Education, health and care plans (EHCPs) have been billed by the government as a means of “changing the landscape for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND)”. The plans set out the support these pupils must receive, such as the number of hours they should spend with a teaching assistant each week. Crucially, they have to be issued within 20 weeks of a parent asking for their child to be assessed for one.
However, the government has been clear that the process should be made faster “wherever possible”. And many parents feel that even 20 weeks is too long for their children to wait.
But a Tes investigation reveals that, across the country, about 1,000 children with SEND have had to wait for longer than a year for the specialist support plan that they are legally entitled to.
In 2016, 903 children waited for longer than a year for their plan, according to the 81 local authorities that answered a Freedom of Information request by Tes. This amounts to about 4 per cent of all pupils who were assessed.
If the same pattern was reflected in the remaining authorities across the country, the total number of children who waited longer than a year would be 1,238 in 2016 – the most recent year for which figures are available.
Targets missed by months
EHCPs were brought in to replace statements of special educational need in 2014. Exceptions to the 20-week deadline can be made, such as when a child is absent from the area for at least four weeks, or in exceptional family circumstances. But all our figures exclude these exceptions.
As well as detailing the extra support needed by the pupil, the plan names the school the child will attend and legally binds the council to ensuring the provision is funded.
Experts and campaigners say the lengthy delays uncovered by Tes not only risk damaging the education of children left in the system with inadequate support, but can also force schools to fill the gap with their own stretched budgets.
“It’s not right,” says Adam Boddison, chief executive of special educational needs association, Nasen. “I understand that there are some complex situations that take longer than 20 weeks. But this means that for some young people there is at least a year when needs are not being properly met because a plan is not in place. Families and young people are left in limbo. No young person should have to wait more than a year.”
Official figures published earlier this year revealed that, in 2016, nearly half – 44 per cent – of plans, excluding exceptions, were not issued within this 20-week time limit.
But the government does not collect any information on how long plans are taking after they have passed that 20-week cut-off.
Tes’ investigation reveals that, in many cases, local authorities are not just falling slightly short of the target, but missing it by many months. The problem is not confined to a handful of areas: in 35 councils, at least one plan was outstanding after a year.
Eight of the 81 authorities that answered the FoI had taken longer than a year to complete at least one in 10 of the plans that they issued in 2016.
In Norfolk, 152 plans took longer than a year to be completed. A spokesperson for Norfolk County Council says the authority is working closely with the Department for Education to focus on its performance.
“We take a ‘person-centred’ approach to our assessments and know from feedback that families appreciate the extra time and care taken. However, it is clear that a balance needs to be achieved between this approach and timely assessment,” the spokesperson says.
This was echoed by Peter Edgar, executive member for education at Hampshire County Council, where 134 plans took longer than a year. He says: “We treat every child as an individual and undertake a thorough assessment of their particular needs. Obviously, we want every young person to have the right plan in place, but to do this properly does take time.”
The council is “pulling out all the stops” to hit the deadline in all cases, Edgar adds.
Hitting the deadline is arguably no good if the plan itself is worthless. Some EHCPs are being rushed out within the statutory timeframe, even though they amount to “waffle and hot air”, according to one expert.
So should the target be scrapped altogether? Malcolm Reeve, an independent education consultant and former director of SEND at the AET multi-academy trust, accepts that the plans can take time to get right. But he adds: “Twenty weeks is ample time to do it. It is really damaging if we end up with a system where many children are waiting over a year for an EHCP.”
Boddison says the problem is that there is simply no incentive for local authorities to speed up or monitor the process after 20 weeks have passed. He says: “There is a difference between an authority that takes 24 or 25 weeks and puts out a good plan, and one that is taking a year. They are completely different situations, but at the moment they are both judged as not meeting the 20-week deadline. It’s not fair on the authorities.”
Several authorities said they could not provide Tes with any information on how long pupils waited beyond the 20-week deadline.
Barney Angliss, a special needs consultant, believes that the 20-week deadline should stay in place, even though it “can’t be met in every case”.
But he thinks that hitting the deadline is likely to slip down local authorities’ list of priorities, due to another new duty coming into force: by the end of March 2018, all statements of special educational needs must be converted into plans. “I think it is creating a problem,” he says. “It is pulling [local authorities] in two directions.”
Councils say SEND resources are already severely stretched.
A DfE spokesperson says: “EHCPs have changed the landscape for children with special educational needs and disabilities. Where there are particular concerns that an authority is not fulfilling its duties to children with SEND, we provide support and challenge to improve services.
“We are clear that where it takes longer than 20 weeks to issue a plan, the council must work with the family and ensure support is put in place with minimum delay.”