Don’t rush SEN reform – get it right, not fast

I've just watched the Education Select Committee on SEN - the Next Steps and many of the concerns raised mirror the points I raised in my presentation at the Towards a Positive Future Conference.

Sarah Teather, in her part of the committee, said there will be a 'slight delay' in bringing the draft bill until the autumn. This will be followed by a 'carry-over' bill in Spring 2013.

But most of the trials are not planned to get started in earnest UNTIL the autumn. So I think the government is still jumping the gun. And I'm not the only one. The experts (yes, Ms Teather, experts) all share my view that legislation should be delayed. You can find the recording of the today Select Committee here. Having listened to Ms Teather, she seems to think the pathfinder trials are a lot further along than they are -  certainly in the SE7 group, to which Surrey belongs.

I'm including a portion of my talk below where I cover both where we're up to in Surrey with the EHCP and why I think the apparent rush to legislation is foolhardy.

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The SEN Green paper of course, is still being developed. In fact we are only now edging closer to what an EHCP might look like. Who will be writing a child’s EHCP or supporting the parents through it - a so-called key worker -  has still to be decided.

This process is one that is supposed to be informed not just by the professionals and the politicians, but also by the voice of the parents. Parents are part of every pathfinder and every workstream from EHCP to complex needs to early intervention, looked after children and so on..

This is where the parent-carer forums come in. Our Surrey Forum,  Family Voice Surrey, is still quite new. We work with other parents on the committee to represent a strong voice for parents of SEN and disabled children. For the Surrey pathfinder, we are there, putting the parents’ voice forward, as other parent-carers forums do in the other pathfinder areas. We also sit on the high-level Local Change Board, giving us a voice at the very heart of the local authority’s decision-making process for SEN.

Surrey is part of what is called the South East 7,  SE7 group of pathfinder authorities that includes Kent, Medway, East Sussex, West Sussex, Brighton & Hove &  Hampshire

The pathfinders will all test some core elements of reform, including:

  • The single education, health and care plan from birth to 25 years old, focusing on whether outcomes for disabled children and their parents have been improved
  • personal budgets for parents so they can choose which services best suit the needs of their children  although no one will be forced to take control of their own budgets if they feel they can't or don't want to.
  • improved commissioning, particularly through links to health reforms - though it has to be said health are, in many areas, reluctant party-goers.
  • and how voluntary and community sector organisations will need to be involved in making the new system work
  • it will also look at the cost of the reform.

Crucially, the new process is also supposed to go from birth up to 25 years old. This is a huge change from the current system where parents of disabled 19 year olds face considerable difficulty in accessing appropriate support or education for them. It’s also anticipated, as I mentioned, that a key worker will support the parents through the process.

Another aspect being worked through is the ‘local offer’ which each LEA will need to draw up to set out to parents whose children do NOT have an EHCP what provision is available for them within the county to support their children’s needs.

It’s aimed at giving parents more information about the services and expertise available locally, for health, education and social care, and increasing their choice. At the moment, we don’t actually know in Surrey what will be in the local offer, it’s still at the development stages.

The principles are for it to be holistic, accessible and easy to understand for parents as well as transparent, sustained and sustainable  -  ie, continually updated - as well as realistic.

As a parent involved in the pathfinder, it can be difficult. After all, you are not experts in every single field. You are, by definition,  informed mainly by the experiences of your family, and other families that you know. This can be a strength and a weakness:  the parent needs to be able to extract from their experience, what is useful to the process and not get bogged down by past injustices in dealings with the LA or present worries about their own child.

You’re there, after all, to represent all parents, carers and most importantly, the often unheard voice of our children. And let’s not forget, some children aren’t lucky enough to have parents and are ‘Looked After’ by the local authority - someone needs to speak for them, too.

The Regional Framework for Parent-Carer Participation says that Parents and Carers are central to, and key partners in, the SE7 Pathfinder activity, which is a learning process for all parties. Sometimes this is hard to believe. Comments I have heard include  “Some parents just want to get a statement to get their child into a good school.” This from the (now former) head of SEN. Or, from another professional, “Some children have too much provision in their statement.” Not to mention that even now, parents still say that their LA case worker seems to feel the money for provision is coming out of their own pocket.

I think one of the most important things that needs to happen and right now, is a cultural change in attitudes to one where parents and LEA are not seen as being on opposite sides. This, I think, may be the most difficult part of the whole process but it is crucial.  There are too many examples to count where parents have been forced to the brink of despair, have just given up or had to remortgage their homes in order to secure the right educational solution for their child.

If the new process doesn’t come with a shift in the entrenched local authority belief that parents are trying to get ‘more than they’re entitled to’ or to ‘game the system’, then any number of new laws will not bring about real change. Let’s not forget  parents don’t go into this process for a laugh. It’s gruelling, it’s exhausting and it’s distressing. Often parents turned down at the first application just give up  and they are often the parents who are most in need of support but who have no knowledge of how to get it, because they find all the information leaflets sent out just too confusing.

So, you’re probably wondering how this new system will work  and key to this is the new Educational Health and Care plan. What will an EHCP look like? For a start, lots of outside commentators seem to be mistaking a single plan for a single assessment. The different assessments will depend on the needs of the child but the idea is to have a single plan that encompasses all the child’s needs from educational, health and social care.

Because it’s such a broad ask, actually designing what the finished Statutory plan should look like is taking some time. In Surrey we have just prepared a second draft of our own, which is shaping into a workable document through lots of feedback from professionals and, I’m delighted to say, our parental contribution has informed its development a great deal.

The plan involves multiple entry and exit points and the plan will be updated as the child develops. This is fine in theory, but many parents will be worried that this contrant review process will end up with their child losing provision and if it’s updated every year regardless, it’s going to cost a lot of money.

The idea is that once an initial problem with a child is raised - at whatever age it is found- then a Multi-Agency meeting is planned with all the relevant services. The main idea is that the parent should only have to tell the child’s story once. I’m not sure, in practice, how practical this will be.

The parent will be able to choose a key worker to support them through the process. After the meeting, it will then be decided whether any action needs to be taken at this point, or if an assessment is required. It’s intended that at any decision point, an appeal can be heard although they do intend to include more of a mediation process. Again, how this will work has not been finalised.

You can see that even at the early stages of drafting, there is no intention just to have one assessment  it just wouldn’t be possible if a child has multiple and complex needs.  After this, it will be decided whether the child’s needs can be met within the local offer or whether an EHCP should be drawn up.  At the forefront of the EHCP is a focus on ‘outcomes’ which will, of course change as the child progresses through this endless cycles of reviews during their education and on until they are 25, if necessary. And at the heart of the process is the child.

On the face of it  a good, holistic idea, but the devil, as we are all finding out, is in the detail. For example, there is the question of who will be writing the final plan. At present, the statement is written by a statement writer whose usual background is a case worker with a few years experience. They like to, so I’m told, sit in isolation in a darkened room writing up a document that will affect the rest of a child’s education. This explains perhaps why most of them are pretty inadequate.

As the idea is to involve the parent and/or keyworker at all stages, this will certainly have to change. The person writing the plan will, in collaboration with the parents & key worker, have to sift through the results of the assessments to find the key needs that need to be provided for. So to me, as a parent, the major people in this whole process, aside from the child, will be the Key worker and the plan writer.

To me, and this is only my opinion, the key worker should be an independent advocate for the child: that is, independent of the LA or the parent, but who also has regard to the parents' support needs. If this is the case, then negotiation can be made at the plan writing stage to come to an agreed plan so that the need for appeal is minimised- because nothing is finalised until all parties have agreed and all parties are fully involved.

At the moment, a statement writer is supposed to distil the evidence into a statement to fit in with what might be available from the LA. And so when a parent wants an independent special school, further negotiations or an appeal has to take place. And that appeal is usually for parts 2, 3 and 4.

On top of this, I think parents should be encouraged to think about placement at a much earlier stage. Some already do, but other, perhaps less socially mobile parents are left with a statement that the local school can’t possibly hope to meet.

This is where the key worker is a bonus  as a person who, presumably, does this for a living, they will be familiar with the range of provision both in and out of county and will be able to present a shortlist of schools for the parents that is suitable for the child  who, after all is who this whole process is about.

So the plan writer needs some pretty sterling qualities: - someone with a keen analytical mind; compassion; knowledge of education; health and care services, who is also able to work collaboratively. Wow! What a person!

And the Key Worker: This needs to be a person of infinite patience who also has knowledge of education, health and care providers, compassion, independence and an ability to withstand the pressure of the LA and its focus on budgets and the pressure of the parents who may or may not be able to clearly see what is suitable for their child. They also need an awareness of what is available to support parents (they may need a magnifying glass for that!)

This is a vital issue:  parental stress through the needs of a disabled child, can lead to family breakdown, which is counter-productive to the future of the child.  It can also lead to illness of the parent who is then unable to care for the child.

So, I strongly believe that it is impossible to be able to carry out satisfactory pathfinder trials until people of this calibre are identified and recruited, because these are people vital to the process. This does not fit with the government's stated timetable and it would be a shame to have to cave in to pressure from the government when there is a huge opportunity to reform the SEN system for future generations.

Unfortunately, the coalition government sees the reform process as an unstoppable train that they are pushing through with, on their on timetable, with no regard for the realities of what is happening on the ground.

It’s little short of crazy and they have been told their timetable is unrealistic but, by all accounts, they are NOT listening and so everyone is under extreme pressure to push through a process at break-neck speed that will be in danger of being just as ‘not fit for purpose’ as the one it aims to replace. I think that the government should not rush to legislation. As I have outlined, the trials are yet to begin in earnest  and at this stage in the year with the summer holidays around the corner, look set to be delayed even further.

And yet the government says it aims to use the results of the pathfinders to inform its draft bill this Summer. I’m not sure where they’re planning to get these results from and, with the exception of West Sussex, few families have been registered for the pilots. Surrey for example have ‘identified’ a number of parents for various aspects of the trials, but none have been registered yet for the EHCP, which is the crux of the whole reform. And we are far from alone.

If the government are serious about making a change that will truly benefit children with SEN and disabilities, surely it is better to get it right, than to get it done quickly.

A government spokesman is reported in The Guardian to have said they do not expect to get Royal Assent before 2014 so why the rush this summer? A lot of money is being spent on the pathfinders  even down to catering for all day sessions, hiring meeting rooms, paying attendance and travel expenses.

It is only right that spending, what is taxpayer money, should be rewarded with a system that is sound, reliable, works for families and provides appropriate, lasting educational and social solutions to children with special needs and disabilities.

Tania Tirraoro
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Tania Tirraoro

Founder, CEO at Special Needs Jungle
Founder of Special Needs Jungle. Parent of two sons with Asperger Syndrome.
Journalist & author of two novels and a guide to SEN statementing. PR & social media expert. Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate.
Tania Tirraoro
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6 Comments

  1. Phin Silberrad

    You have put into words much of what I’ve been thinking. I am a parent rep on the SE7 pathfinder scheme, and my experience is very similar to yours. Your section on comments from professionals particularly resonated with me!

  2. EDCM quotes Teather as saying “We would like to delay slightly publishing our draft Children and Families Bill until September 2012 to give the pathfinders more time to do their work.”
    http://www.councilfordisabledchildren.org.uk/news/january-june-2012/sarah-teather-tells-select-committee-that-draft-children-and-families-bill-will-be-published-in-september

    Depends how the Bill is structured. SEN proposals in primary legislation attract a lot of debate which may or may not be what the Government wants. I don’t think the Government will risk delaying the adoption and family courts stuff they really want to get through in this Bill, so I’m guessing the Bill will appear sooner rather than later, but without much concrete in the way of SEN changes.

    I’ll continue to speculate here http://edyourself.org/articles/sengpdfemay2012.php

  3. olivia

    Hiya i am part of the pathfinder steering group in northampton being the parent of a disabled daugther with corneila de lang syndrome i thought i should get involved and try and help bu i ‘ve only been invited to one steering group meeting so i have not got a clue what’s going on parents in partnership running it in northampton and i feel very disapointed .
    i would love to send Sarah an email letting her know what going on and why disabled children do badly from my own experience we should start a pettion about all this change happen too fast it is us she should ask why our children our failing in education system instead of wasting lot’s of money paying local councils to do nothing which is why i children don’t do well in the first place

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