When the Government published its Special Educational Needs (SEN) Green Paper three years ago setting out its plans to reform the way children and young people with SEN and disabilities in England are supported, it was widely welcomed by parents and charities like Contact a Family. This is because it aimed to end the long battles many families often have to embark on in order to access services for their children and to create a truly joined up system of support.
Edward Timpson, Under Secretary of State for Children and Families, reiterated the Government’s promise to end delays in children with additional needs getting help when the Children and Families Bill was launched in February last year. He added that legislation was only part of the solution and that what was really needed was a culture change across all services.
As the bill enters the final stages of the parliamentary process this year, the Department for Education has just announced a new £30 million fund for more than 1,800 independent supporters to help parents navigate the new SEN process in England as outlined by the Children and Families Bill 2013.
This positive step is welcomed by Contact a Family. With so much change coupled with increasing cuts to local support services and welfare changes, it has been a worrying time for families. This makes it even more important families get independent support - so they know their rights and what to expect from the system.
Families we speak to are too often left wounded by the often confusing, maze-like SEN system. We hope that independent supporters, together with local parent carer forums and other parent support networks, will ensure parents are put back in the driving seat, giving them the confidence to make the decisions that are right for them.
We have direct experience of giving one-to-one independent support as Contact a Family is currently commissioned by the London Borough of Lewisham, one of the SEND pathfinders, to provide independent support to families testing the new SEN system.
Contact a Family parent advisor Jo Hussain is currently working with Lewisham local authority and health services in the area helping to provide independent support to families through the SEN system. One of the parents Jo has recently worked with said, ‘My son arrived in this country age ten after living with his grandparents abroad. He has Down Syndrome. I didn't know what to do. Jo worked with me. She assessed my son and listened to my worries. She supported me through the process and co-ordinated all the professionals. Now my son has a clear diagnosis (he has recently been diagnosed with autism as well). Jo took me to a special school and now my son attends. He is developing well. I felt Jo was able to support me emotionally and helped me understand the process. She is still helping me now with finances and benefits’.
The Children and Families Bill offers a real opportunity to greatly improve the way families with disabled children and young people are supported. While the new £30m funding is welcomed it is only part of the jigsaw. As it stands, the bill fails to deliver on several promises such as making social care an enforceable part of Education, Health and Care Plans (EHC) and local authorities accountable for the services in the local offer. For the majority of children and young people with SEN without an EHC Plan, big questions remain about whether the battles for services and support will end.
It’s important to remember that the changes outlined in the Children and Families Bill will take effect from September 2014. Until then, the current system will remain in force in all local authorities in England. If you want to know how the changes will affect a child in the future, or you have any concerns about a child's education please contact our freephone helpline on 0808 808 3555 or email us.