Voices: So much for the ‘transformational’ special needs plan for children

Voices: So much for the ‘transformational’ special needs plan for children

Here’s what you need to know about the situation faced by children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and their parents as the government publishes what it claims will be a “transformational” programme of change: the law as it stands is pretty good.

The Children and Families Act of 2014 does a fine job of spelling out what is required to secure an Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP), what should be provided through it, and how its progress should be monitored.

The problem is that the law is routinely flouted.

Local authorities, which have the job of conducting assessments and making decisions, routinely trample on families, while shamefully demeaning the parents who take up the cudgels to fight for them as “pushy” and “middle class”. Apparently, standing up for your child and being a loving parent makes you a villain in county hall.

Central government, the Treasury, and the Department for Education (DfE) bear a heavy responsibility for having allowed this situation to develop into a full blown family-wrecking crisis by starving the sector of funds.

But now we have the shiny new change programme. So does this mean our kids will finally receive the help they need? And that they are legally entitled to? I feel we should repeat that. Does this mean that the 2014 Act is going to be respected? Wait, is that a top I see on the table spinning at the speed of light in the DfE press office?

It is. Because there is a whole lot of spin here.

As a parent with a long and bitter personal experience of a failing special needs system, my snap reaction having read the announcement was: Is that it? Is the really the best you can do after all those reviews, and consultations, and more consultations, and humming and hawing as education secretaries have walked in and out of the revolving doors at the DfE?

There will be, we are told, “guidelines for professionals”? But why are they needed when we already have the act?

There is the promise of 33 new special “free” schools, which serves to highlight the failures of too many mainstream schools with regardless to inclusion. But they’re years away.

There will be some more inspections, and recalcitrant schools with their eyes on league tables (an under-reported cause of problems) will be hassled into being more inclusive. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Oh, and we’re going to digitise the ECHP application process to make it easier and less “adversarial”? That sounds nice. Except that we all know that digitisation can be a double edged sword. It can make things quicker and more efficient. It can also be used as a means of locking parents out and leaving them in the cold when there are disputes and things go awry.

The troubling focus on “mediation” in the event of the latter happening remains the DfE’s perferred solution for reducing the adversarial nature of the EHCP application process. It will do nothing of the sort. I’ve twice sat through mediation sessions: they are a joke. Whether to grant an EHCP or not is a binary decision. What no one has yet explained to me is how you mediate between yes and no. The local authority comes in, states its position. You state yours. Then it says “no”.

If you’re lucky, it might suggest that you resubmit your application or provide more evidence, which you don’t need mediation for. If they’re worried about you appealing, they might even send in a lawyer. This happened to us, when we were preparing to do just that. Although we were told they weren’t appearing as a lawyer. They were there as a council employee. Things that make you go hmm.

The most bitterly amusing part of the plans is all the talk about “early intervention”. Early intervention is a wonderful idea. In theory it could save parents from desperately wading through sludge in an attempt to get their children what they need, from submitting form after form, from complaining, writing endless letters to councillors and MPs. Problems could be addressed before turning nasty.

Trouble is, that requires both the will to make it happen and the funding to facilitate it; the latter of which doesn’t appear to be on offer, at least not in the necessary quantities to make a difference to desperately cash strapped schools and a desperately cash strapped system.

There is a reason parents so often end up having to appeal SEND decisions, which they win at a rate of more than 95 per cent per the latest Ministry of Justice Statistics. Do I need to repeat it? It is because local authorities are ignoring the law. They’re short of cash too, but their behaviour – and their parent-demeaning tactics – show they are part of the problem, which this programme won’t fix.

In response to the announcement, some of them were already starting to moan about the act again, which says it all.

Education secretary Gillian Keegan said that “families feel they have been battling the system for too long”. Preach. But as someone who has doing that, and dealing with the fall out from the dismal failure to support our child until far too late, I fail to see how this is going to improve things.

The sludge we are (still) wading through is still there. It will still be there until the law is obeyed and enforced. The only relief is it appears legisation to reduce parents’ right – a very real fear of parents’ organisations like Special Needs Jungle – isn’t in there. That is a comfort. But it is just about the only comfort, and the the DfE will need to be watched like a hawk.