More than 1.2 million pupils in England have special educational needs or disabilities (SEND). But about a fifth of this group have such serious needs that the support they depend on is protected by law.
Education, health and care plans (EHCPs) are a major part of this legal entitlement, setting out the provision that a child with SEND should receive.
As Tes has revealed, about 1,000 children had to wait longer than a year for their plan in 2016, despite the existence of a 20-week statutory deadline. But what happens while they are waiting? According to experts, schools are being left to subsidise extra provision from their own, diminishing resources.
“Schools won’t sit there and say ‘the child needs adult support for 15 hours a week, but we will not provide it until we get the money’,” says Jarlath O’Brien, director for schools at The Eden Academy, a chain of special schools. “Schools generally aren’t like that – they will make it work.
“They might just fund it anyway, or if there are already one or two children in that class with an EHCP who have got support from a teaching assistant – then that kid will work with that teaching assistant anyway.
“It’s a smart move on the part of the school, if it can be done without disadvantaging the other child and it is short term.”
But not all schools are in a position, or are willing, to provide the support up front.
Malcolm Reeve, an independent education consultant and former director of SEND at the AET multi-academy trust, says: “Some schools won’t put anything in place. Some will prevaricate and say ‘well, we haven’t got an EHCP, so we haven’t got the mandate to do what you’re asking us to do and we haven’t got the capacity to do it’.”
He adds: “EHCPs are massively important. It’s about more than just the funding. It is partly funding, but also about the support, advice and legal rights that go with a plan.”
Only about one-in-five children who have SEND need a plan. The rest are on what is known as SEN Support, which means their needs can be met within school and funded from their school’s budget.
Children who are being assessed for an EHCP are likely to already be on SEN Support – but will need far more help in order to reach their full potential. Having a plan provides access to local authorities’ high-needs funding pot.
O’Brien accepts that, without a plan, some pupils will miss out on vitally important support: “What is less likely to happen [without a plan] are things like speech and language therapy, physiotherapy and occupational therapy.”
Why are these delays happening? In a joint report on the first 30 local areas to have their SEND provision inspected, regulators Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission identified a shortage of therapists in nearly all areas, leading to difficulties in carrying out the assessments on which the plans are based.
The Association of Educational Psychologists, the members of which carry out SEND assessments, estimates that about 200 educational psychologist positions are currently vacant nationwide.
A “lack of provision” was cited by Sheffield City Council as one reason for 95 children in its care having to wait longer than a year for a plan in 2016, as well as “an attempt to make sure the plans were high quality”.
“We take this issue very seriously and are working hard with the families of children with special educational needs and disabilities to make sure that they get the quality assessments and support they need,” says Dawn Walton, the director of commissioning, inclusion and learning at Sheffield City Council.
Even after an EHCP plan is issued, there may be further delays if parents feel the plan is not good enough and decide to launch an appeal – which increasing numbers are doing.
And while local authorities are duty-bound to provide all the provision contained in a plan, they may struggle financially to do so. A recent Tes investigation found that the gulf between what central government provides for high-needs pupils and what authorities say is needed in the coming year runs into the hundreds of millions.
Councils working hard
The Local Government Association (LGA) says the whole SEND system is under “extreme stress”. Richard Watts, chair of the LGA’s children and young people’s board, says: “Councils are working hard to make sure children with SEND get access to the support they need. However, this is proving a significant challenge owing to the significant underfunding of the reforms set out in the Children and Families Act, combined with an increasing demand for support for children and young people with SEND.”
A Department for Education spokesperson says councils have been given £232 million in extra funding to help them “navigate” the “biggest reforms to special educational needs and disability support in a generation”, as well as for supporting families.
The spokesperson adds: “We have recently announced a package of additional support worth nearly £45m for councils and organisations working with families of young people with SEND.”