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'The big problem at the heart of SEND funding'

The introduction of Education, Health and Care plans has left vulnerable children without support, writes Daryl Brown

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The introduction of Education, Health and Care plans has left vulnerable children without support, writes Daryl Brown

When Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans were introduced in 2014, the idea behind the move was to simplify the system that would enable children with special needs to receive the support they required. The reality, however, has been somewhat different.

Mired in bureaucracy, the plans are first and foremost exceptionally complex to navigate – particularly if a child has an educational need, such as dyslexia, without the additional health or social needs.

Last year, a Tes article revealed that in 2016 there was a sharp rise in the number of children who were refused requests for an EHC plan assessment – the total number who were refused was 14,794, which represented a rise of 3,860 from 2015. At the same time, government figures showed that the number of SEN (special educational nNeeds) students rose from 1,228,785 in January 2016 to 1,244,255 in January 2017 – the first increase since 2010.

Whereas the former statements of SEN had six sections, EHC plans have 12. Not only that, the documents differ between local authorities and there are also potential pitfalls, depending on how the assessment is conducted.

We’ve encountered many frustrated parents who are unable to get an EHC plan for their child because schools are reluctant to put forward students for assessment. All too often they are told that if their child is “just” dyslexic, they will not get an EHC plan. This means parents may give up trying to get help for their child before the first hurdle has been attempted.

Giving parents 'false hope'

Or the local authority might offer the child a person-centred plan (PCP), which is not a legally binding document and is not enforceable. But it is cheaper. The only thing a PCP will provide is false hope for parents who believe assurances that their child will have the necessary support.

By comparison, a real EHC plan means that the council has a legal duty to follow up with funding for the necessary support, up to the age of 25 where needed, with a regular review of the provision and its effectiveness.

Let’s look at what is available: there is already up to £10,000 of government funding available for each child with special needs – £6,000 for low-level special educational needs support and £4,000 if the child has high-level needs – plus any pupil premium.

These funds, which can pay for a place at a specialist school like Maple Hayes, are accessed via the local authority, which then claws the money back from government.

So why isn’t this happening?

Let's take Dyslexia as an example. When a school has done the best it can but the child still isn’t progressing, the local authority is avoiding its responsibility to provide an appropriate education for struggling dyslexics by not issuing EHC plans. And yet, last year, Staffordshire County Council issued just 16 such EHC plans – including four pupils who were referred to Maple Hayes. But we know that there is much greater demand for our specialist education for students with dyslexia.

In a recent survey we conducted, more than three-quarters (77 per cent) of the parents we asked said they did not feel the system for gaining support for their child’s educational needs was clearly explained to them by the local authority.

Parents 'forced to fight'

Instead, parents have to fight, and those who choose to challenge a local authority for an EHC plan have to be patient because the entire process takes, on average, more than a year: that’s at least 12 months of education wasted, a year in which the child has continued to underachieve, lost interest or even given up on their learning.

At every point there are obstacles. Our own local authority, Staffordshire County Council, has a policy that a child has to be in the bottom 1 per cent for at least two aspects of achievement, and then only two tests on two out of five main aspects of literacy are assessed by independent psychologists. Most local authorities rely on schools’ test results, which invariably show their expected improvement. And if the school does agree that a child would benefit from an EHC plan, this can all too easily be overturned by the council, which can conclude that he or she is making good progress in a mainstream school.

If a local authority refuses to assess for an EHC plan or only offers a PCP, parents’ only redress is to take the case to a tribunal, with costs well beyond the reach of most. It’s yet another hurdle to jump over, but if the judge finds in favour of the parents, the local authority must carry out an assessment as per the tribunal’s rulings. However, this does not mean it will necessarily issue the EHC Plan – that is for the next tribunal! Each tribunal can cost parents anywhere between £5,000 and £6,000 plus VAT – and the local authority can field a barrister at the ratepayers’ expense to fight the parents.

If EHC plans did what they were meant to do, we would be providing an enormous service to our young people by giving them the opportunity to achieve their best in school, gain qualifications and play a full role in society and contribute to the economy.

It is my hope that the current state of inertia over EHC plans will give way to a much more dynamic system that will go out of its way to give young people the additional educational support they need.”

Dr Daryl Brown is headteacher at Maple Hayes Hall in Lichfield, a government-approved specialist school for pupils with specific learning difficulties and dyslexia

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