Everything has changed... but nothing has changed

With councils delegating special-needs plans, things will remain largely the same
7th April 2017, 1:00am
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Everything has changed... but nothing has changed


September 2018 is not so far off, and in that month the changeover from statements to education, health and care plans (EHCPs) for individual children with special needs is supposed to be completed.

These plans were introduced in the Children and Families Act 2014 - they were proposed as a way of improving on statements to ensure that all aspects of the needs of each individual child who came up for assessment should be considered by a panel of assessors, independent of that child’s local authority.

This group would include, as necessary, medical and social care professionals, as well as teachers and educational psychologists.

I supported the bill when it came to the House of Lords, or at least this clause within it. I had long realised that one of the major flaws in my 1978 report on special educational needs (SEN) was that the same body, the local education authority (LEA), was to carry out the assessment of a child’s need for which it was its statutory duty to provide. The statement had become little more than a list of what they thought they could afford.

Right from the beginning of the 1980s, this had been a cause of conflict between parents and LEAs, and huge sums had been spent on tribunals to hear and try to settle disputes when parents believed that their children’s needs had not been properly identified, or if identified, were not being adequately met.

The 1981 act could not have come at a worse time, just when educational cuts were beginning to be felt after what seemed like two decades of comparative affluence. I had hoped that the new EHCPs, if they were drawn up independently, would be more realistic; it seemed an added bonus that they would also take into account any medical and social difficulties a child might have. I hoped, at any rate, that a way had been found to secure collaboration between the different service providers that a child might need. But I rather doubted it, for it would have been little short of a miracle.

Effort to co-ordinate

By far the most recalcitrant problem we had in the 1970s was to get the teachers, doctors and social workers - though all were represented on the committee - to acknowledge one another’s existence.

A good example was the most dramatic moment in the life of my committee into SEN, which came on the last day in 1978, when we assembled to sign the report. I had gone over the whole thing the night before and was pleased to see the last of it. Suddenly the door of our meeting room (an especially grand one for the occasion) burst open and our paediatric member (who had been a poor attender, so I had not been surprised at his absence) came in, ashen faced, and said “Chairman, I have come to hand in my resignation. I cannot sign the report.”

He was late, he said, because he had been reading it carefully on his way to London and had found something in it that was a resigning matter. I managed to calm him down enough to tell me what it was and see whether we could find a compromise.

It turned out that in one place I had written that, in the case of disabled children, whose education we recommended should start at the age of 2, doctors should be required to share information with those who were about to start teaching the child. No doctor, apparently, may be required to breach patient confidentiality. The disaster was averted by my suggestion that I substitute the word “encouraged” for “required”. (But it left me a bit gloomy. I would never have used the offending word if I’d had my wits about me.)

Painful delays

It was this lack of coordination that I had hoped the recent changes would resolve. But at first the 2014 legislation seemed to be little understood by local authorities, perhaps because they had become unaccustomed to having duties laid upon them by government.

My own London borough issued a pamphlet to parents, which was withdrawn because it had told parents that there were to be no more statements, but told them nothing whatever about what was coming instead. The poor parents did not know whether the news was good or bad, though it was presented as good.

And now it seems that those relatively few local authorities that have started the new scheme are taking an inordinate time to deliver the mechanism by which parents can ask for an assessment for their child. (The National Autistic Society published a report last September that made this point strongly and it is not alone.)

But the saddest news, to my ears, is that local authorities have delegated the actual drawing up of the EHCPs to schools. Once again, the input from the other service providers has become secondary, not something that can be relied on, and with the emphasis firmly on educational matters. This becomes a problem that is especially acute as a child grows up and is preparing for adulthood.

I fear that nothing very much has changed. There has, after all, been no miracle.

Baroness Mary Warnock is a philosopher and chaired a UK inquiry into special education from 1974-78

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