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Are the Welsh Assembly listening to concerns about special educational needs reform?

View profile for Ed Duff
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On 26 January 2017 the Welsh Assembly’s Children, Young People and Education Committee sought advice in respect of reforming how children and young people with Special Educational Needs (SEN) are supported.

We attended the event on 26 January and, after it, provided a breakdown of the consultation that the Committee had gone through. The Committee were concerned with six key issues:-

  • Replacing the graduated response of Special Educational Needs support with a single approach of an Individual Development Plan.
  • Whether School Governing Bodies, or local authorities, should be responsible for the Individual Development Plan.
  • The Plan is to increase the system to 0 - 25.
  • Whether there are adequate systems to require multi agency involvement.
  • Fairness, transparency and dispute resolution in the new additional learning needs system.
  • Implementation and financial implications of the new system of additional learning needs compared to special educational needs.

The Committee has now published a Summary of Evidence following the event.  This Summary runs to some sixteen pages and deals with each of the six points that the Committee were seeking evidence on separately. As we noted previously, there are serious concerns that the proposed reforms to Special Educational Needs support are relatively ambiguous, do not provide sufficient levels of accountability and replacing the system of graduated support with one system of an Individual Developmental Plan could cause confusion.

The report claims general support for the Additional Learning Needs reforms. This is not accurate. There is support for changing the current system of special educational need support. However, the reforms proposed are far too ambitious and will require significant funding, resources and professionals’ time which is just not available. In particular, the plan to prepare Individual Development Plans for over 100,000 pupils, when only 15,000 pupils currently have a Statement of Special Educational Needs has caused serious concern.

In respect of replacing the Graduated Special Educational Needs support system with one system of Individual Developmental Plans, the report notes that the current Special Educational Needs system is not fair.  Parents and families often have to fight to secure a Statement of Special Educational Needs, meaning that confidence, resources and time are all used up.

In principle, the replacement of the three tier Special Educational Needs system with the Individual Development Plan has been met with general approval.  There is a feeling that it will reduce stigma and “labelling” of children.  However, there needs to be a stronger focus on outcomes for learners with ALN.  The Committee has also reported that the definition of ALN is too focused exclusively on educational/learning needs.  A significant number of people attending the event on 26 January indicated that they felt that ALN should also include health care needs.  This may be similar to the Special Educational Needs and Disability reforms that took effect in England in September 2014 which included “Disability” within the definition of Special Educational Needs.

One area of concern was that the current Special Educational Needs reforms in Wales do not propose to offer a template for Individual Development Plans.  The overwhelming advice following the event is that a template must be prepared.  This is in stark contrast to the Special Educational Needs and Disability reforms that took effect in England where every Local Authority has been allowed to create its own template for Education Health and Care Plans.  This has caused significant difficulties, which the Committee seems keen to avoid.

In respect of accountability, the report notes that the new ALN system needs greater oversight and better scrutiny and accountability of local authority decision making.  The report notes that the reforms in England have done little to improve accountability.  The new system in England has not delivered on promises for more accountability and/or transparency and the problems for parents and families are still the same.

The report also notes the crucial issue of resources.  The new ALN system will be based on person centre planning.  Whilst this has been welcomed, it will need significant additional resources.  This is a significant issue because the reforms from Special Educational Needs to ALN would mean that there would be an increase from 13,000 pupils with Statements of Special Educational Needs to approximately 105,000 pupils with IDPs.  There is a significant concern that the workload on Schools, other professionals and experts would significantly increase.  As such, significant additional training, resources and time will all be needed.

A major aspect of the Special Educational Needs reform to ALN is to increase the system so that it includes 0 - 25.  The report notes that this was a generally welcome aspiration, however, this may result in a dilution in provision.  In respect of early years, the ALN Bill does not focus sufficiently on early years.  In fact, “early years” lacks definition and more clarity is necessary.  On a practical level, the current provision for early years pupils with Special Educational Needs in Wales can be patchy and referred to as “hit and miss”.  It will be important for the success of the ALN reforms to ensure that there is consistent early year provision for all young people with Special Educational Needs/Additional Learning Needs.

In respect of post sixteen, the report notes that there are significant potential difficulties with ensuring that young people with Additional Learning Needs are able to access apprenticeships.  The report also notes that higher education should be covered by the Additional Learning Needs Bill.  This is in stark contrast to the Special Educational Needs and Disability reforms in England which do not include higher education.

In terms of Dispute Resolution, the report raises that the Bill does not go far enough to ensure that the Additional Learning Needs system is less adversarial than the current Special Educational Needs system.  The report notes that families need information, advice and advocacy support as early as possible.  The independence of that advice is vital.  It is felt that currently, parents and families with children with Special Educational Needs do not know where to go for information and advice and that in order for the ALN reforms to be successful this needs to be remedied.

The report and the Bill itself recognises that there will still be disputes between parents, young people and Local Authorities and, accordingly has to deal with managing appeals to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal for Wales.  The report notes that the volume of work for the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal in England has risen significantly since the Special Educational Needs and Disability reforms.  In order for the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal for Wales to be able to manage the significant additional workload, resources, Judges and sufficient enforcement powers are necessary.

This report will now be considered by the Committee and will review the Additional Learning Needs Bill in light of it.  The next stage will also be for Regulations and an Additional Learning Needs Code of Practice to be prepared in order to clarify some of the areas that the Bill does not cover. We will be interested to see to what extend the concerns have been addressed.

If you are experiencing difficulties or have concerns about Special Educational Needs or otherwise in securing additional support for  your child or young person from your Local Authority, then please do not hesitate to contact our Specialist Education Law Solicitors team on 02920 291704.