Have you checked our your area's Local Offer website recently? Some look pretty good, while some are definitely still a work in progress. They are supposed to list all the services in the area available to families who have children or young people with special needs or disabilities.
But Simon Burnham, an independent educational psychologist whose Solent Psychology service works across the south of England have found it tricky, in some cases, getting listed. He and colleague Nicky Phillips have kindly written their experience for us in a guest post today.
“I’m sorry Sir, your name’s not on the list!” – some thoughts and advice about understanding and using the Local Offer in your area
If you've looked at the Local Offer in your home authority you'll probably have noticed that there’s still a lot of information missing, and you might even have felt a pang of sympathy for the local authority officer(s) responsible for turning the promise of this comprehensive, one-stop-information-shop into a useful reality. Keeping an overview of everything that’s “out there” for children and young people with SEND and their families is a huge task, and encouraging service providers to provide their details for listing on the Local Offer is, we hear, an on-going challenge.
This much you probably know already. However, you might be surprised to hear how much difficulty we have had getting listed on the Local Offer in some of the areas where we work, and indeed to hear that one local authority has told us that if parents want to find our service, they can use the internet and search for themselves!
We run an independent educational psychology service based in Portsmouth, Hampshire. Just half an hour’s travel north, south, east or west takes us over at least one boundary line into a different local authority area, so we are effectively local service providers to schools, families and other organisations in at least five unitary authorities or counties. We have sent details of the services we offer to all five of these, in the formats requested, and have had a mixed response to say the least.
We've been greatly impressed with the efficiency of some of the authorities we have contacted – hats off to West Sussex who replied very promptly with a list of their requirements (among other things we had to add a page to our website) which we were very happy to comply with because they were clearly focused on providing as much information as possible to families and young people in a format that enabled them to make informed choices. Southampton also replied promptly and courteously and provided a clear template for uploading details to their Local Offer web pages as well as a facility to edit these pages ourselves in order to ensure they remain up to date once approved for publication. Very impressive.
Other authorities have responded differently. In two cases our supplied information appears to have disappeared into a black hole along with our follow-up requests for progress updates. Most surprising to us was the response we got from one local authority that has politely but firmly declined to list our service on their Local Offer because they employ their own educational psychologists, and families or schools not wishing to use this in-house provision are advised by that local authority to search the web pages of the British Psychological Society to find an alternative provider. We find this very puzzling – surely on that basis much of the work of the Local Offer could be delegated to one line on a website advising people to just Google it! We queried this policy and the response was … no reply so far.
We know that our experience may not be shared by other service providers. We are in the slightly unusual position of offering a service that the vast majority of local authorities also provide themselves - it is common practice now for local authorities to sell ed psych services to a range of customers, principally schools, and indeed many rely on the income this generates to make the service viable. It doesn't take great insight to see that this puts them in a conflicted position; local authorities are both commissioners and providers of ed psych services so it would be understandable on one level if some wanted to use their budgets to market their own offer and needed lots of encouragement to promote awareness of choice in that sector. Is it naïve of us to expect them to identify this dilemma themselves and deal with it?
In the light of all of this, here are our top tips for managers and users of Local Offers, based on our experience of dialoguing with five local authorities:
- Every local authority seems to be using a template, and the templates are very similar, being based on the requirements outlined in the Children and Families Act 2014 and the SEND Code of Practice. We found this very helpful and we thought that the West Sussex idea of requiring service providers to also follow the template headings on a dedicated page of their own website was a good way of reducing the need for fine-grained detail in the content on the authority’s web pages.
- If you're a parent, carer or young person with a view about the content of your Local Offer, talk to the local authority about it – they will listen, not just because they are interested but also because they are obliged to do so, and to publish a summary of the feedback they receive.
- We have found local parent partnership organisations very helpful and particularly alert to the possibility that families may not be receiving all the information they are entitled to receive.
- Local authority managers should bear in mind that service providers in any sector are probably also service users themselves, may well be parents and will certainly be tax payers – we are not ‘the opposition’ just because we don’t play in your team!
- A small but important point – the search facilities on the Local Offer web pages we’ve looked at tend to be very unforgiving: make just one typing or spelling error when you enter your search term and you'll get a nil return. In fact even if your spelling is perfect you might still get a nil return from your Local Offer website if you don’t type the name of the service you're looking for in the exact way it is listed – search for a “psychologist” and you’ll find none available, even though there may be several employed in the “educational psychology” team. Local Authorities can surely improve their own offer here, given more time, and make their online search facilities more like the internet search engines people are used to using.
- Finally, if there is a gap in provision in the Local Offer where you live (and even if there isn’t) it might be worth asking if the local authority has excluded any willing service providers from the Offer – it has been known!