It was one of the biggest shake-ups for SEND provision since Warnock: in 2014, Statements of SEN were replaced with education, health and care plans (EHCPs). As with all revolutions, the path has not been smooth, but are EHCPs fit for purpose?
Like all well-constructed EHCPs, let us start with the positives. Unlike the old Statements of SEN, which were centred on diagnosis and provision, EHCPs should be more outcome-driven and aspirational; most importantly, they should focus on what the young person can do, rather than what they cannot. This point is essential not only for the young person’s self-esteem, but also for teachers and teaching assistants to know how to begin teaching these young people effectively. To be able to teach children with SEND, professionals need to know where to begin, and how to capture an individual’s interest and instil a love of learning. Without this, school has the potential to become a hostile and miserable place for some young people.
Another positive is that EHCPs are outcome-driven rather than target-focused. This is useful, as it gives teachers and TAs an idea of the direction that the young person is headed, as well as their overall goals and aspirations. Helpfully, these outcomes can be categorised as short, medium and long term.
Finally, the EHCPs offer statutory protection for young people with additional needs from 0-25 years. This is a significant change, as the previous Statements were only valid until the young person turned 18. This did not address the transition beyond school or college, nor did it take into account the fact that young people with identified SEND may take longer to achieve a set of qualifications that reflect their ability and potential, compared with their peers.
So far, so good, but the conversion of Statements to EHCPs is no panacea for the delivery of high-quality education to young people with additional needs; in fact, in some instances they have created more problems than they have solved.
Firstly, the quality of EHCPs varies from one plan to another and from local authority to local authority. Many of them can be very woolly, which is frustrating for the young person, their family and the school. A criticism of the old Statements was that they were too prescriptive, which was perhaps fair; but we have seemingly gone from one extreme to another, with EHCPs often being too vague.
Parents and carers have complained of having to “fight” for things to be added to their child’s plan and, in some cases, having to go to tribunal to achieve this. Life is tough enough without having to continually fight for your child. This is a sad reality that I hear about time and time again.
Some sceptical parents/carers have suggested that the plans have been made deliberately vague, as part of a cost-cutting exercise. Some have also complained about the frustrations they have experienced in accessing a personal budget, which was introduced as part of the SEND overhaul in 2014. In my experiences in both East Anglia and east London, not a single child has accessed a personal budget.
Timescales are another big issue with EHCPs. The creation of a new EHCP has been less of a concern, in my experience, but the conversion of Statements to EHCPs has in many cases taken almost a calendar year. Tes published a special report on this in January that revealed shocking waiting times for young people (see bit.ly/SENDstress).
Then you have the graduated approach of “assess, plan, do, review” – which was introduced with the 2014 SEND Code of Practice and revised in January 2015 – which has failed to be properly acknowledged. This approach recognises that young people’s needs are not static and that changes may need to be addressed at the annual review meeting. I have lost count of the number of times that the school, alongside the young person and parents/carers, have submitted changes to the EHCP (eg, new outcomes or updated information on medication), only to be confronted with the unchanged EHCP at the next annual review.
This makes the whole process feel rather farcical. It is not the fault of our EHCP coordinators; we do not think they are sitting around drinking tea and chatting about the weather – we know they are swamped and are having to prioritise their workload. As usual, this comes back to an issue of funding. It does feel as though the central government wanted this significant change, but without having to fund it.
The lack of funding has also meant that insufficient time has been spent on devising the new EHCPs. Too often, there is variability in the quality of EHCPs. For example, sometimes the published outcomes do not reflect the ones that were submitted, and can feel rather generic. Equally, sometimes suggestions for provision do not reflect the reality of our school. One plan stated that the school should provide a separate, designated room for an individual who had been diagnosed as autistic. As much as we would have wanted to do that, we did not have the space to provide this, nor the funding. This was challenged and eventually a compromise was made, but it took time and delayed the final plan. It was frustrating, as this could have been easily avoided had the school actually been able to meet with the EHCP coordinator in the first instance.
Schools are resilient institutions and will always do their best to overcome obstacles to support their learners. But what would educational professionals and parents/carers really like to see happen?
Most would want the problems above to be addressed urgently. There is also a real need for consistency across local authorities. And we need much, much more cooperation. There is a push for more positive assessments, too (as explained by psychologist Nancy Doyle in a recent Tes interview – see bit.ly/NancyDoyleTes).
I cannot speak for everyone, obviously, but I think the most immediate thing we need is for schools and local authorities to be financially enabled, so that they can action all of the promises that came with the new SEND Code of Practice.
We want young people with additional needs to be protected by a statutory document that is meaningful, and which allows them to access the provision and support that they require to fulfil their full potential.
Gemma Corby is Sendco at Hobart High School, Norfolk