The coalition government is to introduce the biggest reforms of the special educational needs (SEN) system in a generation, under legislation announced in this week's Queen's Speech.
A complete overhaul of the way children are assessed and supported will be brought in, with the current system of statements due to be scrapped in favour of combined education, health and care plans. The reform will attempt to bring the work of schools, doctors and social services together for the first time in a coordinated package of help.
The legislation, which is due to come into force in 2014, comes after concerns that the support given to children is not properly coordinated.
Children's minister Sarah Teather, who is overseeing the changes, said that the current system is not "fit for purpose". "It's unacceptable that parents are forced to spend so much time going from pillar to post just to get the basic support their children need," she said.
Ms Teather first suggested the reforms in March last year. "We set out plans for the biggest SEN reforms for 30 years," she said this week. "This bill demonstrates our commitment to delivering these reforms."
Other key measures include parents being allocated budgets to give them greater control over which services their children receive and statutory protection being extended for people up to the age of 25 - statements currently end at age 16. Local authorities will also be required to publish details of the support available for disabled children and those with SEN and their families for the first time.
A number of the reforms are being piloted, with final evaluation reports expected in 2013.
David Bateson, chairman of the Federation of Leaders in Special Education and principal of Ash Field School and Assistive Technology Assessment Centre in Leicester, said that he was "very optimistic" about the impact of the reforms.
"I have heard very good things about how education, social services and health are working together on the pilots," he said. "The issue now is will this legislation make things happen. I'm hopeful it will.
"It is to be applauded that so many people are trying to address some of the issues that have become very difficult for those with special educational needs and disabilities."
The reforms come after concerns were raised by the government that too many children are diagnosed with SEN. But fears have also been voiced that the proposed changes could mean that children with less serious SEN lose out.
The current SEN register allows schools to support children with milder learning difficulties before a statement is issued. The new system will scrap the "school action" and "school action plus" categories for less serious problems, prompting fears that schools could be left with fewer resources.
Christopher Robertson, lecturer in inclusive and special education at the University of Birmingham, said that teachers have a "genuine concern" about children missing out on support.
"They fear that those who go through the new assessment process and get an education, health and care plan will get lots of resources, but those who do not will have to fall back on the pupil premium or other SEN budgets," he said. "I can see how schools would be concerned by that.
"It's been exacerbated by the fact schools have not been feeling involved in the pathfinder work designed to test this new assessment and decision- making."
Lorraine Petersen, chief executive of SEN organisation Nasen, insisted that the aspirations behind the reforms are "fantastic", but that they could be problematic for teachers when introduced.
"I have a real worry about these young people who are not identified until much later on in their education. How much onus will there be on schools to coordinate the plan and work with health and social care?" she said.
- Replacing SEN statements and learning difficulty assessments (for 16- to 25-year-olds) with single education, health and care plans from 2014.
- Providing statutory protection for people with SEN in further education up to age 25.
- Local authorities to publish details of the support available for disabled children and young people and those with SEN, and for their families.
- Giving parents or young people with education, health and care plans the right to a personal budget for their support.
Original headline: Statements scrapped in radical reform of the SEN system