The changes taking place in the support of children with a Special Educational Need or Disability are the most fundamental in the last 30 years. In this piece, Andy Bloor argues that we are in danger of passing over good practice already in existence in favour of a new but not necessarily better, alternative.
The new Children & Families Act is currently making its way through parliament and many of my colleagues across a range of settings and organisations are quite exercised by its proposals. I think it is fair to say that this is the most fundamental change in the manner and approach we take to supporting children with a Special Educational Need/Disability (SEND) since the Warnock Report of 1978, which in turn led to the Children’s Act of 1981.
This has the potential to be a revolutionary approach that will drastically improve the support of children with a SEND, but could so easily be an ill-thought out dogs-dinner of an act that supports in a random manner, where little support is forthcoming outside education.
The act had its genesis in the OFSTED report ‘A statement is not Enough’ in 2010, which outlined that SEND was an over-used term and one which potentially hid poor teaching by labelling the child. This led on to the Special Educational Needs Green Paper in March 2011. This was followed by the current Children and Families Act 2012. The legislatively eagle-eyed of you will notice that the typical pattern of events (Green Paper, White Paper, Act) has skipped a stage (white paper), but considering the level of scrutiny being afforded the current proposed act, it seems like a sensible move, especially when you consider the time spent on consultation on the Green Paper.
Unlike the Academies Act in 2010, which was pushed through with undue haste, the C&F Act seems to have been given more space for consultation and reflection: so hopefully also giving it more time to get it right.
So what does the new act propose? Firstly, that parents can have (but do not need to have) direct funding. This personalised budget is nothing new and is already used extensively in Social Care to fund and support the needs of individuals. Secondly, the current categories of School Action and School Action Plus will cease in favour of a unified term ‘Special Education Need’. Statements of Special Educational Need are to be replaced with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs).
Another cornerstone of the act will be the Local Offer, in which Local Authorities will be expected to construct a ‘menu’ of services available to children and young people in their locality. This will not necessarily mean that these will all be locality based services (one only has to consider the case of low-incidence conditions to see why this may not be desirable), just services that can be accessed should the child, young person or their family decide that it would be useful.
Much has been said about these new proposals, but one thing I would like to raise is the commonality between these new plans and something that is already in place: the Common Assessment Framework (CAF).
Sadly, the CAF has been unevenly applied across localities. Where it has worked, it has been a great success, putting as it does the children and family at the heart of the process. Gone are prescriptive lists of what a family could access with little regard to the family’s needs and in its place was a way of thinking in a more individualised manner that kept the child/young person and family at its heart.
To those who have studied the new Children and Families Act this may sound familiar. This is the crux of my point: the new Education, Health and Care Plans are basically a trimmed down version of the CAF. Differences include the limit of agencies involved to Education, Health and Social Care, but otherwise there are some startling similarities. The manner in which the family and young person are at the heart of the process would seem logical, but the idea that there should be one main person in the new EHCPs that links together all the professionals seems very reminiscent of the Lead Professional in the CAF.
Secondly, the manner in which the professionals give a ‘menu’ of interventions and services to the child/young person and family is again very reminiscent of the team around the child approach that underpinned good CAFs.
This then leads me to a fundamental question – why, when there is a perfectly good structure in place to support vulnerable children, do we have to change it?
To my thinking there seems to be only one reasonable answer: because the last government made it. Since we have had a long consultation over the Green Paper, it seems almost perverse that the CAF, into which a great deal of money has been ploughed, should be allowed to ‘drift’ in favour of a new way of working….that seems very similar to the old one.
So here is my concern: why, in Education, the field in which we raise and nurture the intellect of our children do we all too often think in 5 year blocks, condemning our children to the whims of politicians? Surely education should be above that? We have had successive governments that have opposed all too often because it is relatively easy to oppose than come up with a radically different and better proposal.
So I am advocating an independent Department of Education that is scrutinised by parliament, but free of it to act as is best for the children in school, in a similar manner to the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) in health. This would potentially leave the field open for a number of new executive agencies. Firstly, we could remove the lack of rigour in education policy by having all policy subject to scrutiny of the available research (although not necessarily or even desirably in the manner suggested by Ben Goldacre of randomised blind trials). Secondly, with education being de-politicised, we could actually look at outcomes being the judge of the best routes into teaching rather than ideologically driven initiatives that may not be as proven as we would like.
Education is precious. Time is a precious commodity in a child’s education and we owe it to our children to change things only when there is compelling evidence to do so; a bold step for politicians, but a necessary one. After all, if this were medicine, one would hope that clinicians not politicians would drive the agenda. Education is no less precious.
Postscript: It is worth noting that the consultation on the new Code of Practice closes on the 9th December 2013, so please ensure that you have read and responded to it. If it is anything like the last code it will set out the landscape for day-to-day practice for the next decade.