SEND Green Paper: Digital EHCP proposal divides opinion

Proposals in the SEND Green Paper to standardise and digitise Education and Health Care Plans have met with a mixed reaction from teachers, unions, privacy campaigners and SEND organisations, as Dan Worth discovers
8th April 2022, 1:30pm


SEND Green Paper: Digital EHCP proposal divides opinion
SEND Green Paper: Digital EHCP proposal divides opinion

Government proposals in the SEND Green Paper to digitise Education and Health Care Plans (EHCPs) and create a standard template for the documents have drawn an array of responses from organisations across the education sector.

Privacy campaigners have warned that such a move will create a “risky honeypot of children’s information” while headteachers and the chief executive of a leading special educational needs and disability (SEND) organisation say it is just the sort of innovation schools, parents and children need to reduce bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, union leaders have queried the cost and complexity of bringing such a proposal to life while the UK’s data protection watchdog said it would expect the Department for Education (DfE) to engage with it around the plans, given the privacy concerns that have been raised.

A standard approach

First, though, it’s worth taking a step back to view the digitisation idea within the context of a second, less controversial idea in the Green Paper - standardising EHCPs around a single template.

This proposal was put forward in the SEND Green Paper unveiled last week, on page 31, with the government saying it would “introduce standardised EHCP templates and processes”.

The government said the need for this was brought to its attention in an analysis by the Children’s Commissioner that “highlighted a lack of consistency in the specificity of information included within EHCPs”, including how outcomes are defined and the time frames to complete them.

Furthermore, it noted “inconsistencies” in the structure, length and formatting of EHCP forms were also problematic after the Children’s Commissioner’s report said some local authorities were writing EHCPs that ran to 40 pages, while others ran to just eight.

It said this “lack of consistency” is an administrative burden for schools and local authorities, which have to navigate multiple different templates. It can be difficult for parents and children to read through, too, adding to their stresses.

Having standardised EHCP templates and processes would help negate these issues and make the processes clearer for all involved, the government said.

While the proposal is still at an early stage, Annamarie Hassall, chief executive of the National Association for Special Educational Needs (Nasen), says it is one she welcomes because, at present, the variation in EHCPs nationwide causes issues for schools, parents and their children.

“At the moment, if you look at EHCPS around the country, it would be like comparing apples with nuts because they are all so completely different,” she said.

“So standardisation of process, but not content, would be appropriate. I’m in favour [of that].”

Space to explain

With reference to content not being standardised, she said it was important that any template was not a series of “drop-down menus” of choices but rather contained scope to provide commentary and additional information as needed.

Heba Al-Jayoosi, assistant head (inclusion) at Mayflower Primary School in London, also raised this point.

“My concern would be how it is going to be developed to ensure we don’t lose the unique characteristics and needs of each child and young person,” she said.

“Will it limit the space available for this to be reflected? There should be a representative group of parents and professionals alike who contribute, and a pilot process.”

Despite her concerns, she said that, broadly, the proposal made sense and could help address the great variation in quality” of EHCPs.

“A standard template could be a good thing, particularly for ensuring equity for all children and young people.”

Catriona Moore, policy manager at the Independent Provider of Special Education Advice (IPSEA) also welcomed the plan, saying it was “long overdue” and something many in the sector have been calling for since 2014.

“It will be helpful for specialist schools and colleges, who often have to deal with dozens of local authorities, each with their own EHC plan format,” she added.

Meanwhile, Pepe Di’Iasio, headteacher of Wales High School and the current president of the Association of School and College Leaders, said this was a proposal he welcomed as, with his school dealing with four local authorities for EHCPs, they see “at first hand the massive variability between each region” in how documents are collated.

“At their worst, EHCP protocols are cumbersome and overly bureaucratic, and not in the interest of young people, parents or schools,” he said.

James Bowen, head of policy at the NAHT school leaders’ union, said there was “obvious merit” to having a standard approach to EHCPs as a way to “cut down on any unnecessary workload and bureaucracy for those completing the forms” but the government would need to ensure it was designed with close sector involvement.

“This should be an opportunity to see how the process can be streamlined without any negative impact on the pupils and families at the centre of it,” he added.

The right time?

However, others were less convinced that this was a worthwhile endeavour, with Professor Rob Webster, a reader in education and director of the Education Research, Innovation and Consultancy Unit at the University of Portsmouth, saying it would divert focus from other areas.

“There is a case for standardising the format of EHCPs but, with funding so scarce, the question on the minds of a lot of people in the SEND sector and families will be: how much will this cost and is it proportionate to the scale of the problem this proposal purports to address?” he told Tes.

For those in favour, though, they said the key would be to ensure that if a template was created, it was done with close sector collaboration.

“It’s important now to get the standard national template right, so that everyone can clearly see who a child or young person is, what their needs are, what provision and support they require, and what the intended outcomes are for the child or young person,” said Moore at IPSEA.

Bowen added: “The success of such an approach will rely on the DfE working closely with the sector to ensure that it is high quality, relevant and fit for purpose.”

Clearly, there will be some wide-ranging consultation responses on this for the DfE to wade through.

Going digital splits opinion

Furthermore, as well as standardising forms, the government also proposed “digitis[ing] EHCPs to reduce bureaucracy” and allowing documentation to be stored in a “secure central location” so it could be accessed by all involved and updated when required.

Digital ECHP proposal

Unsurprisingly this was welcomed by the Children’s Commissioner, Rachel de Souza, given that it was her organisation’s report the government cited as a core reason for looking at these two proposals.

“I really welcome the focus and proposals on…standardising and digitising Education, Health and Care Plans and making sure children’s experiences and outcomes are central to any system,” she wrote.

Meanwhile Bowen said he thought the digitisation idea was, in principle, a “sensible” move to alleviate the issues caused by multiple document forms in the current system.

“In the modern era, a digitalised solution seems like the obvious approach to take. This should also be an opportunity to see how the process can be streamlined without any negative impact on the pupils and families at the centre of it,” he added.

Steve Rippin, assistant headteacher and Sendco at Tapton School in Sheffield, agreed that it would allow “for all parties, parents, schools and the local authority to input at the same time, which should help to keep EHCPs live and more up to date”. 

“The frustration at the moment is the time and workload it takes to input and update EHCPs. This should, in theory, be reduced by digitising them. It should also, in theory, reduce the time frame to issue an EHCP, which many parents and schools would see as very positive.”

He did note, though, that more digitisation would have to be mindful of the fact that not all parents or carers would have the equipment or skills to operate digitally.

“It is important that all SEND needs and EHCPs are met, regardless of parents or carers ability to engage in the process. I would hate to see disadvantaged SEND students further disadvantaged because parents or carers are not able to fully engage in the process.”

Hassall also acknowledged this point but said that, if this could be overcome, the overall proposal around digitisating EHCPs is one she believes has real merit and she will be working to advocate for the plan in the consultation.

“We’re so interested that we’ll be proactively working with others to be able to see how we can propose a way of doing [this],” she said.

Digitising EHCPs, she said, would allow them to be updated iteratively as new information was required, rather than at each annual review, and would give children and their parents or carers more agency in the process.

“It could be very empowering for young adults to not feel like there’s one physical file that’s held by an agency but is something they have ownership of - that seems like a good place to aim for,” she added.

Storing data and spotting trends 

However, while the idea of digitising EHCPs is one thing, the Green Paper suggested going a lot further and using this database as a means to gather data and plot trends on how pupil cohorts are progressing.

“A digital EHCP process will also allow for better data collection, including anonymous tracking of progress made towards outcomes and analysis of trends in the prevalence of need, and the support and provision that is made available,” it said.

“This data will be used by DfE to review and update the national standards so that they remain relevant and issues can be addressed proactively.”

Most notably, it said a digital system could allow the collection and storage of media such as “photos and videos” that would help give a “holistic picture of the child or young person”.

This is not an entirely new idea: some local authorities use this sort of information already, with the help of parents, professionals who work with children or children themselves, as a means to build up information about the child at the centre of the EHCP.

Given this, a spokesperson for the DfE told Tes that creating a system where more local authorities, parents and schools could use this additional content would widen these benefits.

“For many children with more complex special educational needs and disabilities, video and audio recordings as part of the EHCP planning process are already being used to demonstrate and measure progress, and celebrate progress during annual reviews,” they said.

Hassall agreed that the proposals to allow videos or photos to be stored could work well, as it could be a place where media made by the children themselves is stored, helping those working with a child with an EHCP get to know more about them as an individual.

“That’s quite important to build more of a personalised approach. Rather than it all been about gaps and needs, it has strengths and what a young person gets excited about, what’s important to them.”

A ‘risky honeypot’ of information 

However, while Al-Jayoosi felt the idea could have merit in terms of keeping track of and celebrating a child’s achievements, she said it also raised “consent issues” and legal concerns.

“Many assessment and tracking platforms now allow parents to add photos but the EHCP is a statutory legal document [so] I wonder if it’s necessary, or even ethical, for us to store this much information.”

Phil Booth, a coordinator at medConfidential, an organisation that campaigns for confidentiality and consent in health and social care, was even more forthright about his concerns.

“The problem with creating centralised databases is that people think something is being done,” he said.

“But unless you actually put the resource into something being done - someone who’s responsible and someone is accountable - all you’ve done is create another huge, risky honeypot of children’s information.”

Jen Persson, director of Digital Defend Me - an organisation focused on children’s digital privacy rights - said she, too, was concerned by this proposal and the idea that more data on children would be gathered, not least because of where it might be passed on to.

“NHS England and the DfE must publish very transparently what their intentions are for these children, especially around profiling and in the context of cuts to provision,” she said.

“Both need to demonstrate competence in what they already do with our health and pupil records, and tell us which companies get access to it, before we consider them fit for purpose to do even more.”

She added that it had been only two years since an audit of the DfE by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) found it lacking in several areas associated with data protection. Its report contained 139 recommendations, of which 60 per cent were classed as “urgent or high priority”.

“The audit found that data protection was not being prioritised and this had severely impacted the DfE’s ability to comply with the UK’s data protection laws,” the ICO noted at the time.

In response to the latest proposals by the DfE, the ICO said that any such proposals must ensure ”data protection by design is implemented at the outset of any project” to ensure “compliance with the data protection principles is embedded from the start”.

“We anticipate the Department for Education will consult with us at the appropriate time on this project,” a spokesperson added.

In the Green Paper, the government did acknowledge this and said any new process brought in would “take account of general data protection regulations (GDPR) considerations and information-sharing protocols” in an effort to try to get ahead of the obvious privacy concerns - a point reiterated by a DfE spokesperson to Tes.

A costly endeavour 

While Di’Iasio, at Wales High School, said he understood the “safeguarding and GDPR concerns” around storing EHCP data, including video or images, in a central database, he felt it could be a worthwhile development.

“If we can be reassured about the protocols and mitigations for this, and it enabled better, more effective information sharing, then this would seem in the best interests of everyone,” he said.

Bowen agreed, but said many would question whether the DfE could really deliver such a project.

“School leaders are understandably slightly nervous about the government’s ability to implement a technology project of this complexity and scale,” he said.

This was a point raised by Booth at medConfidential, saying that it would likely cost “tens of millions of pounds” and was money that could be better spent on front-line resources.

“There is a constant desire by government to create these large databases [and] they will use any excuse to do that - around services for health care or vulnerability, safeguarding…all very important things,” he said.

“But why spend all this money and effort building a central database when that money could and should be better spent, [so] you’re actually delivering the services that people need?”

Webster, at Portsmouth University, made a similar point: “It’s not clear that any money spent on designing and implementing a technical fix for digitising and archiving EHCPs will be felt by children and young people with SEND on the front line.”

However, Hassall said that, overall, those involved in working with children with SEND in schools through EHCPs should recognise that creating more efficient processes, which enable better data sharing and collaboration, need to be considered to help improve the system from its current level.

“Nobody ever dies of too much information being shared but many young children have not had their needs met, or worse, because of a lack of information sharing,” she added.

The consultation on the SEND Review Green Paper is open from now until 13 June.

Dan Worth is senior editor at Tes

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