East Sussex is one of the local areas involved in the government’s SEND ‘Change Programme’, which means the local authority will be trialling some potential reforms as set out in the national SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan.
This article explains a bit more about what we understand is currently happening, how parent carers could and should be involved, and where we still require clarity or more information.
At this point, the important thing for families to remember is that the law has not changed. All existing legal obligations for local authorities and schools are still the same.
We wanted to try and give enough information on the various reforms being tested, so this article is a bit longer than than usual. The government’s Improvement Plan is 101 pages long, so we promise at least that this is much shorter than that!
There are ten reforms which will be tested by the nine local area partnerships across England. East Sussex is part of the South-East regional partnership, which also includes Brighton and Hove, West Sussex, and Portsmouth.
ESPCF understands that each local authority should be testing nine of the reforms (details below), but will likely be doing this in different ways, or to different extents.
Some of the reforms being trialled are more ‘behind the scenes’ – such as the banding/tariffs, and multi-agency panels – so families won’t necessarily see things being done differently. The government’s hope is that these systemic changes will lead to better experiences and outcomes that will be seen and felt by families.
Other reforms are more family-facing, such as the EHCP (education, health, and care plan) template, changes to mediation, and advisory tailored lists of schools.
Remember, the existing law has not changed. This means you can opt out of being part of the trials if you want to. We will hopefully be working with East Sussex County Council (ESCC) to make sure communication for families is clear and accessible.
Information is coming out from the Department for Education gradually, rather than all in one go. As a result, there are reforms about which we have little detail about yet, other than what is included in the Improvement Plan. We have outlined the proposed reforms being tested below.
Parent carer involvement
We are still trying to figure out ESPCF’s role in various parts of this process. Funding is being allocated to the parent carer forums in the regional partnerships, which means we can increase our capacity so that our involvement doesn’t take anything away from the work we are already doing – but we need to make sure it’s meaningful.
We have started discussions about how we will be involved evaluating the more family-facing, tangible aspects like changes to mediation processes, using the new EHCP template, and the advisory tailored lists – talking to families about how things have gone for example, so that families feel as comfortable as possible to give impartial feedback about their experiences.
We have regular catch ups set up with the ESCC officer leading on the Change Programme, during which we can also keep up to date with what’s being planned and ensure we feed parent carer voice into decisions being made about how things are being tested, to try and make the programme as impactful as possible. Crucially, we also want to try and ensure things don’t get even worse in the meantime.
It’s exhausting enough for families to get to grips with the different services and processes as it is, let alone with all this potential change thrown into the mix as well.
We will be feeding back locally directly, regionally in meetings with the other parent carer forums in the south-east group, as well as nationally through the NNPCF (National Network of Parent Carer Forums).
One of the most common issues ESPCF hears from families is about the battle – the fight – through the system.
It was identified in the parent carer voice in East Sussex’s SEND Joint Strategic Needs Assessment that some families feel the council itself presents as a barrier to support.
The Department for Education has said that part of this period of testing and refining the proposed reforms includes identifying unintended consequences, loopholes, and where things may be open to different interpretations by local authorities which could potentially create even more barriers to support instead of improving the system.
We know full well that laws, guidance, policies, and whatever else, are hugely dependent on being substantial in the first place, but also implemented well. Whilst there are worries around some of the changes, as outlined below, it may well lead to the government wanting to change the legal framework in the future, so we need to make sure the testing and refining process is as valuable as possible for families.
It’s a helpful starting point, at least, that the huge problems across the country with the SEND system are well acknowledged, and that the government is looking at different ways to try to address these issues, but at this point it’s hard to feel that the proposed reforms are going to be the way to solve the problems that families face.
The changes are being described by the government as being ‘transformational’, but sadly so far we’ve yet to be convinced.
The following are the ten reforms to be tested, and what we understand is currently happening – we’ve mentioned East Sussex-specific information where it’s known, but as we’ve mentioned there is still a lot that is up in the air.
As with all of our work, where we have shared views on the proposals, these are based on experiences, feedback and views that families have shared with us.
Standardised national EHCP template
All local areas in the Change Programme will test the same new template, which has come from the Department for Education (DfE) after being developed with a number of partners across education, health and social care. As the law has not changed, the template is still based on the current law. The DfE and partners say “the new form and its guidance will improve the quality of plans and the experience of getting one”. It should help reflect the “golden thread” between needs, provision and outcomes, and includes prompts to help provision be specified and quantified, as per legal standards.
Each local authority in the programme has to test 80 cases, and we believe the intention is for East Sussex County Council (ESCC) to start using the new template on all new plans.
Advisory tailored lists of suitable school/setting placements during the EHCP process
We know many families, both locally and nationally, think this one is one of the more controversial aspects being tested, and involves local authorities producing a list of placements deemed suitable for a child or young person to support families expressing a preference when naming a school/setting during the EHCP process.
The Improvement Plan outlines that “a tailored list of settings would provide parents and carers with clearer information, supporting them to express an informed preference for a placement”.
We know from parent carer feedback that it’s not uncommon for the local authority and families to disagree over the school or setting named in an EHCP. There is, therefore, concern that these lists could at worst be used to limit parental choice, whilst also adding to the workload of the assessment and planning team, making it even more difficult to get things right for families. At best, it could be meaningless if the schools or settings can’t actually meet needs or can’t accept any more children or young people anyway.
Based on the feedback we hear from families, ESPCF would prefer to see:
- Clear, accessible, up to date information about all schools clearly available for families, such as on the Local Offer website, and communication about this to be improved.
- A requirement for schools to let families visit and view the school whilst trying to make their choice
- Improvement to all parts of the EHCP process to ensure good quality, legally compliant plans, which fully reflect children’s needs and the support required, and how this can happen, to support a better consultation process with schools.
There is still discussion to be had with the local authority about how this reform may be tested in East Sussex.
Changes to mediation processes
This is another of the more controversial changes being tested. We’re not sure exactly what is being proposed yet. Currently, before starting an appeal in the EHCP process families have to ‘consider’ mediation, but it is not mandatory to actually go through mediation with the local authority. The Improvement Plan explains that strengthened mediation processes is intended to address the problem of families too often having to go though “a lengthy, stressful and often expensive appeals process to secure support for their child.”
Although some families in East Sussex have said they found mediation helpful, which is great, we know that too often experiences are not good, including that the representative from the local authority does not usually have the required decision-making authority to address the issues under dispute. (Although this requirement in itself is contradictory to the government’s emphasis on multi-agency panel decision making.)
We are still trying to find out more about what changes the government is proposing, and will be trying to ensure any changes don’t create added bureaucracy for families, or become an added barrier to accessing the SEND Tribunal through the appeals process.
The College of Mediators and the Civil Mediation Council is currently conducting a consultation about the professional standards specific to SEND mediation, which is open to parents, carers, and young people, as well as professionals.
Alternative Provision (AP)
(Education arranged by local authorities or schools for pupils who are unable to attend their school due to illness, exclusion, behaviour, or other reasons)
This is also being included in the potential reforms with a view to integrating it more into the SEND system.
The SEND Improvement Plan talks about AP as “an intervention not a destination”, and states the intention to “create a three-tier alternative provision system, focusing on targeted early support within mainstream school, time-limited intensive placements in an alternative provision setting, and longer-term placements to support return to mainstream or a sustainable post-16 destination.
New local and national data dashboards
The Improvement Plan states the intention to “publish a local and national inclusion dashboard from autumn 2023 to support the development of local inclusion plans, giving parents improved transparency of local performance, informing decision-making and driving self-improvement across the system with ongoing updates and iterations in response to user feedback”.
Of course, it is important that data is collected and recorded accurately, interpreted correctly, and most importantly that it is used well to make the best decisions around what happens and how, and where money is spent for example. We believe the qualitative data we gather around families’ experiences is important to help ensure certain data is interpreted accurately, as it provides the more in-depth narrative and understanding behind the numbers.
Multi-agency panels (MAPs)
This will include “testing the impact of a consistent approach to supporting local authority decision-making through the use of multi-agency panels.” The Change Programme testing should help assess the most effective size, membership and remit of these panel groups. This is something East Sussex has already improved on in recent years – there are already multi-agency panels which include a range of professionals such as school representatives, educational psychologists and health representatives who make decisions in the EHCP process. However, the data around appeals of decisions, along with direct feedback from families, does not suggest that this improvement is generally felt by families.
The Improvement Plan talks about increasing parental confidence in the EHC Needs assessment process. ESPCF believe there also needs to be greater transparency around the panels, such as knowing who is making the decisions, and minutes/notes kept and shared with families about their child to help understand why a particular decision has been reached.
Developing new National Standards in SEND provision
According to the Improvement Plan, these will form the basis of a more consistent system, and reduce the number of children who need an EHCP. “Standards will improve early identification of needs and intervention, and set out clear expectations for the types of support that should be ordinarily available in mainstream settings. This will give families and providers clarity, consistency and confidence in the support that is ordinarily available, in order to be responsive to children’s needs. With these expectations, and improved mainstream provision, more children and young people will receive the support they need through ordinarily available provision in their local setting.
Safe to say we are yet to be convinced! Developing the national standards shouldn’t be the difficult part – what will be more challenging is how these will be implemented. Schools need sufficient funding, training, time etc to meet children’s needs, and we can’t see things changing without a change to guidance around behaviour policies for example, as well as a shift in focus of Ofsted inspections to promote and prioritise SEND inclusion.
We know that accountability is a huge priority for families – many of us have been talking about the lack of accountability for several years now, and actually what we often mean is ‘consequences’. What happens if the standards aren’t followed? After all, as well as equality laws, there is currently a legal duty for schools to “use its best endeavours to secure that the special educational provision [needed] is made”.
We so often hear examples of the lack of inclusion or needs not being met, or reasonable adjustments not being made in schools, and that the provision already outlined in ESCC’s ‘Universally Available Provision’ is not actually available, or that it is a long fight to get it.
Bands and tariffs
The Improvement Plan states, “We will introduce a national framework of banding and price tariffs to support commissioners and providers to meet the expectations set out in the National Standards. Whilst there will always be some local variation, to have a consistent, national SEND and alternative provision system and ensure value for money, we must move to a world where similar types of support are backed by similar levels of funding. Bandings will cluster specific types of education provision and tariffs will set the rules and prices that commissioners use to pay providers to deliver what is set out within the National Standards.”
Again, we think the how is very important here. What happens if the required provision is not available for the costs set out for example? Whilst we agree local authorities should spend public money wisely and aim to get the best value for money for what they are commissioning, this must be suitable, needs based, and child/young person-centred.
Development of Local Area Inclusion Plans (LAIPs)
The Improvement Plan states the expectation for “local SEND and alternative provision partnerships to create evidence based local inclusion plans that will set out how the needs of children and young people in the local area will be met in line with National Standards.” It also says “the views of parents, carers, children and young people are vital in successful partnerships”.
Work has begun on putting the LAIP together, although we assume it will be an ongoing process because it will need to reflect the new ‘National Standards’ – see below. ESPCF will ensure parent carer voice influences the contents, and that what it says is available locally accurately reflects what us families experience on the ground.
Early Language Support For Every Child (ELSEC)
East Sussex will not be testing this one.
The government is funding ELSEC ‘pathfinders’ in partnership with NHS England to trial new ways of working to better identify and support children with speech, language and communication needs in early years and primary schools. This is limited to one local authority area in each regional partnership. In the south-east region it is Portsmouth who will be involved in this. (This wasn’t something we had a say in.) We’ll try and keep up to date with this work in case there’s any learning that could be used here in East Sussex too.
For information and advice on the current system
We know Amaze SENDIASS will be making sure it has up to date information about what the changes mean locally, and where you should be told you can opt in or out of any trials.
The IPSEA website has a useful page on the SEND Change Programme. IPSEA is the Independent Provider of Special Education Advice.