Special Educational Needs: Changes in the Assessment and Provision in the Offing

17 Apr

From 1 September 2014, there will be a sea change to the manner in which we provide for pupils with special educational needs (SEN). One section of the Children and Families Bill currently being debated in Parliament is devoted to this initiative.   The legislation is likely to be enacted in early 2014 with its full implementation in the following academic year.   The Bill heralds a new approach to assessing and supporting young people from birth to the age of 25 (instead of the current 19) who have Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities (SEND).

The government intends to simplify the current arrangements for assessing SEND pupils, and wishes to promote better working arrangements among the agencies  and between the education service and parents, increase parental choice and improve outcomes for our young people. The proposed arrangements are being piloted in 31 local authorities among 20 pathfinders.

The Bill takes forward the reform programme set out in the Green Paper, Support and Aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability.   Provision within the planned legislation

(1)        replaces old statements with new birth-to-25 education, health and care plans;

(2)        offers families personal budgets; and

(3)        aims to improve cooperation among all the services that support children and families, especially requiring local and health authorities to work together.

Following an assessment, the statement of special educational needs will be replaced by an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP).  The local authority will publish a ‘local offer” setting out all the services it can provide for the young person.  Prior to doing so, it must involve the child and her/his parents in selecting and reviewing the package of services appropriate to her/him.   A family that wishes to have more control over the provision will have the option of taking responsibility for a “personal budget” to pay for supporting the child.

The present system includes two categories of SENs prior to a statement – School Action, where the needs of the child are moderate, and School Action Plus where the child has more severe difficulties.   These two will be replaced by a single early years and school-based SEN category.

In the early part of the next calendar year the government intends to publish a new SEN Code of Practice – after consulting stakeholders.  This Code will be supported by detailed guidance on identifying, assessing and providing for pupils with SENs.  As is required today, every school must employ a special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) who is appropriately trained.

In its 2010 review of the schools’ provision, Ofsted discovered that some were over-identifying pupils with SENs.  By doing so, schools were hoping to attract extra resources.  However, a consequence of this practice was that staff expectations of these pupils were lowered causing the latter to underachieve.

Funding for special needs will come from a High Needs Block to include resources for the schools and parents.   Schools will be consulted by the local authority on the budgets that will be allocated to the families of pupils with EHCPs.

The pathfinders have been testing out the future arrangements, in particular, the efficacy of the assessment arrangements, the EHCPs and resources to families to expand choices for them on how the needs of their children are met.  They have also been busy involving voluntary and community groups and ensuring that schools, colleges, families and the children themselves are involved with a view to helping the young people to lead independent lives when they hit 25.

The largest of the SEN pathfinders is a partnership of seven local authorities in the South East England, their health partners, parent and carer forums, and national and local voluntary and community organisations. Abbey Court, a special school for 150 pupils aged 3–19 years old with severe learning difficulties (SLD) or profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD) is one school in the group.

According to Rupert Widdicombe, a freelance education consultant, who has written on this subject on the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) website, the Headteacher of Abbey Court, Ms Karen Joy, said that the early signs of the new assessment process were encouraging.  “One child in our nursery has been through the [EHCP] assessment process and it was good to see a whole range of different professionals in one room talking to each other about the needs of that child,” she said. “It seems to be a much more family-friendly document than the old statement; much easier to understand. Children and families will also be part of the annual review process and I absolutely support any move towards that.”

Karen Joy didn’t think the reforms would have a major impact on the way Abbey Court worked, although increasing the upper age limit to 25 years could open up new possibilities for the school to continue to support young people. “The EHCP will travel with the young person after 19 and that will be a way of holding other institutions and professions to account – which could mean better, joined-up provision and reduced bureaucracies. We would like to develop an appropriate and quality provision for young people aged 19 and 25, enabling continuity of service for those with severe and profound needs in Medway.”

In West Sussex, also part of Abbey Court’s group, one strand of work is focusing on developing integrated personal budgets that span different services – and so far a total of 32 have been agreed and allocated. Families interviewed by the pathfinder team say they appreciate the choice and having more control. According to one parent, “the best thing is that a personalised budget is flexible and totally appropriate for your child. Our son has been able to try new things that he would never have done before. He’s been able to access services in the local community, as well as some more specialist services like music therapy, all of which have really contributed to his progress and all round well-being.”

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