The new SEN (Special Educational Needs) reforms have been in force since September 2014, replacing Statements with Education, Health & Care Plans (EHCP).
Described as the ‘biggest reform of SEN for over 30 years’, the changes are intended to “put children, young people and their families first”, offering a “person centred” approach and the promise of professionals “working with and listening to families about things that are important to them in order to help them achieve their aspirations”.
These reforms come at a time of huge budget pressures, with statutory agencies likely to be involved in creating and maintaining a child’s EHCP all facing budget cuts – schools, health and social care.
When I wrote about my 7-year battle to meet my son’s educational needs, over 100 parents contacted me. Most of them commented on the difficulties they face getting educators to meet their child’s needs, especially when it comes to getting:
- Schools to understand, accept and meet their child’s needs – many felt staff lacked awareness, skills or training in special needs, especially ‘hidden disabilities’ such as Asperger’s Syndrome;
- Local authorities (LAs) to acknowledge and assess their child’s needs – many had to fight to get an assessment in the first place and disappointed to be told their child did not need a Statement of SEN;
- The right support for their child at school (speech & language therapy, occupational therapy etc.) – some believed costs are often put before a child’s needs;
- Their child into an appropriate school. There was a lack of choice when it comes to finding the right school for their child, especially high functioning children – parents often had to fight over limited places within their own borough, or to get their child into an out-of-borough or independent school.
Sadly, there were common themes throughout parents’ stories – – the confrontational relationship between parents and schools/LAs, the lengthy costly ‘battle’ to get their child’s needs met, families feeling stressed and unsupported. Many children with special educational needs seemed to be falling though the cracks as a result of financial pressures on the system – attempts to support them were often “resource-led’ rather than ‘needs-led’.
For the reforms to be effective and make a real positive difference to families, I believe two things need to happen:
- A major culture change within schools and LA’s to put the child’s needs first, before cost considerations, and genuinely listen to and act on parent’s views;
- An increase in resources – invested in staff training, the system of assessing and monitoring pupil’s needs, ensuring the right provision is more easily available to support pupils in mainstream as well as special schools, supporting families, monitoring parent experiences of services and offering a greater choice of schools and provision for children with special needs.
Culture change is a long-term vision and will not be possible without significant investment of resources to change attitudes. In the current climate of budget cuts, it is clear that there will not be any extra money in the pot – most LAs are reducing not increasing their budgets in this area (despite the ambitious aspirations of the reforms).
How are the reforms working in practice?
It’s difficult to be objective about the reforms when you have been through such a long costly battle to get your child’s needs met, but I’ve tried my best to keep an open mind.
As far as I’m aware, there has been very little evaluation of the reforms to date.
I have kept myself informed about what is happening on the ground by attending seminars, talking to parents about their experiences and checking out online websites/forums.
I have been quite concerned about what I’ve seen and heard.
The ‘lone parent’ – still unsupported and without ‘a voice’ One thing I noticed at all of the seminars I attended was the desperate attempts of parents to voice their views about the difficulties they face, only to be told to stop talking (“this is not the right forum for expressing your views”). A few weeks ago, I attended an information seminar about the reforms organised by my own LA – whenever a parent talked about their difficulties, they were asked not to speak about their personal situation. It was painful to watch. There was an overwhelming feeling of isolation and powerlessness amongst parents who tried to voice their views but were not being listened to. When I asked the presenter what would be the right forum for giving our feedback, I did not get a satisfactory answer. There was very little evidence of a ‘parent centred’ approach in any of these seminars.
The ‘battle’ continues – you still have to fight to get the right support Many parents I’ve spoken to have mixed feelings about the reforms – hopeful (that the aims and aspirations will be implemented properly and result in real improvements) but highly anxious (about how the changes will effect them and whether it will make things better or worse).
Online parent forums/websites provide a good source of information about how parents are experiencing the reforms and provide strong evidence that parents are still facing the same struggles to meet their child’s needs. Things are certainly not going as well as they could be.
Special Needs Jungle (SNJ) is one of the best parent-led online forums. A few weeks ago, they had a post about the reforms “SEND reforms: What YOU told us” – asking for views so they could pass them on to the SEN Minister, Ed Timpson. I was taken aback by what both parents and professionals had to say.
SNJ received over 30 pages of comments – only one comment was positive, the rest were all about the difficulties with the reforms. The main concerns were:
- Poor, wrong, misleading or no information for families – that they did not receive any information or were given the wrong/misleading/jargon-filled information (“I don’t understand what is happening and I am worried that they are going to cut corners and not do things properly”, “It feels as if our LA have taken the opportunity to make the process more bureaucratic and difficult to access”);
- Lack of understanding or knowledge amongst LAs/ Practitioners – that front line staff did not understand what was expected of them or hadn’t received much information (“It’s just a statement with a different name”, “Decision makers and team leaders are still very much processes and pennies before people”)
- Parental and young person involvement – many questioned whether LAs were aware that they were supposed to be working with families (“The county has substantial difficulty in engaging with parents and young people, very tokenistic and at times quite hostile”, “The new legislation very clearly states that the young person should be central to the whole process. At no point has my son’s views been asked for”).
SNJ summarised the comments as follows: “Families are feeling stressed and not supported, practitioners are confused and in some areas very angry at the lack of knowledge or support they have received and the ‘us and them’ relationship does not appear to be improving, in some cases it appears worse than ever”
It’s been less than six months since the reforms were introduced and there are bound to be some teething problems, but the early indications are not good.
It is clear that families are still struggling to get the right support for their child and that parents/carers still do not have ‘a voice’. Thank you SNJ for giving parents a voice.
It is also clear that professionals responsible for implementing the changes are also facing difficulties and are not being properly supported. Some of the questions raised by front line staff responsible for implementing the changes are:
- Have schools and/or inclusion managers been supported and trained to convert or initiate the new EHCP?
- What is happening with the children for whom assessment has just begun, is there enough rigor or manpower to maintain, convert and initiate new assessments?
- Have all LAs put parent advocates and school support systems in place?
- How many conversions have taken place and what are parents’ views of the process?
I just hope the Government ‘listens’ to the concerns of both families and professionals and start to address the difficulties they face otherwise this will just be another cosmetic exercise.
If you have a story that you would like to share about your experiences, good or bad, I would love to hear from you.