September 2014 will see the biggest reforms to the system of SEN support for 30 years. There is broad agreement about the aims and a vision for a better system in the future. However, as we are poised on the brink of change there remains uncertainty amongst parents and professionals as to whether the vision can be realised in practice.
Changes to the legislation that supports children with special educational needs are currently going through Parliament.The legal changes, part of the Children and Families Bill, are due to come into force a year from now. Much of the focus has been on the intention to move from Statements of Special Need to a new multi-agency plan called an Education Health and Care plan (EHC), spanning the age range 0 – 25 years. What is less widely known or understood is the accompanying Indicative Code of Practice. This describes a number of new or refined principles and processes. It anticipates a fundamental change in culture that will challenge much established practice in schools and in allied professional groups. Nothing less than a comprehensive re-think of many existing processes will be required if the spirit of these reforms is to be experienced in practice.
Parents worry about their child’s education. Schools, local authorities and allied professionals in education, health and social care do share the concerns and acknowledge that parents and children should be at the centre of the process of identification and assessment of SEN. In practice, organisational and resourcing pressures have all too often hampered the best intentions. It has rarely been possible to resolve the tension between recognising what a child needs and what society believes it can afford. Social policy decisions have become inextricably intertwined with attempts to ‘assess’ needs. The result has been a system reduced to an unsatisfactory, largely bureaucratic process.
These tensions will not be resolved by the new legislation. What should be different is the sharpening of focus on placing families genuinely at the centre of the assessment and decision-making process. And this is where the challenge comes. As the new Code takes shape there is talk of ‘person-centred planning’, ‘child-centred reviews’ and ‘co-production with parents’.
I am excited by this. As a practitioner, this feels much closer to the way in which I would like to do my job. If managed well, a process that is genuinely ‘person-centred’ should reduce considerably the bureaucratic and often adversarial nature of current systems.
However, the road ahead is looking fairly bumpy. There is not yet a great deal of confidence amongst parents. A recent survey undertaken by the website Special Needs Jungle - a website “about SEN and disability by parents for parents” - suggested that 50% of parents who responded knew little or nothing about the SEN reforms, and 72% were concerned that the changes would lead to a reduction in provision. This lack of knowledge is probably also evident within schools and allied professional groups. It is not surprising when these reforms are being implemented in the context of fragmentation of services across the public sector, with sweeping changes in education and the NHS.
Whatever we think about the politics and the processes, this remains our best opportunity for a generation to improve the system for children and their parents. The culture change will be good for professionals too, opening up the prospect of genuine partnership working with families, offering greater impact in our work and enhanced job satisfaction. Success will be dependent on the engagement and commitment of numerous individuals with the determination, resilience and resourcefulness to seize this opportunity for change.
Catalyst Psychology will be hosting a conference about the SEN reforms on 24th October 2013: Inclusion Matters – Working together for change.