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Children’s Minister Edward Timpson (centre) on a visit to Hereward College in Coventry.Children’s Minister Edward Timpson (centre) on a visit to Hereward College in Coventry.The Children’s Minister Edward Timpson writes exclusively for SEN Magazine as he launches the new SEN Code of Practice

Yesterday (Monday 28/7/14) was a landmark moment for our reforms to the special educational needs system. The Code of Practice which has cleared Parliament is the culmination of four years of hard work. For me, as Children’s Minister, I’ve used my two years at the helm to strive to improve and tighten the legislation in order to strengthen and underpin the rights of children and parents, so that every child, whatever their start in life, gets the support needed to be the best they can be. And that means giving them an outstanding education.

So we re-introduced into the Children and Families Bill clauses an unequivocal right for families to request special educational needs assessments. We fought for a specific duty on health providers to provide the health care set out in new education, health and care (EHC) plans; even if that means commissioning it specially for that child or young adult. We tested and retested the new EHC plans and the single assessment process through our 31 pathfinder councils. No longer will families have to fit around the system; from 1 September, when these reforms take effect, the system will have to shape itself around the family.

From joint commissioning of health and social care services, to the faster, co-ordinated single assessment process and an EHC Plan which sets out in one place all the assistance to which a child is entitled, focusing on outcomes from birth to adulthood, this is a child and family focused system. Of course it won’t be perfect straight away – 152 councils will not all get it right immediately, there will be bumps and disagreements along the way – but I’m confident that these are changes which will genuinely reform the SEN system for the better.

Listening to parents

No longer will parents face a wall of silence from councils when trying out to find out what support is available locally for a child with SEN. From September, every council must publish a local offer – clear information explaining the support they give to children with SEN or disability in their area. It has to include information from schools about the teaching and services they offer, and out of area support for the most complex or rare needs where they cannot be met locally. This information – clear, public and to be regularly updated in consultation with parents – will help not just the quarter of a million children and young people with statements or learning disability assessments (LDAs), but the millions who have lower level SEN which attract additional SEN support within mainstream schools.

We’ve ended the categories of “school action” and “school action plus” that were too often driven by the need to label rather than the need to provide the right support at the right time; and we’ve adjusted the categories of special educational needs to prevent poor behaviour being wrongly categorised as SEN to stop lower level needs being used by schools to justify poor attainment to parents.

Children with existing statements and LDAs will be transferred to the new EHC plans over time so as not to overwhelm the new system – within two years for LDAs and no later than April 2018 for statements. No young person will miss out simply because the system is changing; I’ve made it clear that simply switching over to the new system should never be an excuse for children losing the support they currently have.

Importantly, we’ve provided extra support to local authorities of £115.2 million and indicative funding of a further £31.7 million which will be available in 2015/16 to help them deliver these reforms successfully. We’ve funded a new £30 million cadre of independent supporters to help families who most need help to navigate the SEN system. Available over two years, I hope they will prove their worth and become a valued and visible part of the new system. We want to see an end to the confrontational battles of the past between parents and LAs, and to the stressful and expensive appeals which resulted.

Over time, personal budgets will become the norm for parents who wish to have them – putting more power and control directly into the hands of families.

Working together

I recently met with councils to get their take on how they and partners are preparing for the reforms. They told me there is something in this new legislation which is revitalising professional practice and introducing real cultural change – forcing them to work in genuine partnership with other services and with families. Councils simply cannot deliver the reforms if they do not work with families. This is backed by the evaluation of the pathfinders. Parents who now have EHC plans up and running in pathfinder areas have described their experiences as hugely positive – designed around their family needs and focusing on their child’s strengths, not their limits.

This is exactly what we wanted our changes to achieve – and I’m delighted that families are already starting to feel the benefits. It’s for local government to run this new system from September, but ministers will continue to oversee it, surveying parents, monitoring councils, working with Ofsted on a tough accountability framework.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the hard-working professionals – and all the families and children – who’ve worked with us to make the new Code the best it can possibly be. Thanks to their expertise and experience, we’re delivering a reform which should transform the lives of our most vulnerable children, and make life a little easier for their families as well.

Further information

The new SEN Code of Practice (now ratified by Parliament) can be downloaded at:

To read the Shadow Children's Minister Steve McCabe's response to the new SEN Code of Practice, click here

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