10th November 2015

The reforms are finally here – now the hard work starts!

The reforms are finally here – now the hard work starts! Cover Photo

Claire Dorer, chief executive of the National Association of Independent Schools and Non-Maintained Special Schools (NASS), says it will take time for new legislation to bed in

It’s a great pleasure to be writing the foreword to this guide for the third time. After two years of writing about impending legislation and policy reform it’s also something of a relief to finally be able to talk about the arrival of the SEND Reforms! The reforms signaled in the Children and Families Act and new SEND Code of Practice went live on 1st September 2014 and we are now knee-deep in the joys of implementation!

For children and families entering the SEN system for the first time, there has been much promised. Instead of Statements of SEN, children and young people are being issued with Education, Health and Care Plans, which promise a more holistic, child-centred and outcomes-focused approach to assessing and meeting Special Educational Needs. There are new duties on local authorities and clinical commissioning groups to work together to ensure that services are available to meet needs. Parents also have new powers to express a preference for a much wider range of schools – including the majority of the schools that appear in this guide.

For children already within the SEN system there is a transitional period where Statements of SEN will be transferred to Education Health and Care Plans (EHCP). Consequently, there are currently two legal systems for SEN in operation. At the moment, the plan is for all statements to be transferred to Plans within three years with young people transferring between phases of education made a priority for transfer. For some families this will mean waiting for some time before they are part of the new SEN system, which creates potential for confusion and frustration. Some support has been built into the new system. Local authorities are making ‘Independent Supporters’ available to parents negotiating the new SEN system to help ensure that parents have access both to information and someone on ‘their side’ to help with the practicalities of assessment and the issuing of the Plan.

The SEN Reforms present particular challenges for local authorities. In addition to the commissioning duties and transfer responsibilities mentioned above, each local authority must produce a ‘local offer’ of education, health and social care services that they expect to be available to people from their area. Searching for your home authority’s local offer online should take you to lots of information about what is available in your area, including schools, health services and short breaks services. It should also include more specialist services outside the authority’s boundaries that they make use of. This should include a list of schools that have been approved by the Secretary of State to take children with SEN (sometimes known as the ‘S41 list’) and Non-Maintained Special Schools used by the authority.

In practice, many authorities are still getting up to speed with the reforms. Whilst every local authority has a local offer, not all are fully up to speed yet. Specialist special school provision is one of the areas least likely to be included, which creates the risk of parents missing out on finding the best possible placement for their child. That’s why there is still such value in having guides like this one, where you can find a wide range of schools in one place. As noted above, the Children and Families Act strengthens parent’s right to choose a specific school for their child. In the past, this only extended to state-maintained schools but, where a child has an EHCP, parents now have the same right to express a preference for a special academy, Non-Maintained Special School and Secretary of State Approved Independent Schools. There is a new conditional duty on local authorities to meet parental preference for school placements. The only grounds for turning this down are if the school cannot meet the child’s needs or if the authority can prove the placement is a poor use of resources. In theory, it should now be easier for parents to secure placements at the schools that appear in this guide. In practice, there has been little testing out of this to date. It’s not always easy for parents to know where they might be missing out on information or their rights and there is still a reliance on parents challenging when they are unhappy with what is being presented to them. The Government set out to build a system that was less confrontational. Whilst that is still the great hope of all who work in SEN, we are still in a period where the new legislation is being tested out and challenged – sometimes in court. The establishment of case law is an important part of the bedding-in of any new legislation but this is still daunting for parents faced with being the first to raise a challenge.

On the ground, special schools are working hard to ensure that parents can easily access information about their services. If you follow-up entries in this guide with a visit to school websites you should be able to get a real feel, both for what is provided and what the school ‘feels’ like. Many schools now have videos on their websites to help give you a much more instant sense of the school. Most schools are open to parents visiting to get a better sense of whether the school might be the right place for their child.

Whilst the country faces a year of political change, the indications are that all the major political parties have committed to allowing the SEN reforms time to bed-in. This will be welcome news to all – we all feel there is more than enough flux to be negotiating at the moment! The work of implementing the reforms is going to be carried out over several years and whilst we may have all wished for a magic wand to be cast on the 1st September the reality is more a case of everyone rolling up their sleeves and digging in for the long haul.