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SEND reforms 'like trying to ride a bike while doing the knitting'

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Commentary on special educational needs and disabilities reforms

The reforms ushered in under the Children and Families Act 2014 were hailed by the government as the beginning of “simpler, improved and consistent help” for children and young people.

At the time the changes to an inefficient and often fragmented system of support was welcomed in principle by local government.

Arrangements that sought to cement collaboration between councils, schools and the NHS should have created efficiencies through streamlined processes and, most importantly, improved the lives of vulnerable young people and their families who were so often left frustrated and disadvantaged by the previous system.

However, as exclusive LGC research has shown today, the stuttering start to the new arrangements highlighted by a government report published in October has become serious stumble, as a higher proportion of local areas were identified as having significant weaknesses in the second wave of inspections.

It was not difficult to predict that the transition would not be smooth while the added responsibilities placed on councils remained underfunded.

The extension of support to young people aged up to 25 (statements previously lapsed at 19) has caused a sharp rise in demand which stretched councils are largely ill-equipped to deal with.

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) reported in September last year that one large unitary council said it usually expected around 600 statements to lapse each year as young people reached 19 but now, under the new system, it had 1,500 more young people on either statements or the new education, health and care (EHC) plans compared to three years previously.

This swelling of demand, combined with the challenging requirement to transfer all children from the old statements to EHC plans by the end of this month, was described to LGC by the chair of ADCS’s resources board Steve Crocker as “like trying to ride a bike while doing the knitting”. The lack of any significant funding to create the capacity to meet this double challenge suggests the bike wheels were also buckled and the road littered with potholes. 

It is perhaps little surprise then in this difficult context that the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman said yesterday he had upheld 80% of complaints about EHC plans, with quality and timeliness emerging as recurring themes. 

Financial pressures across the system are also being caused by the needs of children and young people becoming more complex.

A shortage of specialist education provision is leading to an increase in placements with independent providers, along with a rise in demand for top-up funding.

This is being compounded by a lack of capacity within often cash-strapped mainstream schools to provide additional support, resulting in children with lower level needs who would have previously attended mainstream settings being placed in specialist provision.

The new system also removed the process of ‘school action’ and ‘school action plus’, which provided a form of early intervention when a child is showing signs of difficulty, ahead of any move to make them the subject of a statement.

Mr Crocker told LGC he would like to see some research on the impact of the removal of this mechanism on driving demand for EHC plans. He told LGC it can now feel as if a school can “dive straight in” to applying for an EHC plan, without having to prove adequate support had been provided to prevent escalation.

Moreover, Mr Crocker echoed wider concerns of the government’s focus on academic attainment and the impact that will have on children with special educational needs.

He added increased numbers of exclusions and children being home schooled was evidence of the “incongruity” between the intention of the reforms and  judgements based on test results.

These factors are putting a significant strain on high needs block budgets, which is specifically used to fund a support package for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

The ADCS survey found the 85 councils which responded had high needs block budgets in 2016-17 of £2.95m but ended the year spending £3.08m, with 68 reporting overspends.

Many of these councils managed these overspends by utilising dedicated schools grant reserves, which were now either “depleted or in deficit”.

Responses from councils whose areas have been found to have significant weaknesses during local area reviews shows they are working hard to improve services across the system, and there is hope significant progress can be made when the transition process is completed.

But there are warnings that under current funding arrangements, with only a small planned increase in the high needs block funding under a new education funding formula, overspends are only likely to get worse.

This will necessitate savings that could impact on the quality and scale of provision.

As a result, the government’s refusal to acknowledge the scale of the problems and loosen the purse strings accordingly could effectively cause the much trumpeted reforms – and a new system which has the potential to improve the lives and prospects of vulnerable young people – to continue to unravel.

Jon Bunn, senior reporter

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