A bill setting out exciting aspirations for people with special educational needs (SEN) could be stymied by funding reforms warns Alison Boulton.

Launching the Children and Families Bill this month, Children’s Minister Edward Timpson said the intention was to create a system that put children, parents and young people in the driving seat.

Legislation that prioritises support and aspiration for young people and their families is to be applauded as these values underpin the idea of education for all.

In the Green paper, published in March 2011, this was applied to those with SEN or learning difficulties and disabilities and the aim was to develop more joined-up provision for these learners by linking education, health and social care.

The new 0-25 system would promote joint assessment and improved choice to make planning a future simpler and less confrontational, leading to greater personal independence and employability.

The post-16 lobby has been strong and united and after two years, 53 clauses about children and young people with SEN are now included in the Children and Families Bill.

This is reflected in a new opening clause that requires local authorities (LAs) to take account of their views, wishes and feelings — very welcome, but important to ensure LAs have the capacity and skill to make this a reality.

We did not want a bill that was largely about schools and children, with a post-16 bolt-on that did not serve young people well.

We wanted young people to genuinely be at the heart of the proposals, actively engaged in their own assessments, supported to make well informed choices and encouraged to be aspirational about their adult lives.

This is why Natspec (The Association of National Specialist Colleges) is working with other post-16 providers to make sure that young people who need it can continue their education in an age appropriate setting, learning to live independently alongside people their own age.

There is a real risk the bill will allow schools to extend their provision up to the age of 25”

Students with complex learning difficulties may take longer to learn, need time to assimilate their learning or to use assistive technology, but there is a real risk the bill will allow schools to extend their provision up to the age of 25, which is hardly the ideal setting in which to prepare for adulthood and something we need to guard against.

So, while there is more work to do around the bill, it is good to have some very sound material to work with.

One of our biggest challenges is that running alongside the legislative reforms, but not subject to parliamentary scrutiny, is a set of funding reforms for those described as having ‘high needs’.

They will be introduced this coming September, a year before the SEN legislation, and are intended to create a ‘simple and transparent’ 0-25 funding system for all pupils and students with support costs of more than £10,000.

The proposals replace a single funding source, the Education Funding Agency (EFA), with three elements of funding, two of which come via the EFA but are determined differently, and the third being negotiated with and paid by each student’s home LA.

The creation of this system, involving the EFA, LAs and providers, has become so multi-faceted and bureaucratic that hours of time are being spent trying to understand and implement each aspect of it.

For LAs trying to forecast how many learners they will place, and where, there are massive capacity issues.

For providers trying to plan on the basis of forecasts which are fundamentally inaccurate, it presents significant risks. But most of all, for young people and their families caught up in its complexities, it is a real nightmare.

We are left with a dilemma — while the bill heralds a new, person-centred, joined up approach, an impersonal, overly bureaucratic and uncertain funding system can only fail to deliver these ambitions and urgently needs to be reviewed and amended.

Alison Boulton, chief executive of Natspec