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Charities fear the new SEND Improvement and Alternative Provision (AP) Plan may write off another generation of autistic pupils through delayed action and proposals that fall short of tackling the key issues.
The Improvement Plan published this week follows extensive engagement with around 6,000 consultation responses and 175 events following publication of the SEND and Alternative Provision Green Paper last year.
This explored the issues present within the current SEND system. It set out the government’s proposals to improve outcomes for children and young people; improve experiences for families, reducing the current adversity and frustration they face; and deliver financial sustainability.
It also considered the specific issues facing the alternative provision sector. This is because 82% of children and young people in state-place funded alternative provision have identified special educational needs (SEN) and it is increasingly being used to supplement local SEND systems.
Key features of the plan includes investment in training for thousands of workers and additional specialist school places. Selected local authorities will have 33 new special free schools built in their areas added to the 49 already in the pipeline.
There will also be new national SEND and AP standards and guides for professionals to help them provide the right support in line with the national standards but suited to each child’s unique experience.
The National Standards will place a greater emphasis on the important role mainstream settings play in providing quality first teaching and evidence-based SEN Support to meet the needs of the majority of pupils with SEND, so that all settings provide the same high-quality provision.
The plan also states that a parents’ and carers’ experiences of accessing support will be improved by cutting local bureaucracy with digital-first, quicker and simpler education health and care (EHC) plans.
It also aims to improve transition to further education by introducing common transfer files alongside piloting the roll out of adjustment passports to make sure young people with SEND are prepared for employment and higher education.
In addition to this, the Department of Health will be working with Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission to deliver an updated local area SEND inspection framework.
Core school funding has been increased by £3.5 billion in 2023-24, of which almost £1 billion will go towards high needs. This means high needs funding will be £10.1 billion in 2023-24.
There will be an extra £2.6 billion investment between 2022 and 2025 to fund new places and improve existing provision for children and young people with SEND or who require alternative provision.
Staff training includes funding for up to 5,000 early years staff to gain an accredited Level 3 early years SENCo qualification to support the early years sector, with training, running until August 2024. A further £21 million will be invested to train two cohorts of educational psychologists in 2024 and 2025.
Jolanta Lasota, Chief Executive of Ambitious about Autism, said that the government’s SEND review was a key opportunity to reform the broken system and tackle head on the problems that are holding back autistic pupils.
She added: “Families may be reassured that their vital rights to assessment and support are safe, for now. However, it is clear the government has no intention of scrapping proposals that deeply worry many parents – such as tailored lists, national funding bands and mandatory mediation. We will need to keep a close eye on the trials of these policies to ensure they do not lead to an undermining of families’ rights.
“Autistic children and young people are being written off before they’ve even left school. They are more at risk of exclusion, less likely to reach their potential and often deeply unhappy in education. Children only get one childhood’, as the government itself says – yet through delayed action and proposals that fall short of tackling the key issues, this plan has the potential to write off another generation of autistic pupils.”
The National Autistic Society (NAS) says that its biggest concern centres around EHCPs, which are vital to getting the right support in place for autistic children in school. Without these plans, parents lack the legal footing to request reasonable adjustments, and cannot access personal budgets. Statutory guidance dictates that after a request for an EHCP is made, it should take no more than 20 weeks to get the support in place. According to the latest Department for Education figures, just 61% of plans meet this threshold.
The government has proposed to work with stakeholders to deliver a standard EHCP template, with supporting processes and guidance from 2025 and a standardised digital process for EHCPs. Whilst the NAS welcomes these proposals as they have the potential to be beneficial, it says they do nothing to address the urgent issue of delays and the government must target funding to councils.
With regards to digitisation of the process, it says is critical that the government is considerate of potential barriers regarding digital access and makes sure it is user friendly.
The charity is also disappointed that the government has stopped way short of implementing its recommendation of mandatory autism training for all school staff. It is also worried about forcing parents and families into mandatory mediation before they are able to access SEND Tribunal courts as this will add unnecessary delays.
Tim Nicholls, Head of Influencing and Research at the National Autistic Society, added: “The SEND system is broken. Autistic children have been left without the support they need in school for far too long. While we welcome parts of the government’s SEND Improvement Plan, we don’t think it’s enough to end the system-wide failings holding back 180,000 autistic children in England.
“Ultimately, the plan is not nearly enough and lacks the substance needed to fix a SEND system which is failing autistic children and families. government must do more – we won’t accept a world where autistic children miss out on an education, and families are left exhausted and on the brink of crisis.”
IPSEA says that the main thing to note is that the new plan contains no changes to SEND law. In the absence of any legislative change, the current SEND legal framework set out in the Children and Families Act 2014 and the SEND Regulations continues to apply in its entirety.
The government says that it remains committed to the reforms proposed in the green paper, including a “tailored list” of education settings for children and young people with EHC plans and mandatory mediation before families can appeal to the SEND Tribunal. However, these things can’t be introduced without changing the current law. The proposed changes will be tested through a SEND Change Programme in a limited number of areas, and children and young people’s existing rights will be unaffected.
IPSEA’s CEO, Ali Fiddy, added: “While there are things to welcome – such as more guidance for local authority SEND case-workers and, eventually, a long-overdue single national template for EHC plans – there are undoubtedly some mixed messages.
“It’s hard to see how the imperative of containing costs can be met without restricting the provision that children and young people receive, which is unlikely to be lawful. Perhaps most disappointing is the complete absence of any specific plans to address the persistent non-compliance with the law by many local authorities – an issue that the government has heard about repeatedly and which lies at the root of the SEND crisis.”