Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Special Educational Needs reforms are a step in the wrong direction

Via Where's the Benefit, I've come across the government's proposed reforms aimed at children with Special Educational Needs (SEN). The Green Paper (PDF), apparently aimed at "support[ing] better life outcomes for young people," makes interesting - not to mention worrying - reading.

The main point that has grabbed people's attention is the proposal to "replace the statutory SEN assessment and statement" with "a new single assessment process and ‘Education, Health and Care Plan’."

The SEN statement describes the needs of the child and the help that they should receive to address them. These are particularly important if the child needs a lot of extra help, or isn't making progress under the School Action or School Action Plus programmes. The statement is a legally enforceable document which provides the additional help needed by the roughly 2-4% of children with SEN who are most vulnerable.

The main concern about its replacement is that it will not be enforceable in the same way. In the Law Gazette, Steven Broach notes that "the implications of this for the legal requirements on local authorities to carry out initial and core assessments and produce child in need plans for disabled children do not seem to have been thought through." Mark Lever of the National Autistic Society adds that "if the Government is to remove statements then they must ensure that they fulfill their promise to provide the same level of legal protection, otherwise they will be unsuccessful in their commitment to stop vulnerable children falling through the gaps."

However, with the same emphasis on  "strip[ping] away unnecessary bureaucracy" as elsewhere in their doctrinaire cuts agenda, the Government clearly hasn't taken this into account. Especially, as the Law Gazette notes, when a legal tool "that minimises the ‘bureaucratic’ fights a parent or carer may otherwise need to have service by service, year by year" is labelled as such.

This is not to say that there aren't useful recommendations in the report. The NAS welcomes "the Government's plan to get education, health and social services working together" and Broach states that unifed plans for those with SEN from birth to age 25 "could be very beneficial, avoiding the cliff-edge transition experienced at present by many disabled young people at 18." However, again there is concern that this could be mere rhetoric to make the cut back measures more appealing. For example, if planning up to 25 merely defers problems, then "moving the cliff edge back seven years would not be a particularly helpful outcome." Likewise, the joined up approach to services is undermined by the fact that "last year the Government removed the duty on schools to co-operate with other services through Children's Trusts."

It seems that it is the Government itself which lacks joined-up thinking. Or, if one were cynical, it could be argued that plans to cut loose the most vulnerable in society were actually very well thought through and the disjointed bits were just masking tape over the jagged edge of the cuts anyway.

Certainly, when we connect what is being recommended in this paper with broader cuts to services, the cynic's voice comes out on top. As Lorraine Petersen, chief executive of the National Association for Special Educational Needs, told the Guardian, "with the reduction in key personnel at local authority level, Nasen has a concern that those advocates will not be available for parents to turn to." Moreover, "what will happen if the child's current provision costs more than the budget allocated to parents?"

There is a case for reform. When families with disabled children are having to turn off their heating or go without food to make ends meet, there is clearly something wrong with the status quo. But with this Green Paper removing basic legal tools and the cuts more broadly impacting disproportionately on carers and those with disabilities (PDF), we are clearly moving in the wrong direction.