Education, Health and Care Plans replace Statements, but all’s not well with provision for vulnerable children

20 Apr

To comply with the Children and Families Act 2014, pupils who have profound education needs began to be assessed from September 2014 to receive Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs).  Since then and till March 2018, EHCPs were maintained alongside statements of special needs – the predecessor system. Statements had been issued prior to the 2014 Act and abandoned on 1 April 2018.   For more on the subject, see the SEND Code of Practice.

Young people aged 16-25, who had severe learning disabilities, were assessed and given Learning Disabilities Assessments (LDAs).   The LDAs were converted to EHCPs by 1 September 2016.

I        Framing an EHCP: the process

An EHCP covers a young person from the time s/he is born to the age of 25.  It sets out the special educational, care and health needs and describes what teachers, psychologists, and health and care workers will do to meet those needs.

As soon as a school/academy or parent/carer of a child with Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) makes a request for an assessment of that child’s needs, the clock starts ticking. The local authority (LA) must tell the parent whether the assessment is going ahead within six weeks. Officers of the LA then gather information for the assessment and decide whether a plan is needed.

If the LA decides to go ahead, practitioners assess the needs and they, together with parents/carers and the young person, are given the opportunity to consider what outcomes they would like to see in an EHCP. The LA decides what resources are to be marshalled and arrangements made to achieve those outcomes. The plan is drafted and sent to the parents/carers. The parents/carers have 15 working days in which to comment.

The local authority must consult any school/academy before naming it in the EHCP.  The school/academy has 15 working days in which to make a response. Following consultation with the parent/carer, the draft plan is amended – where necessary – and issued within 20 weeks.

In accordance with the legislation, parents/carers and young people have more opportunities to express their views and share their aspirations with the professionals supporting the children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

The government trumpeted that EHCPs were a means of “changing the landscape for children with SEND”.   Legally, an EHCP must be issued within 20 weeks of parents requesting one based on an assessment for their child.   The government urged authorities to proceed with speed and complete the process in less than 20 weeks “wherever possible”.

II       Delays – the elephant in the room

However, an investigation by the Times Education Supplement in the dying days of 2017 revealed that the parents of 1,000 (circa) children with SEND had to wait longer than a year for the specialist support plans for their children.  In 2016, the TES received responses from 81 local authorities (LAs) under the Freedom for Information request to discover that in them, 903 children waited longer than a year for their EHCPs.  If this figure were to be extrapolated across all LAs, the number of children who would have had to wait longer than a year for their EHCPs in 2016 would have been 1,238.

Official figures revealed that in 2016, 44% of plans, excluding exceptions, were not issued within the 20-week time limit.

In the 81 authorities, at least one in 10 of the plans had taken longer than a year to complete. In Norfolk, 152 plans took longer than a year; in Hampshire the figure was 134.   Before subjecting these LAs to a caning, it’s critical to realise that plans are worthless if they are rushed out and filled with “waffle”.   Also, we must remember that local authorities have had their budgets severely reduced. They are trying to fill a gallon of work in a pint pot of time.

Notwithstanding, schools and academies harbour suspicions that the professionals driving the assessments do not give the exercise the attention they deserve.  Where there are inevitable delays, they should not be for more than four weeks – not a year.

Lengthy delays not only risk damaging the children and their parents/carers, but also place inordinate pressures on schools and academies who are coping with their own over-stretched budgets.

The most recent Department for Education figures show that 4,152 children and young people with disabilities or special needs were left without school places in 2017.  They were not home-schooled and received no state provision during school hours.  The majority were forced to stay at home with parents or carers.

In 2010, the equivalent figure was only 776 but rose sharply in recent years; schools said they were unable to pay for specialist staff and equipment.

Meanwhile, the Association of Educational Psychologists, the members of which carry out SEND assessments, estimates that about 200 educational psychologist positions are currently vacant nationwide. Sheffield City Council said that that was one reason for 95 children in its care having to wait longer than a year for their EHCPs in 2016. Further, Sheffield said that it was anxious to “make sure the plans were high quality” while suffering from a lack of resources.

“We take this issue very seriously and are working hard with the families of children with special educational needs and disabilities to make sure that they get the quality assessments and support they need,” Dawn Walton, the director of commissioning, inclusion and learning at Sheffield City Council told the TES.

And while local authorities are duty-bound to provide all the provision contained in the EHCPs, many struggle financially to do so. The gulf between what central government provides for high-needs pupils and what authorities say are needed in the coming year runs into the hundreds of million pounds.

III     Tribunals

Parents/carers who are unhappy with an education, health and care plan (EHCP) that has been issued for their child may appeal.  Towards the end of 2017, the Ministry of Justice revealed that the number of special educational needs and disability (SEND) appeals registered for the Tribunal in 2016-17 had risen by 27% – reaching 4,725, compared to 3,712 in the previous year.

More than half (55%) of the appeals related to the content of EHCPs; of the 1,599 that went all the way at the Tribunal rather than being settled out of court, 89% were decided in favour of the children.

In a blog post on the Special Needs Jungle website, Matt Keer, a parent of two deaf children, used research commissioned by the Department for Education to estimate that local authorities had spent about £70 million on handling appeals since the new law came into effect in September 2014.

“It’s painful to consider how much SEND provision £70m could have paid for, or how better off children might have been if this £70m had been invested in better SEND administration,” he wrote.  This is one of the unintended consequences of an Act meant to benefit some of the most disadvantaged youngsters in our society.

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