Parents have stated they face battles getting their child’s school, health workers and local authority on the same page when looking for support for their special educational needs. They are now to be given control over their child’s SEN budgets.
Parents in England are to be given control over their children’s special educational needs (SEN) budgets, allowing them to choose expert support rather than local authorities being the sole provider.
In what the government described as the biggest reform of SEN for 30 years, the measures will legally force education, health and social care services to plan provision together.
Sarah Teather, the minister for children and families, said this would prevent parents being forced to go from “pillar to post” in a battle between different authorities and agencies.
The reforms were set out on Tuesday in the government’s formal response to the public consultation on a green paper that trailed the reforms last year.
Fears were raised that the draft legislation, which contains proposals to merge categories of special needs, would see many children removed from the special education register altogether but, speaking on Radio 4′s Today programme on Tuesday morning, Teather said she did not have a “target” number in mind.
“For me this is not about numbers. It is about getting the right children identified and getting the support in place.
“We are very aware that there are children who are being identified [as special needs] who shouldn’t be,” but, she added, because of the way funding was calculated, it would make no difference to school budgets if categories of special needs were merged.
Teather said some children were being wrongly identified as having special needs when they were actually facing “other problems”, and the reforms would help tackle those situations.
“We have a number of children who are identified as having special education needs who actually may have other problems and what’s important is that we focus on the other causes and get the support they need. For example, they may well be caring for a relative at home and they might not be attending school.
“But we also have a situation where a lot of children are not being identified early enough and actually they may turn up later in the criminal justice system and if we don’t support children properly, particularly those with speech and language problems, we often find they fall out of education and create all sorts of problems later for themselves and for others,” she said.
Some 21% of schoolchildren in England were identified as having SEN in January 2010. Only 2.7% have statements. More than half of the pupils, 11.4%, are in the school action category for which schools receive no specific extra money.
Legislation for the reforms will be put in place via the children and families bill, which was announced in the Queen’s speech last week.
Under the proposals, SEN statements and separate learning difficulty assessments for older children are to be replaced with a single, birth-to-age-25 assessment process and education, health and care plan from 2014.
Parents with such plans would have the right to a personal budget for their child’s support, and local authorities and health services would be required to ensure services for disabled children and young people were jointly planned and commissioned.
Managing the budgets will be optional for parents, and the government will try out a number of different approaches, either giving money to parents directly or leaving the budgets with the local authority.
In a departmental statement, Teather said: “Thousands of families have had to battle for months, even years, with different agencies to get the specialist care their children need. It is unacceptable they are forced to go from pillar to post – facing agonising delays and bureaucracy to get support, therapy and equipment.”
Alison Ryan, a policy adviser for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said the organisation welcomed the requirement that agencies plan services together. But, pointing to redundancies among educational psychologists and speech and language therapists, she said the measures came at a time when cuts had eaten into many of the specialist services teachers rely on to help them support children with SEN.
Ryan said there were worries about the impact on forward planning and co-ordination of putting budgets in the hands of many individuals and families.
“Many parents can be the best advocates for their children’s needs, but you cannot say that for every parent. Sometimes it may be a matter of their own ability to decide on the best type of expert assistance for their children,” she said.
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