House of Commons Library

Special Educational Needs: support in England

Published Wednesday, November 15, 2017

This House of Commons Library briefing sets out the system of support for children and young people in England aged 0-25 with special educational needs (SEN). The briefing provides an overview of the new system introduced in 2014, the transitional arrangements, and how the new system differs from that which preceded it. It also includes a brief history of the movement towards reform that preceded the 2014 changes, and information on the impact of the new system available to date.

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The reformed system for children and young people in England with special educational needs

The Children and Families Act 2014 provided for an overhaul of the system for identifying children and young people in England aged 0-25 with special educational needs (SEN), assessing their needs and making provision for them.

Some key points in the introduction of the reformed system are:

  • The replacement of the dual system of SEN statements for children and Learning Difficulty Assessments for 16 to 25 year olds by a new single system of birth-to-25 assessments and Education, Health and Care (EHC) Plans.
  • EHC Plans aim to provide support for children and young people through a unified plan taking into account education, health care, and social care needs
  • By September 2014, local authorities were required to have published a ‘local offer’ to clearly set out the services available for children with SEN or disability, developed in partnership with children and young people with SEN or disability and their parents, and subject to ongoing consultation and improvement
  • Young people and parents of children who have EHC plans have the right to request a Personal Budget, which may contain elements of education, social care and health funding, to use in support of their needs

The reformed system was introduced in September 2014, with transitional arrangements for those who already have support in place.  Transition to the reformed system is intended to be complete by April 2018.

The SEND Code of Practice states that because the legal test of when a child required an EHC plan is the same as for a statement under the Education Act 1996, nobody should lose support previously received as a result of these changes.

The reformed system: the support children and young people should expect

The type of support that children and young people with SEN receive may vary widely, as the types of SEN that they may have are very different.  However, two broad levels of support are in place: SEN support, and Education, Health and Care Plans.

  • SEN support - support given to a child or young person in their pre-school, school or college. In schools, it replaces the previously existing ‘School Action’ and ‘School Action Plus’ systems.  For children of compulsory school age the type of support provided might include extra help from a teacher, help communicating with other children, or support with physical or personal care difficulties.
  • Education, Health and Care Plans - for children and young people aged up to 25 who need more support than is available through SEN support. They aim to provide more substantial help for children and young people through a unified approach that reaches across education, health care, and social care needs.

Parents can ask their local authority to carry out an assessment if they think their child needs an EHC Plan.  A request can also be made by anyone at the child’s school, a doctor, a health visitor, or a nursery worker.

The previous system: schools and early years

During the transition period for the implementation of the reformed system, previous arrangements remain in place for many pupils already receiving support.  Support is provided at three levels:

  • School Action – where the teacher or the school Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO) decides to provide something for the child additional to or different from the school’s usual differentiated approach to help children learn. In January 2010, 11.4 per cent of the school population were identified at School Action level, approximately 916,000 pupils;
  • School Action Plus – where the school consults specialists and requests help from external services. In January 2010, 6.2 per cent of the school population were at School Action Plus level, approximately 496,000 pupils; and
  • Statement – where the child requires support beyond that which the school can provide and the local authority arranges appropriate provision. In January 2010, 2.7 per cent of the school population or 221,000 pupils had a statement of SEN.

Provisions were in place for children younger than school age, but most statements were made for school-aged children.

The previous system: further education

Under the previous system, if a young person with SEN left school for further education, his/her SEN was assessed under a different process, the Learning Difficulty Assessment (LDA). 

The existing LDA system will be abolished before the system of statements for children in school.  The LDA system was less comprehensive, and to remove this disparity young people with an LDA must be moved over to the new system by 1 September 2016.

Inspection of SEND arrangements

A consultation on the inspection by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission of local arrangements to support children and young people with SEND, due to begin in May 2016, was carried out from October 2015 to January 2016.  A response was published in March 2016.

Inspectors from these two bodies are inspecting the provision of support for children and young people with SEND across the responsible local bodies in health, social services and education, over a five year period beginning in May 2016.

report summarising the findings from the first year of inspections was published in October 2017.

Effectiveness of the reformed system

Some initial research has begun to appear on the operation of the reformed system.

DfE figures state that there were 175,233 children and young people with statutory Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans and 112,057 children and young people with statements of special educational needs (SEN) maintained by local authorities as at January 2017.

The Ofsted and CQC report into its first year of inspections found that children and young people with SEND have a "much poorer" experience of the education system than their peers, and idenitified issues surrounding exclusions and poor co-ordination between education, health, and care services, among others.

In March 2017, the Department for Education published the results of a survey of parents and young people on their experiences of EHC plans.  The following issues were listed among the report's key findings:

  • Two thirds of parents and young people were satisfied with the overall process of getting an EHC plan and a similar proportion agreed that it would achieve the outcomes agreed for the child or young person (over one in ten were dissatisfied and just under one in ten disagreed respectively)
  • Half found that starting the EHC plan process was easy, whereas almost one quarter found this to be difficult
  • Two thirds of parents and young people were informed about the information, advice and support available
  • The majority (80%) of parents agreed that their own wishes and opinions were included in the EHC plan. It was less common to report that the wishes and opinions of the child or young person were included (55%)
  • Three quarters said that the nursery, school or college named in their EHC plan was the one they asked for in the drafting process
  • More respondents thought that their EHC plan had been provided after the 20- week target had passed than before (62-38%). Official statistics show the majority of new plans were provided by 20 weeks. The report suggested that the difference may reflect respondents timing the process from an earlier point, imprecisions in respondents’ estimates, and plans exempt from the 20-week timeframe being included in the survey data

Also in March 2017, the Department published review of the arrangements for SEND disagreement resolution, and a Government response to that review.  The response set out steps that the Government intended to take as a result of the review:

  • To publish good practice guidance developed as part of the review to share with local areas through regional networks and delivery support partnerships
  • Supporting continuous professional development for local authority staff
  • Considering how best to channel Government support for families from April 2018 (when transition to EHC plans will be complete)
  • Supporting the mediation sector to introduce voluntary standards and accreditation of training programmes for SEND mediation;
  • Producing accessible guidance for families on the available routes for complaint and disagreement resolution.

Previously, in November 2016, the Department for Education published a report by Lee Scott, a former Conservative MP, on the experiences of children, young people and parents of the SEND system, based on interviews and evidence from across the country.  The report contained mixed experiences of the system and raised a number of areas (rather than formal recommendations) to improve the operation system as it stands, including:

  • Improving Communication across the SEN system
  • More training for staff
  • Greater transparency over funding
  • Reduction of a postcode lottery in provision
  • Schools and colleges to do more to support children and young people with medical needs
  • Encouraging local areas to develop expertise, discussions and strategies to ensure more young adults with SEND have access to training and employment opportunities

In September 2016, the National Autistic Society (NAS) published its annual report on the operation of the SEND system.  The report cited significant concerns:

  • 74% of parents surveyed had not found it easy to get the educational support they believed their child needed
  • 69% of parents said that their child had waited more than a year for support after concerns were first raised, with 16% waiting more than three years
  • 50% of parents were satisfied with their child’s SEND provision, but only 33% were satis​fied with health care provision and 30% with social care provision

In October 2015, the Driver Youth Trust published a report, Joining the Dots, which analysed the impact of the reforms in the year since their introduction. 

The report stated that:

Many examples of high-quality provision have emerged in response [to the reforms]. These are often driven by strong partnerships, well-managed change and skilled, impassioned leadership. However, at present provision is ‘fragmented’ leading to difficulties in sharing information and knowledge. As a result, many children and young people do not receive the support they deserve and gaps in the system lead to wasted resources as well as disconnected or duplicated services. Ultimately students, parents, schools and sector organisations are finding it difficult to navigate the new system and this is standing in the way of the reforms’ success.

Articles published in September 2015 cited research from a survey carried out by Helen Curran, a lecturer at Bath Spa University, which stated that 63 per cent of special educational needs coordinators (SENCOs) surveyed had said that the number of children on their school’s SEN and disabilities register had fallen as a result of the government’s SEN reforms, raising the question of whether the relevant children had previously been misidentified as having SEN, or whether other pressures were reducing their numbers.

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