall, Deputy Director Schools for Ofsted, who stated that diagnostic labels are not a ‘golden ticket’ to accessing services
  • the London Assembly Education Panel Report in 2018 (page 20) who described how parents ‘…are seeing an EHCP as a ‘golden ticket’ to better outcomes many more are applying for an EHCP even if their child’s need might not require it’
  • Amanda Spielman giving evidence to the Public Accounts committee in January 2019 who stated ‘So much of the resource is going on plans. In the current structure, an EHCP is the golden ticket, so there is a great deal of focus among parents to do anything to get a plan. That must, to some extent, mean attention is pulled away from those who fall just outside’ 
  • Mrunal Sisodia, then co-chair of the National Network of Parent Carer Forums (NNPCF), also giving evidence to the Public Accounts Committee, nine months later in September 2019, who also relied on the Golden Ticket narrative, stating ‘Why do parents want a plan? Actually, most parents do not want a plan. They end up having a plan because the plan is seen as the golden ticket to accessing the support their families need. The piece of paper means little for most parents; it is what it represents that is key.’
  • The House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts ‘Support for children with special educational needs and disabilities’ report, states ‘Education, health and care (EHC) plans have become a ‘golden ticket’ that parents fight for to secure access to adequate support for their children.’ (page 3).
  • And Professor Brian Lamb, author of the Lamb Inquiry report in 2009, has also drawn on this language, for example when describing how ‘the EHCP has continued the parental assumption that this was the “golden ticket” to better provision and outcomes in many LAs if they believed non-statutory provision was not secure’. (See SNJ’s article on the Frontiers group of research articles this came from here)

This feels to me like a huge game of Chinese whispers. Not one of these claims of parents seeing an EHCP as a ‘golden ticket’ has been substantiated, except for the fact that maybe one parent used this term in a CQC & Ofsted Local Area SEND Inspection between 2016-2017, and even then that might have been taken out of context as the full transcript is not available nor referenced.

What we can see is that the trope has slowly evolved in a way that lends itself to an anti-parent narrative that we see in articles such as the one by Tony McArdle. A narrative that we see persisting in reports such as the one commissioned by the Local Government Association that suggests articulate middle-class parents are “using” the system and challenging decisions made by local authorities to get more than their child needs, or indeed within the SEND & AP Improvement Plan which is focused on finding ways to reduce the number of ’golden tickets’ sorry, I mean EHCPs, and ensuring that there is a fair system in place. Again, with the suggestion that maybe some parents are “getting more” than their child actually deserves.

Eff off with your demonising nonsense!

Of course, every time the Golden Ticket narrative rears its ugly head, parents are forced to push back, arguing an EHCP is not something anyone “wishes” for their child to have, and the process to secure one is often painful and traumatic. In any case, the existence of the plan does not ensure that the provision within it is actually delivered, the mounting piles of time-consuming paperwork is distressing, and once your child has one, you cannot rest because you need to engage in the annual review process. None of this is anything desirable or in any way ’golden’.

If we look up definitions of ‘golden’ it includes ‘being in a happy or fortunate position’, or synonyms of successful, flourishing, thriving, lucky, joyful… I could go on. This is not the language that is generally used by parents of children who have secured an Education, Health and Care Plan. Of course, if you are struggling to secure any meaningful SEND Support – as the original parent in the Local Area SEND Inspection might have been – the EHCP might look to be attractive in that you imagine it will bring with it the provision your child desperately needs. I do not deny that. 

However, my intention in this short article has been to highlight how clear it is that it’s generally those in positions of influence and responsibility using the term, not ordinary parents. Maybe one parent, or even a small group, spoke about an EHCP in these terms, probably ironically, during an inspection visit six or seven years ago, but this language is being continually reinforced used by the Government, Ofsted and professionals in the SEND system – both attributing it to parents and subsequently blaming parents for the rise in the number of EHCPs. It deflects from the fact that mainstream schools are failing to educate an increasing number of pupils with additional or emerging needs, forcing parents to intervene in a way most do not need to. Indeed, I think that I have demonstrated that there is no evidence whatsoever that parents whose child has an EHCP considers it to be a ‘golden ticket’ to anything. 

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Sharon Smith

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