A system of ‘Local Offers’ for children and adults with special educational needs went live in September. Kathryn Rudd reviews the progress and finds worrying results.

For young people with disabilities and their families, the much-awaited Children and Families Act promised a more coherent and aspirational approach to their education.

The Act promised a joined-up education, health and care plan, instead of endless assessments and wrangling between departments about who should pay for what.

It heralded new independent advice and guidance — central to which was an information portal in each Local Authority (LA), the ‘Local Offer’.

This was a huge undertaking for each LA, particularly at a time of stringent cuts and with reduced capacity.

They needed to provide comprehensive information for people with disabilities aged from birth to 25.

They also needed to include information about out-of-county, specialist providers who were listed on the Section 41 list.

Young people and their families would be allowed to name organisations on this list as their ‘preferred provider’ on Education, Heath and Care plans.

On September 1 the first Local Offers went live. Well, a few did. Many had got notices on their websites saying some of the Offer had been completed and they were working on the rest.

Many had seconded a local special school head to lead on the implementation of the Local Offer so understandably the majority had prioritised their school age provision.

We sent information to LAs about what we could offer — the majority of LAs did not respond and only two initially put us on their Local Offers.

A significant proportion of Local Offers did not mention out-of-county specialist colleges (and indeed some didn’t mention specialist providers that were in-county)

We were thrilled when one LA actually approached us to ask whether we could provide them with information for their Local Offer.

We have been researching what is available and our research demonstrated that National Star, and indeed other specialist providers, were largely invisible across Local Offers.

Natspec, the Association of Specialist Colleges, undertook more research at the end of October and a significant proportion of Local Offers did not mention out-of-county specialist colleges (and indeed some didn’t mention specialist providers that were in-county), many did not provide a link to Natspec, and more worryingly didn’t provide a Section 41 link.

This is changing on a daily basis and LAs are putting information out, although many are now struggling with old information cluttering up their Offers and confusing the situation still further.

So, on the ground, what is happening? Parents say it is reinforcing inequality. If you have a skilled parent or advocate who can work the system and fight, you stand a chance of getting to the college of your choice.

One of our parents kept a diary last year of her fight to access National Star — she recorded more than 600 hours of work with different agencies to access the college that best met her daughter’s needs and aspirations.

Young people and their parents are telling us that even if you know the Local Offer exists you actually need to already know what you are searching for as they are just so complex to navigate.

With all this added complexity, advice and guidance by careers staff, schools and independent supporters becomes even more critical.

However, parents are reporting they are getting inaccurate information. Some parents have been told there is no provision for students with complex needs in county even when the local specialist college has “outstanding” provision for these learners. Others have been told that to get to a specialist college they will need to self-fund.

I seem to remember a lot of talk about a “level playing field” across pre and post-16 provision.

We want to know the reality for young people with disabilities, so in partnership with parents we have established a survey to enable their voices to be heard. Visit here to take part.

And the one college that actually asked us for information for its local offer – it took us off two weeks ago.