A decision to relax local authorities' legal duties for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) was "not taken lightly", a government minister has said.
Under temporary emergency legislation introduced as part of the government’s new Coronavirus Bill, local authorities will not be penalised for failing to meet their legal duties for pupils with SEND.
A letter sent out today by the minister responsible for SEND, Vicky Ford, refers to the government’s aim to balance the needs of children with SEND with managing the demands on local authorities and health bodies to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
It states: “Where a local authority is, because of the outbreak, unable, for example, to put in place stated provision, they will need to use their reasonable endeavours to do this, but won’t be penalised for failing to meet the existing duty as set out in the Children and Families Act 2014.
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“These emergency powers will only be exercised for the shortest period and where necessary, and will be regularly reviewed.”
Ms Ford added: "I want to reiterate that these decisions are not taken lightly but I believe strike the right balance in these difficult times."
The open letter, whose recipients included SEND parents, carers and families, also states: “We will also be seeking to amend regulations on the timescales for EHC [education, health and care] plan processes where this is appropriate because of Covid-19.”
The measures follow stark warnings before the coronavirus crisis that the needs of pupils with SEND were going unmet amid a huge rise in EHCP applications.
The huge deficits in many councils' SEND budgets has been largely attributed to this increase in EHCP applications coupled with squeezed funding from government.
Dame Christine Lenehan DBE, Director of the Council for Disabled Children said: “Vicky Ford’s letter is frank about the balancing act that national and local government is performing, weighing up the needs of disabled children against the many other pressing demands on their resources.
“Relaxing requirements on local authorities so they only have to make ‘reasonable endeavours’ to provide for children and young people’s Education and Health Care Plans is a grim reminder of the depth of the crisis we are in.
"The Government must ensure the emergency measures put in place have as short a duration as possible, so that disabled children and young people can access the care and education they need while their families have some of the extra pressure on them removed.”
“We will be working with the Government in these difficult times to make sure that children and families’ needs are recognised and understood. We take some reassurance from the Children’s Minister’s statement that SEND remains a priority issue for this Government and we will be holding them to account on this once the current crisis is over.”