A step change in SEN education

1st February 2013 at 00:00
Sweeping reforms aim to simplify the system and hand control to families. But what do they mean for schools?

Just 30 years ago children who found it hard to learn were labelled "uneducable", "maladjusted" and "educationally subnormal". They were given "special educational treatment" in separate schools, which were not designed to prepare them for an independent life.

Then a revolution happened. In 1981, following the 1978 Warnock report, the concept of inclusion was born. Children with special educational needs (SEN) were to be given the same educational goals as other pupils and were allowed to attend mainstream schools. They were given legally protected support, set out on a "statement". There have been few changes since.

Now, however, thanks to a review process started by former children's minister Sarah Teather and continued by her successor Edward Timpson, the entire support system for children with SEN is being dismantled and rebuilt. And this is not just redecorating. Statements will be scrapped, along with the existing categories of SEN. In their place will be joint education, health and care (EHC) plans and personal budgets for parents.

The government believes the current system is failing to help professionals identify children's problems early enough, and is not helping SEN pupils make the journey from childhood to adulthood. Teather and Timpson have described their sympathy for parents who have had to battle to secure services for their children.

But those following the progress of the reforms - which are being trialled through "pathfinder" pilots in 20 areas - are concerned that draft proposals published last year by the Department for Education lack detail and do not explain clearly how the changes will work in practice.

The legislation that will enact the changes is expected soon, but a glimpse at the pathfinders gives some indication of what can be expected from the new process.

There is little information yet about the transitional arrangements. Will children with a statement be reassessed for a plan? Timpson has reassured parents that the protections children currently enjoy will be carried forward into the new system. But the reforms are likely to herald big changes for teachers in how they are expected to support pupils.

What's involved?

The current categories of School Action and School Action Plus, used to describe children who need extra support to help them learn, will be replaced with a single category. The aim is to encourage teachers to focus on outcomes for children rather than the process of identifying them. We do not yet know which children currently judged to have SEN will be put into this new category but Timpson has denied that the purpose of the reforms is to save money.

Currently, to get a SEN statement, the school or parent makes a request to the local authority (LA) for the child to be assessed. If the LA agrees, the child is seen by an educational psychologist. Their assessment is then used by the LA to decide whether or not the child should have a statement. The whole process can take up to six months.

Under the new system - or at least the one that has been used in pathfinder areas in the South East - the child's family, andor education, health or care professionals will identify a child who needs extra support and one person will be designated to coordinate their assessment.

Information will be gathered from the family and in a series of meetings they will agree on the "outcomes" they would like for their child. A support plan will then be drawn up detailing which authority will be responsible for various areas of the child's care.

According to Lorraine Petersen, chief executive of SEN organisation Nasen, schools will have to show that it is not possible to meet the child's needs using their existing budgets before they will be entitled to go into the new SEN category.

Parents will continue to be able to request an assessment, and GPs and health visitors will also have this right. The time limit for assessments will be set by the government.

The current category of behavioural, emotional and social difficulties will be redefined. The government is reviewing it, with input from experts, on the grounds that it is overused and does not lead to the right support being put in place.

Children who need the most support will be given an education, health and care (EHC) plan, a document that sets out what educational support children should be given and has the same legal force as the statement it replaces.

The EHC plan will apply from birth to the age of 25 and for the first time brings together the services offered by teachers, medics and social workers in one document. Teachers are likely to find themselves working more closely with health and social workers. In pilot areas, the new approach has led to all three groups working together to help children.

There will also be a "better integrated" assessment process, which will offer children and their parents greater involvement than the existing system and aims to reduce the number of tests children undergo to determine whether they qualify for support.

There will be a new duty of joint commissioning between education and health professionals - although there are concerns that health services will not be compelled to participate in the plan. This would leave the service fragmented. Petersen, for example, has expressed concerns that the government has not made a "robust" commitment to ensuring equal input from all services in implementing the proposals.

Timpson has told MPs on the Education Select Committee that one barrier to joint participation is that the delivery of NHS services differs from educational services, because they are based on clinical need.

Jean Haigh, regional coordinator of the SE7 pathfinder being run across seven LAs in the South East, says there needs to be equal responsibility for all services if the plans are to be "truly holistic" - something achieved during her trials.

"The plan is a children- and family-centred process," she says. "The current process is a system in which parents don't have much input. Now in the pathfinder we are moving away from that. Assessment should be an ongoing process, not a one-off event. We try and see things from the parents' perspective. We want to get their expertise and knowledge to see how children react and behave in a variety of contexts - including at home and at social events."

Haigh says the EHC plans used by the LAs in the SE7 pathfinder pilot - Brighton and Hove, East Sussex, Hampshire, Kent, Medway, Surrey and West Sussex - are more detailed and personal than statements.

How it works in practice

In Calderdale, where the recommendations have been trialled with 15 children, having a plan significantly helped the parents of four-year-old Linda*, a child with complex health needs. Her parents and other professionals were working towards enrolling her in a mainstream school.

Linda has had major surgery which has had the side effect of limiting her vision. A statement would focus on her educational needs: she might, for example, be supported by a trained teaching assistant for a specific number of hours. But under the pilot scheme the family has been involved in developing a single plan that takes a different approach. There is less focus on "fixing" things but a lot of time and effort spent working with the family to find a solution that is individual to Linda and works in the context of her family and home life.

In fact, Linda's parents wrote her plan, setting out the medical support she had after her operation, and the training staff at her nursery needed to support her. The family also identified outcomes they wanted to achieve. Health and education workers then looked at what support they could provide to help them achieve those goals. In other words, the family was in control of Linda's support.

One outcome set out by her family was that she should start Reception in the mainstream school her older brother attends in September 2013. The plan also focuses on the family's role and needs - for example, Linda's mother wants to keep working and her parents also need time to spend with her older brother.

Solutions included arranging a carer to come to the home and members of the extended family being trained in delivering medication so they could help look after Linda. Her mother is also being supported: she is attending a five-week course to learn techniques to care for her daughter and forging links with other families through the local parent and carers council.

"The plan means there are more opportunities for us to be flexible, to find creative ways of helping children," says Phil Brayshaw, programme manager for disabled children at NHS Calderdale. "A traditional approach connected with a statement would be the use of speech and language therapy. With a plan we can use a more tailored approach to suit children - for instance, having them join a drama club.

"This response doesn't exist within traditional services. The plans are more holistic. More about broader life outcomes."

Some children may be told they do not need a plan. Brayshaw adds: "We need to move away from the idea of entitlement. We need to think about eligibility based on needs. At the moment families don't trust services to deliver. So we've tried to involve families from the start. Their feedback is that this has been a positive experience. They like the fact that we talk about goals and aspirations."

Putting children first

It is not yet clear how the transition from statements to EHC plans will be managed, but Timpson told the select committee: "I want to avoid a situation where there is blind panic as we move from one system to the other. It needs to be systematically and carefully introduced."

Kate Fallon, general secretary of the Association of Educational Psychologists, has expressed concern that families could face problems if EHC plans are not transferable from one region to another, as is the case with statements.

The government believes the existing SEN tribunal system is not effective, with 80 per cent of cases - more than 3,000 each year - being withdrawn or resolved, sometimes the day before the tribunal. This causes unnecessary distress to parents and teachers and carries unnecessary costs.

Under the new system, parents will have the same rights to bring cases to tribunals but will first have to try mediation to resolve the dispute.

"We want to move away from what can be quite an adversarial process to provide all parents and local authorities with the opportunity to try to resolve any disagreements without having to go through the tribunal system," Timpson says.

In trials in the West Midlands, four out of five cases that went through mediation as part of the pathfinder pilot were resolved in this way - although there are concerns that the change could simply add another layer of bureaucracy to the process and make it last even longer.

The government will also pilot giving children the right to bring cases to tribunal themselves.

It has sought views, too, on whether teachers should now label children as having "learning difficulties" instead of "special educational needs". But the legal definition of what constitutes SEN will remain the same.

Brian Lamb, who led a review on parental confidence in the SEN system for the previous government, fears the change could be confusing for teachers and experts. "They might feel this term applies to very different categories of children with SEN, but the range covered by this new definition will remain the same," he says.

But Philippa Stobbs, assistant director of the Council for Disabled Children, disagrees. She says the change in terminology could "trigger a helpful discussion" about the definition of SEN.

It is possible the government will emulate the system in Scotland, where the concept of SEN has been broadened to include "additional support needs", which takes into account other factors affecting a child's learning, such as bullying, bereavement, being in care or having a teenage parent.

LAs will be required to publish a "local offer" of the range of services they provide for disabled children and young people and those with SEN. Designed to inform families and help them to make choices, this will contain information about what help parents can seek from schools, colleges and health and care services. It will also offer guidance on where they can seek specialist support if they feel their child's needs are not being met.

In some pathfinder pilot areas the local offer began with a meeting with parents and young people, putting the needs of SEN children and their families at the top of the agenda.

* Name has been changed


With education, health and care (EHC) plans, parents will be allowed to have a personal budget to pay for services, so they can choose where they buy support. The services most likely to be delivered this way are transport and short breaks.

The idea is to give parents more freedom and autonomy over their child's future, but some have expressed concern that it is simply a means of shifting an administrative burden on to them. And they fear that funding will not be adequate to meet children's needs.

The government, however, has promised that parents will be supported in making financial choices.


Support and aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability-progress and next steps (Department for Education, 2012).


SEN pathfinder website:



There will be one slimmed-down document to reflect changes to the SEN system, replacing two hefty booklets that are now 11 years old - one for children with SEN and one for children with learning difficulties and disabilities.

There are concerns that in simplifying the system, the code will have fewer teeth.

But minister for children Edward Timpson has made it clear that he does not want "an inaccessible, labyrinthine document that is not easily referred to", adding: "It should be more of a living, organic document. It should reflect the current provision on offer."

The draft code of practice is expected to be published by the Department for Education this year and will include guidance on inclusion and SEN support post-16.

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