Reforms will let parents hold the SEN purse strings
A pilot project starting this month that will give parents of children with special educational needs (SEN) control over part of the budget allocated to their child was always going to be controversial.
Children's Minister Sarah Teather, a Liberal Democrat with responsibility for reforming the SEN system, agreed last week to give families in 31 local authorities the direct payments to spend on the educational support of their choice. She hopes that the as yet undisclosed sum of money will "empower" parents.
Those in receipt of the cash will be able to buy goods and services - for example, equipment or time with specialists such as speech therapists. The scheme's backers say it will have many benefits, including driving up the quality of services.
"We have evidence that a personal budget can give families more flexibility and empower them to make decisions about the support services that they use," Ms Teather told MPs.
However, many who work in the field say it is not that simple. Teachers, for example, have told TES that many families will be overwhelmed by the complex task of managing their child's SEN provision, while opposition politicians have suggested that the initiative, which is optional, would favour middle-class parents, who are more likely to take the cash. They have warned that those who choose not to become involved will be left with "second-rate" services.
The project is part of major changes planned for SEN education, first announced in last year's Green Paper. Other proposed reforms include a single education, health and care plan and replacing SEN statements with a new system of assessment.
But the idea of giving cash directly to parents has proven controversial. For example, Phil Hearne, executive director of Northumberland Church of England Academy, told a recent Westminster Education Forum conference that parents were worried about the "complexities of managing a personal budget, and this will only add to their stress and workload when just caring for their own child already exhausts them".
Instead, he said, parents wanted their budget managed on their behalf, with "greater clarity and transparency over how it is allocated" and accountability for those responsible for spending the money.
"In one example, a single working parent was adamant that she could not afford the time to manage her budget; if she took time off work to have greater involvement, she was clear she would lose her job," Mr Hearne added.
Labour MP Sharon Hodgson, shadow education minister, has added her voice to concerns. She believes parents who do not take up their entitlement to direct payments could get second-rate services.
"The system currently in place already favours parents who have the knowledge and the determination to fight for better support for their child, so the focus of reform really must be on getting the best for every child," she told TES. "However, the government's consultation on the Green Paper highlighted that there were deep reservations among parents and the SEN and disability sector about the potential for direct payments and personal budgets to have a positive impact on outcomes, particularly for children from poorer backgrounds."
Philippa Stobbs, assistant director of the Council for Disabled Children, went further. "We have wider concerns that there are risks in taking resources out of education, which is a universal service for all children," she said. "This could have an impact on the ability of schools and local authorities to plan for all children with SEN."
Ms Teather has now appointed 31 local authorities to run 20 "pathfinder" trials alongside local primary care trusts, to test whether the idea can work. As yet, it is unknown how many families will be given direct payments or how much money they will be able to spend during the pilot, which lasts until January 2014.
In some areas, parents will only be told their child's SEN "personal budget" and will be involved in deciding what it should be used for, rather than getting full control of the money.
Ms Teather told MPs that she is certain the system could work. There would, she said, be "safeguards" in place that would address the concerns of teachers and parents.
Schools and colleges will be able to decide whether to participate in the direct payments pilot and will have to give permission for services bought by parents to be provided on their premises.
Local authorities must ensure that direct payments are an efficient use of their resources and that this will not have an adverse impact on other services provided for children with a statement of special educational needs.
Council staff will have to check that the direct payments are being used properly and whether the amount of money in question is sufficient. If the cash is being misappropriated, they can take steps to get it repaid.
The pilots will be evaluated and reports on their progress published in April and September 2012, with a final report in March 2013.
Local authorities involved include Brighton and Hove, Darlington, Devon, Essex, Surrey and Trafford.