The East Sussex Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) Strategy 2022-25 has been published today by East Sussex County Council and NHS Sussex. This document sets out five priority areas for the local authority and partner organisations across education, health, and social care. ESPCF was part of the steering group for this strategy and our role throughout the entire process was to ensure the views and experiences of parent carers and their families were fully reflected across the whole strategy.
East Sussex has taken on board a lot of the suggestions we made to strengthen the parent carer voice in this strategy. However, there are two key issues where we have not been able to reach agreement: EHCP decision making, and an emphasis on local mainstream schools.
We also maintain that for this strategy to be meaningful for East Sussex families, it needs greater clarity and detail on how things will be changed for the better. We are yet to be convinced that there is enough in it that will make a real and meaningful difference to families’ lives. As a result, this strategy has not been co-produced with ESPCF.
However, while we can’t endorse the document as a whole, we do hope that parent carers will be able to see a stronger parent carer voice reflected across the priorities and commitments than has previously been the case. Ultimately, what matters is that real, positive change happens; the proof of the strategy will be in the doing.
We spent considerable time working to strengthen the plan as far as we could. A number of elements in the strategy have been strengthened to address some of our concerns, for example health priorities and improvements needed in post-16 education provision. But we were unable to reach agreement with the local authority on two key areas which we know are of crucial importance to many families in East Sussex (see next section). As a result, although we’ve influenced parts of the strategy and we acknowledge the work done by individuals within ISEND on this, it is not a co-produced SEND strategy. All those involved in the process have recognised that co-production is a long journey of building understanding and a shared vision – and we’ve still some way to go.
In addition to the findings in last year’s Joint Strategic Needs Assessment, parent carers in East Sussex have sent clear messages to us about what needs to change to improve SEND provision. We are extremely grateful to everyone who has taken the time to talk to us: at our engagement events, by email or phone, at support groups or drop-in events, on social media, and anecdotally. Every single experience you have shared with us matters. It is because of this that we have taken a firm position on these two issues:
Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) decision making
Unfortunately, we have not yet been able to reach agreement with ISEND about the changes we believe are needed on this. If the system was working better as a result of the strategy, for example needs being identified earlier and appropriately supported by mainstream schools and colleges, the need for an EHCP for some children and young people might reduce. However there does remain a statutory process which must be followed.
We maintain that appeal and tribunal outcomes, which are almost always found in favour of families, clearly demonstrate flaws in the local authority’s decision making. This can cause delays to children and young people getting the right support, and considerable stress for parent carers navigating the system. It is an important area where we felt strongly that we had to see that a commitment from ISEND to reflect this parent carer voice. We are incredibly disappointed that we haven’t seen the movement we believe is needed.
ISEND do accept there are some things that need to change, and ESPCF is involved in work to try and improve as much of the process as we can. At the same time, we’ll continue to try and influence the wider strategic direction so that families are not having to fight for the appropriate support.
Emphasis on ‘local mainstream schools’
ESPCF disagrees with the success measure in Priority 4 of ‘an increase in the proportion of newly issued EHCPs naming a local mainstream school’. Whilst we absolutely believe that SEND provision in mainstream schools needs to be better consistently, we disagree with the aim of not naming specialist schools in EHCPs, because this should be entirely driven by the needs of each individual child or young person.
We were clear in our discussions with East Sussex County Council about the importance of monitoring and measuring progress. How will families know if the commitments set out in the strategy are on track and happening? We also stressed the need for being open and honest about current challenges. Only by acknowledging the reality of families’ situations day-to-day can there be a real focus on what must change.
In the coming months we’ll be looking at the different areas highlighted in the strategy and asking parent carers if and how progress is being made. The strategy refers to a more detailed action plan, called the East Sussex SEND Inclusion Plan, which is where we would expect to see tangible actions for those who are delivering on the ground. ESPCF has parent carer representatives involved in the group monitoring this, and in some of the associated task groups, and we will keep members updated on progress and opportunities for further involvement. We are also part of the Strategy Governance Board, where we can further monitor progress and scrutinise the real impact, or not, of the implementation of the strategy.
The coproduction process
The development of this strategy highlighted issues of process and procedure. In particular, ESPCF raised concerns about how much time was built in to review and seek feedback sufficiently on drafts. ESPCF is parent-carer run, including volunteers, and while timescales were extended initially to ensure direct engagement with parent carers and young people, this wasn’t the case in the latter stages, nor following the public consultation. ESPCF and the local authority are meeting to review the process with a view to creating a blueprint of how to do it better next time.