Councils are floundering as they struggle to put SEN reforms into practice
The Children and Families Act (CFA) 2014 promised substantial, and positive, changes to the way children with SEN are supported. What seems to be its undoing is the implementation.
The main changes are:
- to replace the statement of SEN with an education, health and care (EHC) plan. The new document provides additional health and social care support which is enforceable
- to raise the maximum age of SEN provision from 19 to 25
- to introduce general principles that SEN provision should encourage “best possible outcomes” and that families are central to decision making
- to require that local authorities (LAs) publish a local offer setting out the SEN provision available in its area and nearby
- to enable parents to request a personal budget
- to enable LAs to direct an academy to admit a child with an EHC plan.
The changes sound promising, but there are real difficulties with seeing the benefits due to LAs not implementing the changes correctly. The difficulties are probably because of insufficient budgets, understanding, training and personnel. Ultimately, if not correctly implemented, the Act’s promised benefits will not come to fruition.
Councils are struggling
To be fair to local authorities, the DfE published its final Guidance about the implementation of the new law three calendar days before it took force on 1 September 2014. The principal guidance document is again under consultation in respect of children in custody.
From my experience so far, the following are the most significant problems:
The local offer: a DfE-commissioned review in November 2014 found that the quality and value of the local offer varied significantly between LAs.
LAs have been given very little information about what the local offer should look like or contain. The brief regulations and guidance set out who LAs should consult with and broadly what the offers should contain. This has resulted in a postcode lottery with many LAs offering nothing more than a Yellow Pages of SEN provision.
Personal budgets: a personal budget is, basically, the amount of money needed to “buy” all the support detailed in the EHC plan. However, even these seem to be going wrong. A DfE-commissioned report in November 2014 concluded that LAs did not know what services, resources or functions to draw on when calculating the budget.
Transition: this is where the real problems are occurring. LAs are simply not following the correct process of converting a statement of SEN to an EHC plan. The general approach seems to be to copy the statement into an EHC plan with outcomes being hurriedly prepared.
Having spoken with a number of LA officers, the overall message seems to be that LAs are trying to complete transition quicker than necessarily required.
All transitions that I have been involved with have faced difficulties. Half have had no involvement from health services and all have had no involvement from social care. LAs routinely are not recognising that a full assessment must be conducted during transition. This has led to delays in transition when I have had to challenge the LAs approach.
The Children and Families Act promises many things. It should provide a holistic and reliable support network facilitating a smooth transition into adulthood. However, LAs are rushing implementation, cutting corners and preparing poor EHC plans. If things are not right from the outset, the benefits envisaged will not materialise.
Ed Duff is a solicitor at Boyes Turner, specialist SEN solicitors based in Reading: