Thousands of families to be affected by landmark changes to special educational needs and disabilities system
08:00 22 April 2014
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It has been described as the biggest change in special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) for generations, and will affect thousands of families across our region.
The landmark Children and Families Act, which comes into effect in September, will replace special educational needs statements, give families budgets to choose their services, and force councils and health services to work together more effectively.
For Family Voice Norfolk, an independent group which represents parents, the reforms will take the conflict out of a system which can leave parents feeling they have to fight the authorities to secure crucial services.
But they, and others, believe many families remain unaware of the reforms, and Edward Timpson, minister for children and families, has written to parents, teachers, colleges, councils and health authorities to explain how they will be affected.
Currently 4,500 children in Norfolk access support through the statement system, and the new mechanism will affect 10,000 families with children up to the age of 25 who have special educational needs of some description.
For Michael Bateman, head of SEN at Norfolk County Council, the changes have four main building blocks: the local offer; the introduction of Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCP); joint commissioning by council and health authorities, and personal budgets.
For the first time, councils will have to publish a “local offer” outlining all the education, social care and health services in the county, as well as those provided by voluntary and community groups, and set out the criteria for getting support.
For Mr Bateman, it is more than just a directory, but describes the system’s intention to support people in the county.
He said: “For someone moving into Norfolk, or who has a child who has difficulties, the first time you access information it should be very clear who provides support and who holds your hand when you go through the system.”
For many families, getting a statement of special educational needs is a gruelling but vital battle, securing recognition of their child’s needs and guaranteeing funding and support.
But from September, they will be replaced by EHCPs, with existing statements phased out over three years.
The deadline for assessments will be reduced to 20 weeks, from 26, and the plans will cover young people from the ages of zero to 25, compared to the usual five to 16 for statements.
They will emphasise the personal goals of the young person, and Karen Wooddissee, of Family Voice Norfolk, said: “Currently, statements feel as though the output is the outcome. They feel like if a family has 20 hours of support, that is the outcome, rather than what will they be able to achieve from those 20 hours.
“Now it is ‘what are the outcomes we want for that child, and how do we get there?’”
The government has said no-one will be left without support just because of the changes.
As the EHCPs bring education, health and care together, the new law also puts a duty on councils and health authorities to work closely together to deliver them.
For Karin Heap, headteacher of Chapel Road School in Attleborough, for children and young people with complex needs, this duty to jointly commission services could help reduce delays.
She said: “I’m hopeful that we will work better together so the young people and families get what they need at the beginning, rather than after a long, difficult process for parents to get services after being assessed for years.
“When they come to my school they are often battered and bruised. If that’s different and they get quicker service and don’t have to repeat themselves wherever they go, and it’s all pulled together before they come to school, that would be a real bonus.”
Another important change offers parents personal budgets, to spend on the services they think are best for their child. The concept was introduced in social care in 2007, and aims to give service users more choice.
When the idea was piloted in West Sussex, one family decided that, instead of having a teaching assistant help their daughter in school, they would use that money to pay for her home care assistant to come to school as well, giving her continuity.
Ms Wooddissee said: “It’s a huge challenge for everybody, but it is the bit where for families it always felt that someone else was in control.”
There is no doubt about the scale of the reforms, but will they deliver all they promise?
There is still much work for the council and health services to do, and more need to explain what the reforms mean for parents. For headteacher Karin Heap, the devil will be in the detail.
For more information, contact Family Voice Norfolk on familyvoice.org.uk, email@example.com, 07950 302937 (answer phone only) or Family Voice Norfolk, PO Box 1290, Long Stratton, NR15 2HD.
How will the changes affect you? Email firstname.lastname@example.org