The new SEN Code of Practice may be high on aspiration but low on delivery
The Government’s reforms provide a unique opportunity to transform the way children and young people with SEN and disabilities (SEND) are supported and educated. Whilst I hope that the Code of Practice and the Children and Families Act 2014 will prove to be a success, the question of implementation and the difficulties of joint working should never be underestimated.
In 2010/11, government figures revealed that 21 per cent of children in England had a special educational need, equating to around 1.70m children. At age 16, young people with SEND are twice as likely not to be in any form of education, employment or training as their non-disabled peers. Such statistics are alarming; raising the quality of support for young people with SEND to improve educational and employment opportunities has never been more crucial.
The Government’s Code of Practice, to be introduced from September 1, intends to integrate services and place choice and control in the hands of pupils and parents. It essentially acts as a bible for local authorities, schools, health agencies and others to justify the services they offer to children with SEND. Unfortunately, it has been a long time coming to fruition. The Government defends such tardiness as an extensive consultation period, while critics blame it on a lack of urgency and the consultation methods used. It is surprising that the Act will launch at the very time that supplementary material to support the Code, such as guidance for parents, schools and practitioners, is still being produced. It is also unclear how the material will be cross-referenced with the code or the 31 pathfinder local authorities, which are not due to report on their progress until next March.
At the very heart of the legislation is a goal to bring together health, education and social services by requiring local authorities and health and care services to jointly commission services. The current system of statements and learning difficulty assessments will be replaced with education, health and care (EHC) plans – contracts drawn up to cover all an individual’s needs from birth to 25. A strong emphasis on joined-up support can only be a good thing. However, changing the culture of the various agencies involved during a time of significant funding cuts is not going to be easy, and if communication and partnerships breakdown, it could create a system which is even more bureaucratic.
Each council across England must publish a local offer, which lists the support and services available to children with SEND in the local area. Yet it is uncertain as to how the local offer’s adequacy will be assessed, who will take responsibility for ensuring children get the necessary provision and how the mandate will be enforced. Personal budgets have also been introduced, and whilst these budgets are designed to put power into the hands of families, they could increase bureaucracy and create more stress and confusion for vulnerable parents.
Working for all children
I am even more concerned about the absence of protection for children who are not subject to statements or education health and care plans but were previously supported using the School Action and School Action Plus regimes. Children with speech, language and communication difficulties, or those in mainstream schools who depend on outside support to overcome their learning difficulties could be overlooked post September due to the rigid nature of the EHC plans. Some schools are capable of effectively supporting their most vulnerable children, but many struggle to work the system or have the capability to get the necessary support from other bodies – which can all impact on the quality of teaching.
The Government’s acknowledgment of the Code as a “living” document is welcome, as it implies that the code will be subject to regular review with the aim of continually improving practice. Such a commitment, which should include consultation with parent groups, carers and young people, is necessary to ensure that the delivery of the Code’s original aims remain effective. However, a regular review should not be an opportunity to water down commitments if they are regarded as too costly or difficult, nor should it lead to a lack of clarity about roles and expectations.
For Labour, ensuring that all children, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, get the most out of their education, whether it is in their early years, at school or at college, is a crucial goal. I welcome the Government’s ambition to streamline the SEND system, reduce confrontational methods and place families at the heart of the decision-making process. However, the Act, like many of its predecessors, risks being high on aspiration at the legislative phase but low on delivery when it comes to cultural change. At a time when council budgets are facing severe cuts, and health and education services are becoming increasingly reformed and fragmented, the Government must be clear on how it expects those on the frontline to deliver on such ambitions and provide support to those who struggle with such sweeping reforms.
Labour, in government, will not seek to overturn the legislation. However, by monitoring the impact of the Code of Practice, involving the voices of parents and young people and encouraging schools, local authorities, the NHS and charities to cooperate together can we ensure that children, whatever their start in life, receive the support they need to achieve their full potential.
Steve McCabe is the Labour MP for Birmingham, Selly Oak and Shadow Minister for Children and Families:
To read the Children and Families Minister Edward Timpson’s article for SEN on publication of the SEN Code of Practice, click here.