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Children and Families Bill offers “major reform” of SEN system

Critics warn that many will suffer in climate of cuts

Photo: Wales News and Pictures.The Government has cemented its plans to overhaul special educational needs provision with the publication, on 4 February, of the Children and Families Bill. In addition to reforms to the SEN system, the Bill includes changes to adoption and childminding, and new arrangements for children in care.

The Bill abolishes statements of SEN, replacing them with combined education, health and care plans running from birth to the age of 25 years. Councils, local authorities and service providers are to be charged with working more closely together to support children and parents. Families are to have the option of a personal budget, giving them greater control over support for their child.

Speaking ahead of the Bill’s launch, Children and Families Minister Edward Timpson said that the new measures will tackle the disadvantages faced by the most vulnerable children and families. "I am determined that every young person should be able to fulfil their potential”, he said.

Changing the system

Many parents and those working in SEN are concerned that the reforms promised in the Bill will not be workable, particularly in light of ongoing budget cuts at local and national levels.

Jolanta Lasota, CEO of Ambitious about Autism, warned that the Bill was being introduced against a backdrop of deepening cuts to frontline services. “There is a growing gap between the aspirations of the Bill and the reality of diminishing budgets, fewer services, and the increased battles for support families are facing on the ground”, she said.

A statement from The National Deaf Children’s Society described the Bill as “disappointing”, saying that “Parents have little confidence in these reforms”. A recent survey by the charity showed that only 6 per cent of parents of deaf children thought that these changes would lead to better support for their children, while 72 per cent felt that the real aim of the reforms was to reduce spending.

Across the country, charities are reporting that council’s specialist services for those with SEN are being rolled-back or abolished altogether. Fears have been raised about how effectively local services will be able to work together to ensure that children’s needs are fully met. There are also concerns that many children who need additional support will not be eligible for the new education, health and care plans.

Sir Paul Ennals, of deafblind charity Sense, welcomed the introduction of integrated assessments and provision for those with SEN, and the duty on local authorities to publish a “local offer” detailing available education, health and care services in the area. However, he cautioned that “the local offer must be underpinned by national standards which set a minimum level of provision for SEN”.

Mencap also expressed fears that the lack of national standards would create a “postcode lottery”. The charity’s Senior Campaigns and Policy Manager Dan Scorer said the Bill represented “a missed opportunity, which will change very little for parents, who currently face a long, hard fight to get the right education and health support for their child with a learning disability.”

Adoption, care and childminding

The Bill includes new measures on adoption which will, Mr Timpson said, help tackle the “appalling delays” facing would-be adopters, making it easier to adopt and providing more support to children.   

Children in care are also promised greater support, with the requirement for every council to have a “virtual school head” to champion the education of children in the authority's care.

Childcare reforms will see the introduction of childminder agencies, which the Government claims will reduce bureaucracy and facilitate more flexible childminding, enabling schools to offer “wrap-around” care.

Fathers are to get greater workplace rights; parents will be allowed to choose how they share up to a year's leave to look after their new-born children. Condemning current workplace arrangements as “old-fashioned and rigid”, Business Minister Jo Swinson said that perceptions of gender roles will be shattered, as more men take time off and more women return to work early, following the birth of a child.  

The Children and Families Bill is available at:
www.education.gov.uk/childrenandfamiliesbill

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