Elizabeth Stanley explains how the recent SEN reforms have strengthened parents' rights
The recent changes to how children and young people with special needs and disabilities are supported have strengthened parental rights. But that, in itself, does not produce better outcomes for children and young people if parents are not sure what their rights are, how they should be involved and what part they have to play in the support of their child’s development.
The previous system of statementing, School Action and School Action Plus was very much process driven and became, in the end, about jumping through hoops in order to access provision, rather than talking about aspirations and how to make these a reality.
The recent reforms have now put the focus firmly back on children, young people and their parents and carers with processes and systems designed to support them in achieving the best they possibly can.
It’s obvious that parents know their children better than anyone else. They know what their child’s needs are and, although they may not be able to put those needs into neat boxes, such as speech and language need or occupational therapy need, they are able to say if their child can tie their shoe laces or has friends. Professionals, services and organisations now have a duty to have regard to the views, wishes and feelings of the child, young person and their parents.
This duty is part of the legislation and is the key principle upon which all the legislation is based, it is called the Section 19 principle, taken directly from the Children and Families Act 2014. The principle also makes it clear that there are duties to ensure that children, young people and their parents are fully supported to understand the process, are part of the discussions and ultimately the decisions made.
The legislation covers people from birth to 25 years, so for the first time, parents of children who have a diagnosis before starting formal education have rights to apply for an education, health and care (EHC) plan assessment. This is based on the probability of the child requiring some level of support once in a school environment or prior to that. Education, in this sense, does not necessarily mean formal education; anything which educates or trains the child can be classed as education, such as speech therapy or occupational therapy.
If your child has just been diagnosed the world can be a very confusing place. You have a right to be supported and involved at every turn and, at every stage, professionals should seek your views and feelings on any decisions which need to be made.
If your child has been identified as having SEN you must be invited into school three times a year to discuss progress, raise concerns and share successes. I would always advocate the joint setting of outcomes to be achieved, which can be worked on both in school and with parents. Your child might be placed at SEN Support level, which means the school are putting extra support in place to help your child and possibly engaging advice from specialists. Once again, parents must be involved in every decision. Parents have a right to submit a request to their local authority (LA) for an EHC plan needs assessment at any point, if they have concerns that their child is not making adequate progress.
Where there are still concerns about your child’s educational progress, both parents and school have the right to request an EHC needs assessment. All you are asking for here is an assessment of your child’s needs. If the LA agree to go ahead with the assessment, they will request information from all services and professionals involved, including health and social care. The LA are only investigating whether there is a need for an EHC Plan here, not producing one. Once the information is gathered, the LA will make a decision based on the evidence, in which parental contributions are vital. The whole process from request to final EHC plan must take no longer than 20 weeks.
Throughout the whole process of an EHC needs assessment, the views, wishes and feelings of the child, young person and their parent or carer must be taken into account. During the 20 week process there are various points of appeal.
If parents have an issue or concern about their child’s educational setting, they have various options available to them. The first is usually to speak with the SENCO, then, if parents are still not happy with the outcome, they can arrange a meeting with the headteacher and request a copy of the school complaints procedure. School governors are often overlooked in terms of complaints; each school must have a designated governor for SEN, so it would also be worthwhile finding out who this person is. Ofsted also has a specific route for parents to raise issues about schools and other educational settings.
If you are embarking on the EHC plan route, the SEN Code of Practice has a very helpful table which shows who parents can appeal to about which issues. The more formal appeals routes can involve dispute resolution services, mediation and ultimately tribunal.
My first port of call is always the SEN Code of Practice. I would highly recommend reading this document and having it to hand if you ever need clarification.
The “local offer” of your LA, which has details of the SEN support available in the area, will have a wealth of information, from how to apply for an EHC plan, to support groups for young people with specific conditions.
All LAs have to fund an information, advice and support service (IASS), which offers support to parents and young people with issues or concerns about anything to do with special needs, including aspects of health and social care.
Central government has funded “Independent Support” in each LA area. This is provided by an independent organisation. Independent supporters can help with the development of an EHC plan request, or can support parents and young people transitioning from a statement of SEN or learning difficulties assessment to an EHC plan.
Parent carer forums are based in most LA areas and many are part of the National Network of Parent Carer Forums (NNPCF).
Educational settings must produce a school’s information report and a special needs policy which sets out the school’s processes and provision for children and young people with SEN.
Reputable charities and organisations, such as Independent Parental Special Education Advice (IPSEA) and Contact a Family (CAF) have free helplines which offer good information and advice. If you need greater assistance, there are a number of independent SEN support organisations which offer families various levels of help, guidance and face-to-face support.
These changes to how children and young people are supported are the biggest reforms in 30 years; it will be another few years before this golden opportunity comes along again. It is a once in a lifetime chance to “get it right”. This will only happen for you as a parent if you know what your rights are and you have the correct information and knowledge to exercise your rights under this new framework. Our children only get one chance.
Elizabeth Stanley is Director of the social enterprise Wraparound Partnership, which seeks to support raising aspirations and achievements for those with SEN and their families: