About six months ago, SNJ began looking into something that local authorities have become increasingly keen on - outsourcing the producing of draft Education, Health & Care Plans (EHCPs) to private companies. Roughly one in three English LAs have outsourced the production of draft EHCPs to third-party firms so far, and the volume of plans produced this way is growing fast.
We pointed out the potential pros and cons of EHCP outsourcing here. This is a way of working that is hard to square with the “co-production” principles of the 2014 SEND reforms – but LAs are struggling to cope with their EHCP workload, and outsourcing parts of the process can help get more EHCPs produced on time.
On the other hand, we also noted that outsourcing EHCPs carried a range of potential risks – particularly with data protection. Parents were largely unaware that their LA was outsourcing bits of the EHCP production process, and the bottom-line remained unclear – are EHCPs produced with the help of outsourcing firms timely, high-quality, and lawful?
Miriam Henson, from one of the main firms involved in EHCP outsourcing – Enhance EHC Ltd – recently contacted SNJ to offer their perspective on how the business works in practice. We asked SNJ readers for questions to put to them. Read on to find out what we asked, and what they said… Please note, we have included their answers verbatim, as you would expect.
Who are Enhance EHC?
Can you give us some background on Enhance EHC – who you are, and how long you’ve been working in this area?
Enhance EHC - We are an Essex-based company, providing SEN document-drafting support to around 30 Local Authorities (LAs) currently. The business is owned and run by Miriam Henson, Managing Director, and Corinna Bourke, Operations Director. We have an office-based team of 10 staff and a team of 55 writers, who are employed on a flexible basis. We have a longstanding and committed team; a large proportion of the writers have been part of the team for over five years, and many of those for over 10 years. We are very proud of the flexible and supportive service we provide for LAs and the flexible and supportive work opportunities we provide for our staff.
We have been supporting LAs since 1996 and have produced over 100,000 draft documents in total. We play a small but important role in the EHC plan writing process: prepopulating the plan template by extracting the relevant information from the assessment documentation, so that this can be used as the basis for further discussion between the LA, child/young person, parents and professionals. We do this in an objective manner: we do not generate any of our own information; all information comes directly from professional advice.
The main thing parents worry about with EHCP outsourcing is consent. We haven’t come across a single parent yet who knew from the LA that their child’s EHCP had been outsourced to a private company.
Does Enhance EHC check to see whether LAs have obtained consent from parents, and what do you do if you find out that LAs haven’t? And does Enhance EHC think that LAs should be telling parents?
Enhance EHC - Ensuring that we are compliant with the Data Protection Act has always been a key priority for us, and we have always expected that the LAs will be meeting their obligations likewise. Young people / parents are entitled to know where their information is shared and LAs should have adequate procedures around this. Most importantly, LAs have a duty to ensure that any external service used will a) treat data with the requisite care and b) perform the service to at least the same standard as any such function within the LA.
Since this issue has been raised to us we have communicated to all our customers our expectation that they are meeting their obligations in this respect.
Parents’ second biggest concern is data protection. How does Enhance make sure that young people’s personal data is stored and transmitted securely, within your own systems and on the computers that your writers use?
Enhance EHC - We are continually evaluating and improving our data management to ensure that we are compliant with changing legal requirements. We use Box Enterprise for all internal data transfer and storage – which is a government-approved (G-Cloud) system; several LAs use the same system internally themselves. The key advantage of the system is that our writers can access, edit and save work from their Box account directly, without the data being stored on their computers. Without going into the very technical details, I hope it is some reassurance that we specifically invested in this system because it complies with government standards.
We have a rigorous data management policy, and staff are trained in data protection practices. These include securing access to information, strict timescales for retention of information and secure deletion processes. All staff are enhanced DBS checked and have at least Level 2 Safeguarding certification.
Can you tell us a bit about the staff that Enhance EHC use to write the plans? What background do they come from, and what are the minimum standards of expertise and experience you demand from your writers?
Enhance EHC - Our staff come from a range of different backgrounds and experiences. We have many writers who have come from various roles within education, health and care, including some previously working within LA SEN departments in plan-writing roles, and several who have children with SEND themselves. However, we recruit on the basis of writing ability and analysis skills, along with work attitude, as we train all staff fully in the Code of Practice and plan drafting. Our recruitment process involves applicants undertaking a mock sample plan, which is an effective way of judging aptitude and potential. Even writers who have worked in SEN for LAs previously have to work their way up through our training programme, to ensure that they meet our high standards and that our work is consistent across the whole team. Training is on a one-to-one basis, intensive and thorough – it typically takes 6-12 months to fully train a new writer.
Many of our writers apply to work for us as a result of a particular interest in SEND, and all care very deeply about the work. The flexible opportunities we offer allow many of our writers to work when they would not otherwise have been able to engage in ‘normal’ 9-5 working – for example due to a disability or caring responsibilities.
What training do your staff get in SEND law and the Code of Practice, and where do you get the training from?
Enhance EHC - We have an internal training programme that has been developed over 20 years of SEN document writing. During this time, we have lived and breathed statement and EHC plan writing, working closely with LAs every step of the way. From Every Child Matters, to the Lamb Enquiry, to the green paper for the Children and Families Act – following which we submitted consultation responses to the government, worked on pilot projects with LAs, attended meetings and training sessions with Pathfinder authorities, developed our own templates, dissected each iteration of the Code of Practice, read the legislation, looked at every guidance document going (not only those from the Pathfinders, Nasen, Ipsea, the Council for Disabled Children, the DfE, Douglas Silas, Wolfe & Glenister etc, but also those developed by the many individual LAs that we support) – all of which informed and continue to inform our training programme. Our training is also dynamic – even two and a half years on, thinking is still evolving: case law develops from Tribunal results, further food for thought comes from the OFSTED SEN department inspections and we continue to attend conferences and meetings with LAs, and follow SEN news to stay updated – adjusting our approaches as needed and feeding this into our ongoing monthly training sessions for our writers.
Roughly speaking, how long does it take one of your writers to draft an EHCP, and who checks their work?
Enhance EHC - This is hugely variable, depending on the particular case, the amount and nature of the professional reports sent, the LA’s template and the writer. It can take up to five hours to produce an initial draft, which will then be looked at further within the LA.
Our trainee writers have all their work thoroughly checked by an experienced plan writer, and we spot check 25-33% of our premium writers’ work to continually monitor quality levels. Each writer is the responsibility of one of the members of office staff, who deal with any quality issues arising.
We only produce draft plans – not the finished article – so these will go on to be worked on by LA staff, in collaboration with the child/young person and parents. We regularly receive positive feedback from LA staff and our satisfaction rate is high – with quality issues raised on only 0.2% of work.
When Enhance EHC puts a draft EHCP together, what do you do to make sure that the EHCP is lawful when circumstances make things difficult?
For example, if the professional reports that the LA sends you aren’t specified and quantified, or if you don’t get sent input from annual reviews, health, social care, parents or young people, what do you do? Do you revert back to the LA before drafting, do you point out the failings to the LA once the draft is done, or do you do nothing?
Insufficient or poor quality advice is the greatest source of frustration for us. If a report appears to be missing, then we will go back to the LA and chase for this before drafting. If it is the case that all expected reports are there, but they do not provide the requisite information, then we do the best job we can with the advice available, and flag the issues for the LA to address – we attach a cover sheet to every draft we return, with specific notes on the case. We can only reflect the professional information given to us, as it is fundamental to our approach that we remain objective and do not generate any of our own information.
We feed back overall concerns about advice quality through general communication with the LA: via email, phone calls and/or face-to-face meetings. For example, on a number of occasions we have alerted the LA to the fact that a school has been using ‘cut-and-paste’ standard wording in multiple children’s Annual Reviews / Transfer Reviews.
We also work with LAs to improve the quality of their advice – for example through helping them develop advice formats that ask the necessary questions to generate good quality information. Ultimately, our aim is always to remove the time-consuming initial plan drafting from frontline LA staff, so that they can focus their attention on the activities that contribute to improving information-gathering and therefore plan content: working directly with children/young people, families, schools and professionals, and guiding them through the process.
How do you think the quality of Enhance-drafted EHCPs compares with those done by in-house LA staff? And why?
Enhance EHC - This very much depends on which LA you are talking about! We get to see many examples of LA-drafted plans, for example when new customers send us examples for reference, or when children/young people transfer between areas and move with a plan from an LA that is not one of our customers. I don’t think it is any great secret to say that the quality is hugely variable; some are comprehensive and well written, and some are decidedly not. I think that we are working with a number of advantages:
- This is what we do; it is our only focus, so we can put all our time and resources into it. Our writers work completely flexibly, so they can choose to take work when they have the time to dedicate to it, as opposed to having an unpredictable number of cases to squeeze into the working day, whilst juggling a multitude of other tasks. It also means that we can recruit for excellent writing ability as a priority, whereas case officers have to be multi-talented in many different areas.
- We have a unique vantage point. At one time or another we have worked for over half of the LAs in the country, and we currently provide support for around 30. This allows us to see variation and similarities between different LAs’ approaches and become a kind of knowledge hub.
- We have sufficient time and resource for training. We provide intensive one-to-one training, checking and feedback for new writers, and writer promotion is entirely based on each individual writer’s aptitude and progress, rather than following a fixed timeframe. As noted previously, it frequently takes up to a year to fully train a plan writer.
Looking to the future
Finally, how does the future look? A large volume of your business is conversion of statements to EHCPs. This conversion work is all supposed to be completed by the end of March next year. Do you think there will still be a market for outsourced SEN document writing once all the transition and conversion work is done?
Enhance EHC - We were supporting LAs with statement drafting for 18 years prior to the 2014 reforms, and we continue to believe we have a great deal to offer in supporting ongoing plan production. It is more important than ever that plans are produced in a timely manner, that advice collection is improved and that children/young people and parents are engaged and involved throughout the assessment/review process, and we believe that our support can help LAs to achieve this.
Plan writing workloads within each LA fluctuate in a very unpredictable way, which is difficult to manage internally – particularly when dealing with very tight timescales – and a case officer can suddenly become swamped if several plans become ready for drafting simultaneously. We don’t want any case officer to have to make a choice between being stuck at their desk drafting a plan in order to get it completed by deadline or directly supporting and liaising with children/young people, parents and professionals.
Ultimately, the responsibility for the plan and the process remains with the LA staff – the responsibility to liaise with families and professionals to generate good quality, person-centred information, and to check, edit and finalise the plan, again in conjunction with families – and we facilitate this through removing the time-consuming task of putting together a draft plan that accurately reflects professional advice, in a cost efficient and timely manner.
Miriam Henson, Enhance EHC: I’d like to just say thank you very much for chatting with us – and thank you as well for the site and all the fantastic work that you do. It’s a fabulous resource and I know that our writers who have been through, or are currently going through, the assessment process with their own children appreciate the effort put in by everyone trying to make it that bit easier. I know I speak for both myself and [my colleague] Corinna when I say that, whilst our jobs can be hugely challenging at times, we absolutely love what we do and wouldn’t do it if we didn’t believe that it was helpful. We are always looking to develop and improve though, so please do let us know if you think there is something we could do better or some other way in which we could be supportive. We have supported PARC, a local charity offering respite support, for a number of years, and are talking to a couple of other local SEND charities about ways in which we can help. We are also looking into ways that we can innovate within the direct service that we offer, in order to improve the plan writing process. Please do let us know any thoughts or suggestions if you think there is something we could do better or some other way in which we could be supportive.