EHCPs - The Story So Far...

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Early on in the life of this government, they issued a paper for reform of the special needs system which had some of us really enthusiastic. I have to say I was always more dubious about the chances of getting anything really worthwhile for the bulk of the cases, but very keen on the idea of protection through the equivalent of a statement going up to age 25.

Whether it’s because I am now officially a grumpy old woman, or because I had spent some years as a civil servant watching how ideas get diluted or spun, I always had reservations about what would happen in practice.

Over 20 years working almost solely in the field of special needs law had taught me to be cautious! In particular I regarded all the statements about a change in attitude with local authorities (LAs) now working in partnership with parents as just so much hot air – after all, didn’t the 2001 Code of Practice contain whole sections on working in partnership with parents and other agencies as well as pupil participation?

In what way would having an increase in the number of meetings lead to a speedier process?

The Bill itself originally contained a number of potential risk points where provision was likely to be weaker than at present, although most of these were sorted out before the new Children and Families Act came into being – other than the power for academies to place children in their own special schools without the need for a pesky plan to which parents could object. But the Code of Practice which came out over Easter with only 12 working days for comment, rang significant alarm bells, particularly on the question of removing parental rights on the contents of the plan once their offspring reaches school leaving age. We have of course been promised that this will all be "reviewed" over the coming year, but won't politicians and their civil servants have bigger things on their minds in the run-up to a general election?

The regulations on timetables were an even bigger joke, coming out just before they were due to come into force with no proper time for comment and even less for LAs to get their heads round. This is particularly important as the drafting of the new regulations is nowhere near as good as the old in terms of how the timetable works.

For example we can see that the overall process should take 20 weeks from the date of the parental request for an assessment or reassessment, with 6 weeks allowed at the beginning for responding and letting parents know whether they will agree to the request. But what happens when the local authority initially opposes the assessment and then caves in after an appeal has been lodged. I am sure that this then means that the authority must provide a final plan within 14 weeks of the date of their agreement, but it is not set out clearly in the regulations, and most local authorities are happily stating that they have 20 weeks for this.

We will and do oppose this interpretation, but it all takes time and energy.

But the big thing, of course, is how all the government's aspirations will be reflected in the Education, Health and Care plans (EHCPs), and my big news is that I have finally received my first draft plan for a client. Have all my fears been allayed or is the new plan simply the same as the old statements dressed up in a more touchy feely way with larger chunks of indigestible rubbish to wade through before you get to something that might be called a blueprint for provision?

You've guessed it – the new draft plan I have received is rubbish…

The parents are almost apoplectic with rage, having suffered large tracts of meaningless words from the local authority as the reasons for delay being the need for "co-production and transparency with parents". The only thing that is transparent is the refusal of the local authority to specify and quantify provision – and yes, this is still required even under the new system. The parents have provided several reports from an Educational Psychologist and NHS specialist centre for autism, yet none of the stuff in these has been included in the new provision. They have not even been referred to in the text. This is not even because the authority has included their own therapy reports. Indeed it seems they only recently got round to calling for assessments from the relevant local NHS commissioning groups. All the provision specified seems to amount to "as a result of the assessment, the school now knows of his difficulties and will do the right thing by him".

How are parents who may not be fully clued up on the system going to be able to cope with this?

So many myths are circulating about what the new system involves, that many are going to be misled on their rights, leaving it to charities and lawyers to ensure that the law is followed.

The parents in my case are rightly furious and wondering whether they should have a meeting with the LA to express their concern and try and get changes in the final plan before it is issued. I have to say I see little point in this as it will merely delay the process still further. The local authority agreed to carry out an assessment at the end of July – 4 months later and we are no further forward despite the fact that the authority in question was a "pathfinder" authority and therefore should have had a better idea than most what would be needed.

So unless some miracle happens and this turns out to be the only authority which fails to produce the goods, I am afraid my "grumpy old woman" views remain. Increases in the levels of co-production between agencies are unlikely to lead to better provision (particularly as we cannot appeal against health or care provision that does not have an educational benefit) and will merely increase the number of meetings hard-pressed officials have to attend in order to carry out their jobs. This all comes at a time when many authorities are having to cut staff. Therefore my official advice is: "Don’t hold your breath for the shiny new dawn!"


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