As part of the SEN reforms, councils have a duty to provide a 'local offer' of services available in their area for children, young people and families with special needs and disabilities.
At present local council SEN departments are (or should be) feverishly constructing systems for presenting this vital data as well as sourcing the information to go in it. As to who, how and how much a child can access and at what stage, well that still isn't clear as yet.
Experienced SEN Consultant Ben Palmer, who is a Parent Carer Participation Associate with Contact A Family has written for us about his views of the Local Offer and what local authorities should be asking themselves when they put their offer together...
The draft Special Educational Needs (Local Offer) (England) Regulations 2014 sets out requirements for local authorities for the development of their local offer. The regulations state that when preparing and reviewing its local offer local authorities ‘must' consult children and young people with Special Educational Needs (SEN) and their parents and carers.
The regulations detail the areas for consultation as: the services required; how the information is to be set out when published; how the local offer will be made available for those without access to the Internet, or made accessible to those with a disability; and how they can provide comments on the local offer.
The regulations state that local authorities 'must seek’ comments in the following areas:
- the content of its local offer,
- the quality of the provision available
- any provision that is not available
- the accessibility of the information
- how the local offer has been developed or reviewed
- how children, parents and young people have been involved in the development and review of the local offer.
Local authorities ‘must’ publish comments received by or on behalf of those people, and its response to those comments on its website, at least annually in a form that does not enable any individual to be identified.
User led or Technology led?
I was at a meeting recently where a number of parties were considering how best to develop a ‘Local Offer’ for publication on a particular areas website. What struck me was how much people were looking at the requirements from the perspective of ‘What technology do we have to do this?’ rather than ‘What is it that we actually want, and need?’
The meeting itself included people from various professional backgrounds, and a number of parents involved in the local Parent Carer Forum. (Interestingly, there were no arrangements in place at that time for the inclusion of children and young people to be a part of the discussion.)
It is my understanding that local authorities were previously incentivised to build their websites around standard platforms, and with general categories for the information held, such as: 'Council and Democracy, Education and Learning, Health and Social Care etc. I understand that the intention was to make it easier for visitors to find the information they wanted across different local authority websites; however anecdotal feedback I’ve encountered from people who use these websites regularly, reveals that their experiences does not necessarily match this intention.
It’s not as through central government hasn’t learned to adapt to the technology and manner in which people access information. I think the ‘Digital by Default’ process is interesting in its approach to understanding how people use, and want to use, technology to access information, and how make sure this is central to how it is designed. The information published on the Digital by Default process available on gov.uk identifies 'The most important step for a team is to identify the needs of its users. These form the basis for the development of a service...'
I am working with a group of website designers who utilise an ‘User Experience’ approach, based around their understanding the needs of users, and designing around this understanding. Both this approach, and the principles set out in the Digital by Default Service Standard draw many similarities to the principles of participation, namely to ‘talk to the customer…’
The changes in legislation aim to achieve effective and meaningful participation with children and young people with SEND and their parents and carers in the design and development of services. Yet how this happens in practice depends on many factors, including the balance of understanding and influence of professionals, the right environment for participation being present and the willingness of all parties to engage in open and honest communication.
There are legitimate challenges ahead for both local authorities in ensure compliance with the pending ‘Children and Families Act’ and the Special Educational Needs Code of Practice, and for children, young people and families in ensuring they are included within these developments.
Solutions are out there waiting to be discovered, but by restricting our thinking to that which we know and are familiar with, rather than simply ’talking to the customer’ we may very well be in the position of seeing a series of ‘Local Offers’, each a carbon copy of the next and, very much developed in the same way in which existing local authority websites appear to be.
By putting our concerns to one side, engaging with the people for whom the 'Local Offer' is intended and by taking a fresh view of what is needed we may find ourselves more open to creative solutions. In my experience the best ideas in terms of innovation and efficiency have come from those not restricted by the real or imagined constraints of the public sector, namely families themselves.
With this approach, we may end up with a broad range of ‘Local Offers’ each with their own unique attributes, but that reflects the needs of the people in their areas, and that each demonstrate that they have clearly been co-produced with children, young people and families as equal partners.
So the question, 'How well will ‘Local Offers’ reflect local people?’ will depend entirely on how much effort each local authority puts into understanding its users' needs.
Ben Palmer, Shortland Palmer Consultancy.
Have you been asked about your area's Local Offer or not? Have you submitted information as a provider? What's your view?