With changes being made to most services it was only a matter of time before the Government turned its attention to the special educational needs system in England. Draft legislation which the Government intends to become law was published on 3 September 2012. A copy of the legislation can be accessed at: http://www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/cm84/8438/8438.pdf.
What came as a surprise to some campaigners is that there are some who welcomed the changes in legislation. The proposal is to replace the current SEN Statements with Education, Health and Care Needs Plans (EHC plans). These EHC plans will be extended to young people up to the age of 25 years old (as long they remain in further education or a training setting). This change will be fully appreciated by those who have gone through what is often a nightmare transition from children to adult services.
However, it is not all good news. Whilst the title of the EHC would suggest the local education, health and social services departments will be expected to work together; the draft legislation does not require this. The assessment process will very much remain with education, and the legal obligations for health and social care to co operate with the assessment process will remain as the minimal obligations they currently have. As a result parents will still have to approach the education, health and social care departments separately in order to seek support. Even more concerning is the proposal that EHC plans will be issued only to children who have SEN.
Under the current system, statements are issued not only to children who have SEN but to those who may also require support for other reasons. It is unclear how the latter group’s needs will be met under the new system.
Of further concern to many parents and organisations is the apparent removal of some the legal rights parents and children enjoy under the current system. The draft legislation removes the current time limit for the Local Authority to respond to a request by a parent or school for an assessment of a child’s educational needs. It also removes the current requirement to specify the provision detailed in a statement.
Currently Local Authority’s are required to be precise in the support it intends to give a child (for example stipulating the number of hours of speech and language therapy a child will receive each term, rather than simply stating that the child will receive speech and language therapy).
Removing this requirement will undoubtedly lead to the EHC plans being vague in its wording and therefore making it more difficult for parents and children to argue that the provision being received is not the same as agreed in the EHC plan.
The draft Bill is currently at the Select Committee stage and therefore is not yet law. However, it is anticipated that the Government intends to push the legislation through quickly in order for it to become statute early in 2013.
Many organisations are lobbying the Government to try and get some important changes made to the Bill before it becomes law. For those interested in this area, you should keep your eye on any outstanding issues which you may wish to bring to the attention of your local Member of Parliament when the legislation is debated in the House.
Solicitor and MS Legal Officer