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The Government is promising parents greater choice over SEN provision.The Government has announced details of a new Children’s and Families Bill which it says will overhaul the special educational needs (SEN) system, providing the biggest changes for more than a generation.

Under measures announced in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, changes will also be introduced to the family justice system which may have major implications for many people with SEN and their families.

As previewed in the Department for Education’s Green Paper on SEN, published in March 2011, the Bill will introduce a single assessment process for children with disabilities and SEN leading to a combined education, health and care plan. These plans will cover an individual’s support up until the age of 25, rather than being cut off at age 16, as is the case with the current statements of SEN.  

The Government is promising to provide families with greater control and choice over the support their child receives. Parents of children with an education, health and care plan will have the right to a personal budget for their support.

Local authorities are to be made more accountable for their provision, with councils being required to publish a local offer detailing the support available to children and young people with SEN and disabilities in their area.

The Bill also introduces a number of changes to the legal system, including making parents consider mediation as an alternative to litigation when a dispute arises. Parents will be required to attend a mediation information and assessment meeting before they can start court proceedings against a local authority or school. The right for children to appeal if they are not happy with the support they receive will also be trialled.

The role of the Children’s Commissioner is to be strengthened under the Bill. The Commissioner is to work more independently of Government and report directly to Parliament, with powers to assess the impact of new policies on children’s rights and a broader remit to include the functions of the Children’s Rights Director in Ofsted.

The announcement of the Bill has received a mixed reception from the SEN community, with many applauding its main aims while questioning the Government’s ability to deliver reforms, particularly against a backdrop of increasing budget cuts at local and national levels.

Jo Campion, from the National Deaf Children’s Society, welcomed the Government’s “good intentions” to produce a simpler SEN system. However, she cautioned that “ministers are building their strategy on quicksand” as councils across England are “slashing the specialist educational services that are crucial to achieving these ambitions.”

John Dickinson-Lilley, of the deafblind charity Sense, welcomed the Government’s promise to overhaul the SEN framework, saying that the current system is “extraordinarily complex”. He added, though, that the single assessment plan “must be underpinned by clear statutory obligations on all education, health and social care agencies and settings including academies and free schools.”  

Mark Atkinson, from Ambitious about Autism expressed the charity’s delight that the Government plans to introduce a clear legal right to educational support up to the age of 25 for young people with SEN, claiming that this could “revolutionise the life chances of tens of thousands of young people with autism”. He warned, though, that cuts to local services threatened the planned reforms, saying that until the Government’s aspirations are turned into action on the ground, “young people with special educational needs will continue to be failed by the system.”

Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, went further in criticising the Bill, claiming that the Government’s promise to provide greater choice to parents is illusory. “Cuts to local authority budgets vastly reduce the specialist services which parents and teachers need to access support and ensure progress”, she said.

The Government is planning to introduce the Children’s and Families Bill early in 2013.

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