As I said about this time last year, this will be my last update for the current academic year 2014/15 so you will not hear from me again (unless you follow me on Social Media) until after the summer holidays, in September 2015 when I send out my Autumn Term SEN Update.
In this update you will find sections entitled:
(to ensure you never miss out, you can get my SEN Updates by email by completing your details at the bottom of this page or by using one of our Social Media links below)
THE WORLD DIDN’T COLLAPSE, DID IT?
(THE NEW SEN FRAMEWORK)
Well, we’re here! It has now been almost a full academic year since the implementation of the new SEN framework, that was brought into force legally on 1 September 2014, as a result of the Children and Families Act 2014 and the new SEND Code of Practice.
Many people, both parents and professionals, say that they cannot believe that we have actually made it to this point without the world of SEN collapsing. However, some tell me that they now feel that they are in a bit of limbo, as they are currently dealing with some children/young people who have Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans, either as a result of an EHC needs assessment that took place after 1 September 2014, or as a result of having a Statement of SEN transferred to an EHC plan. But, at the same time, they also tell me that they are still dealing with a lot of children/young people with Statements which have not been transferred yet and which are only due to be transferred to EHC plans within the next few years and, in any event, by April 2018.
Please do not quote me as saying that this is true, but I have heard it said by some people that it was perhaps too ambitious a task for us to think that we could successfully transfer 230,000-odd Statements (that were in existence at the beginning of September 2014) to EHC plans, within just under four years, as was expected/planned. Some people even say now, especially with the benefit of hindsight, that it is probably more realistic for us to now suggest that the whole process is going to take more like eight to 10 years to complete! There are also some that say that perhaps we should be more realistic and look towards other possibilities at this point, before it gets more difficult.
Wherever you stand on this issue (or sit, if like me you are a wheelchair-user!) it is now a fact that we also recently have put a new Government in place (although some say that it is really the same Government as before, albeit that there is now no ‘yellow’ mixed with the ‘blue’). It is arguable that the politicians therefore may just choose to leave everything as it stands, or to just ‘tweak’ some things that have not been working well.
I guess we will just have to wait and see what happens.
But I have increasingly noticed during this past year the mounting confusion about what people should actually be doing now under the new SEN framework, on the parts of both parents and professionals. I know that we were hoping that the new spirit of ‘working together’ should mean there were less disputes about SEN issues, or finding other, more amicable, ways of resolving disagreements, rather than always having to rely on an appeal to the SEND Tribunal. However, again unfortunately, it has been my experience (which is biased of course because parents only come to see me when something is not right) that things sometimes feel the same, albeit that we now are trying to call or do things differently.
For example, I still wonder why some disputes need to reach a Tribunal appeal hearing or, when I come out of a Tribunal appeal hearing, how on earth unrepresented parents would have been able to manage without my help, when faced with being opposed by a Local Authority (LA) represented by a barrister, solicitor or an Education officer that is quoting law at them and who is used to doing these kinds of things regularly.
It doesn’t bear thinking about sometimes but, as I say, the main thing is that the world of SEN did not collapse on 1 September 2014 and (whether we like it or not) we are all still here …
WHAT I HAVE LEARNT THIS YEAR
I thought it may be helpful here if I share with you some of what I have learnt this past year.
I have sometimes felt that we are going from one extreme to the other. Whilst, for example, many parents were previously complaining that a LA was not engaging with them sufficiently, perhaps by not attending Annual Review meetings, the pendulum seems to have swung now so far, that there are too many meetings taking place!
Everyone seems to be trying too hard these days to get things right and are sometimes having meetings which conclude by trying to organise another meeting! I am certainly not complaining about the fact that children/young people and their parents are now being put at the heart of the process and everyone is trying to work together more but, given that LAs now need to do so much with so few resources and parents have limited time with working and domestic commitments, I am afraid that I have to look at things a bit cynically and say that I do not think it is going to be possible to sustain this level of engagement during the mid to long-term future.
There is just not enough manpower/money/expertise to go around. You cannot just ‘magic-up’, say, an Educational Psychologist, at the drop of a hat, to do an assessment quickly, just because someone thinks there should be one. But by the same token, it seems ludicrous to determine the special educational provision for a child or young person on the basis of reports of their needs that were written many years ago, when they were, inevitably, much younger. I know that this sounds a bit extreme, but I am still from time-to-time having to help parents challenge Post-16 provision or placement on the basis of an assessment of a child which took place when they were in primary school, or were even less than 5 years old! It goes without saying that their needs have usually changed significantly since then, albeit that their Statement may have been ‘tweaked’ as a result of Annual Reviews over the years.
One of the big things I have noticed is the fact that the whole ‘Transfer Review’ process (i.e. moving a Statement across to an EHC plan) is sometimes proving quite cumbersome, with LAs going over timescales for doing things because they want to do things properly or, alternatively, rushing through everything to comply with timescales and then not doing a proper job. This has led sometimes to situations where other legal requirements (say, the well-known 15 February deadline for secondary transfers) are overlooked, which then can have a massive knock-on effect on determining where the child goes to school in September.
I have seen parents complaining that a LA is just using the transfer process as an opportunity to take out a lot of hard-won things that were in a Statement, or use it as an opportunity to water it down or move provision (e.g. putting Speech and Language Therapy or Occupational Therapy into the ‘healthcare’ section of an EHC plan). At the same time, I have seen LAs arguing that they now have to work with EHC plans which are considerably longer than Statements were and so are only doing this in order to try and comply with the SEND Code of Practice’s intention to make EHC plan more clear/concise/understandable/accessible (see paragraph 9:61 of the Code).
I had noticed that Statements were becoming lengthier and more detailed during the past couple of decades and were sometimes running to 10-12 pages. However, many EHC plans I have seen this past year have been more than 15-20 pages! I am concerned that we may just be overcomplicating things again.
The last thing that I have noticed (well it is not the last thing, but I do not want to take up your time mentioning all the things that I have noticed!) is the fact that, paradoxically, everyone seems to be broadly happy with the fact that we have moved to a new SEN system but, at the same time, are then also unhappy about changes that are happening, even saying sometimes that things were much simpler previously, or even referring to ‘the good old days’!
My perspective though is that this is all about change; and change requires growth; and growth can be painful. Let us just hope that what we are experiencing are only teething difficulties and that everything will work itself out in due course.
I am also aware that some people are only happy when they are unhappy!
WHAT I HOPE TO DO NEXT YEAR
Given what I do is solely focused on SEN issues, I am afraid that I tend to think of a new year academically, starting in September; rather than, as most people do, starting in January. I am sure though that many of you reading this, probably do the same as me because of your work/circumstances.
If you have read my updates before, you will know that I am constantly trying to find ways of helping people, both personally and professionally. I have always wanted to keep my team small, so that I can offer a more personal service to parents, but I am keenly aware that, by doing this, I cannot help everyone. I have therefore been lucky enough to be able to use my website as a vehicle for doing the latter.
I am planning to add more things to our website over the course of the next year to hopefully be able to help more people, to provide more information and webinars, as well as providing a second edition of my eBook: ‘A Guide To The SEND Code of Practice (What You Need to Know)’ now that a new revised version of the Code of Practice came into force from 1 April 2015.
But I am also planning on offering more personal training for a half-day in the Autumn term, again either at my offices for individuals, or, where it is more feasible, to lots of people in organisations at their premises e.g. advocacy/advice services/LAs themselves (i.e. both small or large organisations and everything in-between).
This year, during the Autumn and Spring terms, my training was entitled: ‘Turning Theory into Practice’ and was focused on providing an overview of the recent changes to the SEN framework. However, next year my training will be entitled: ‘Learning by Doing’ (at the moment I am only planning to run eight mornings of training during the Autumn term).
I now want to use this training to build upon what I said in my training the previous year and look at some issues in more detail, such as ‘Outcomes’, the implications of the Care Act 2014 (which came into legal effect in April 2015), ‘Transfer Reviews’ etc. I also want to provide an update on SEND Tribunal practice and procedure.
However, I want everyone to feel that they are able to attend, whether or not they came to my previous training, so I want to remind you that, at the beginning of the Summer term, I put together a free one-hour CPD accredited seminar based on my training entitled: ‘What You Need to Know (The New SEN Framework)’, which runs on Thursdays and Sundays at 9am or 9pm, but is also available as a recording to watch ‘on demand’. I also need to point out again that you can watch the training on a phone or tablet, as well on a computer (and there is also a transcript available for download for anyone with a hearing impairment).
The webinar comprehensively outlines what parents of children and young people with SEN or professionals working with them/in this area need to know about the new SEN framework. I am going to suggest that people watch this webinar before coming to the next training with me, either for the first time or as a refresher.
You can register for the webinar right now by going to:
'What You Need to Know [The New SEN Framework]' (Webinar)
RECENT/FORTHCOMING SEN EVENTS
Unfortunately, I was unable to attend some of the conferences, seminars or exhibitions that I highlighted in this section in my last SEN update. However, I did manage to attend the Optimus Education SENCO Update Conference on 5 May 2015. I always enjoy going to Optimus conferences, as they are usually well-run and it is good for me to hear from people who are working ‘at the coalface’ of SEN issues.
In particular this time, I enjoyed hearing from Gareth Morewood, himself a SENCO, who gave a workshop entitled: ‘Transition to EHCP Good Practice Case Study: What Should an Effective Conversion Meeting and Good Outcomes look like?’. Gareth helpfully showed how he had helped parents by drawing up a spreadsheet in response to a draft EHC plan, clearly outlining the ‘Outcomes’ being sought, together with the relevant ‘provision’ that was needed, the relevant ‘timescales and by who’ and the necessary ‘evidence’ which supported what the parents and school were trying to achieve. He told us how, by doing this, he had helped things to go smoothly with Statement to EHC transfers.
I was also able to attend a workshop with Brian Lamb OBE, an SEN & Disability Consultant, and the Chair of the Lamb Inquiry, whose workshop was entitled: ‘Best Practice for Effectively Co-Producing with Parents and Families and ensuring they are kept at the centre of decision making’. As well as discussing evidence which supported a link between parental involvement and outcomes, (i.e. children and young people doing better when their parents are more involved in their education), he also discussed different ways for professionals to engage/empower parents, by outlining evidence about what works and what doesn’t. He also showed how we sometimes need to adopt a different approach and look at what parents want rather than what we think they want!
Brian ended by looking at challenges that everyone faces with EHC plans and the new SEN framework now, highlighting things like the time that it takes to inform processes if LAs are to deliver new levels of parental and young people’s engagement; how to write plans which are really outcome-focused and not just provision-led; and examples of how not to do things. He also made us all laugh when, at the end of his presentation, he put up a slide of a handwritten letter which said:
“Dear Optimist, Pessimist and Realist,
While you guys were busy arguing about the glass of water, I drank it!
I am now looking forward to attending The Autism Show next week, which is being held in London on 12/13 June 2015 (and thereafter in Birmingham on 19-20 June 2015 and in Manchester on 26-27 June 2015).
“CURIOSITY DIDN'T KILL THE CAT, BUT DID IT KILL THE DOG?”
Talking about Autism…
I recently had the opportunity to go to the theatre to see a play that I have been meaning to go and see for a couple of years: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which is currently showing at the Gielgud Theatre in London’s West End. It has been described as ‘a phenomenal combination of storytelling and spectacle’ (The Times) and ‘a beautiful, dazzlingly inventive show about the wonders of life’ (Evening Standard).
Although it does not mention the word ‘autism’ at any point, it is centred on the experiences of a 15-year old boy called ‘Christopher’, who is clearly on the autistic spectrum. I was pleasantly surprised and taken aback by how accurate a portrayal of the difficulties that children and young people with his condition and their families can experience. I recommend it highly to you and would also point out that the National Theatre (who are staging it) also put on pre-show workshops or Q&A sessions for students, which are designed to give students a clearer understanding of individuals with these needs and to appreciate their difficulties better. It may be a real eye-opener.
It was also amusing for me as, when I turned up in my wheelchair, as pre-arranged I was then shown to my seat by an usher at the theatre, who said that she had heard that I was a lawyer who represented children with SEN, which took me a bit by surprise. Also, afterwards, whilst waiting behind the theatre for my cab to take me home, I found myself by the stage door and then meeting and chatting to the lead actor who played ‘Christopher’ so was able to congratulate him personally on his performance, for which he said he was helped greatly with by some of the schools for autistic pupils that I sometimes deal with.
It is not often that you are able to mix business with pleasure!
With good wishes
by Douglas Silas, specialist SEN Solicitor