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Indecision is compromising worthy reforms that should help vulnerable children

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LGC’s essential daily briefing

In March, LGC reported the 2014 reforms to support for children with special educational needs and disabilities - aimed at streamlining an inefficient and fragmented system - appeared to be faltering, with an increasing proportion of areas inspected by Ofsted identified as having significant weaknesses.

Soon after, the newly appointed children’s and families minister Nadhim Zahawi congratulated councils for almost completing the “huge task” of transferring every child to an education, health and care plan (EHC) by April, as required under the new system.

He said the Department for Education was now working with councils to ensure the remaining reviews are carried out and the new EHC plans “are of the highest quality”, suggesting an acknowledgement that processes may have been weak in some areas struggling with underfunded new responsibilities and swelling demand.

Mr Zahawi also announced a wave of new special free schools providing tailored support for more than 1,000 children. To put this in context, the DfE’s own figures show 4,152 children with disabilities and special needs were left without a school place last year.

The County Councils Network’s intervention this week in calling for an urgent meeting with education secretary Damian Hinds over funding for rising demand on services demonstrated clear frustration with the government’s approach to the issue.

CCN research included some striking findings that should hit hard at the DfE: widespread and growing overpends of dedicated high-needs funding despite a government injection of an extra £130m in 2016.

Moreover, eight counties had sought permission to transfer funding from the general schools grant to meet SEN legal obligations, which would result in the less-than-satisfactory, and potentially politically damaging, reduction in investment in already-stretched state schools.

CCN’s children’s spokesman and Oxfordshire CC’s Conservative leader Ian Hudspeth could barely contain his frustration that councils are being forced into making “unsustainable” decisions to ensure vulnerable young people are supported.

He was clear that the government must “urgently inject resource” this year ahead of holding talks with councils on creating a “sustainable long-term solution” to the problem.

The intervention from the Tory-dominated shires will carry weight (just as it has done on social care funding in the last couple of finance settlements) and the issues raised by CCN are widespread beyond county borders.

Association of Directors of Children Services’ standards, performance and inspection policy committee chair Steve Crocker told LGC in March the impact of growing demand for EHC plans on high-needs funding is becoming “a major problem” that is “only going to get worse”, with “most” councils overspending in this area.

Problems in the system were laid bare when the local government and social care ombudsman Michael King announced earlier this year that he had upheld 80% of complaints about EHC plans.

But the call for government action this year appears in faint hope rather than anything approaching expectation.

As Stuart Gallimore, the new president of the Association of Director’s of Children’s Services recently said in his inaugural speech, the “sceptics in the Treasury” will need to be challenged, but the DfE’s influence over funding decisions remains questionable.

Treasury officials are likely to wait and see how the 2014 reforms embed, and assess whether efficiency improves now that the major, resource-heavy hurdle of the mass transfer to EHC’s has been largely overcome, before they are backed into a corner.

As Mr Crocker pointed out, very few local authorities have been able to manage both demand and hitting the deadline very well.

He added “it would be wrong to cast [the reforms] as a complete counsel of despair” as there are positives around the process of joining up services around children with special needs and complex disability.

But as the CCN argues, the sustainability of the current system is under immediate threat and a lack of decisive government action is in danger of causing worthy reforms that should improve the lives of vulnerable children to be compromised.

Jon Bunn, senior reporter

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