There has been a marked increase in refusals to assess young people for education, health and care plans. Fixing this will require a shift in attitude from government, says Pauline Bayliss-Jones
The latest government figures about learners with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) make for sombre reading.
In 2016 the number of requests for education, health and care plans refused by local authorities rose by of 35 per cent from the previous year.
Yet the figures still don’t tell the human cost of a system that is struggling and, in the end, letting down some of our most vulnerable young people.
The Children and Families Act, which still remains aspirational in its objectives, became law in 2014. It introduced EHC plans – legal documents that would represent the realistic ambitions, aspirations and needs of young people aged between 0 and 25.
To get that extra help in education – i.e. the funding – you need an EHC plan. But the figures released by the Department for Education revealed that 10 local authorities refused more EHC needs assessments in 2016 than they actually carried out.
In total, local authorities turned down 14,795 requests for an assessment – an increase of more than a third on 2015. Just 56 per cent of assessments were carried out within the required 20-week timeframe.
This leaves many vulnerable young people in limbo
This leaves many vulnerable young people in limbo – young people who may not have the cognitive understanding of the delays and how to manage their anxiety. Many do not find out if they are successful in their funding until August or even September. One National Star student found out that her funding application had been successful a week before college began.
That was after her request had been rejected two by local authority panels, she had been rejected by her local mainstream college and her family had hired a lawyer. The process took six months and that young woman found the uncertainty of her future so stressful that she required prescribed anti-depressants.
Last year National Star supported 11 students who went to tribunal in their battles to get funding. Ten were settled before the hearings were held – often on the day of the hearing when the barristers met in a room to talk.
Since the introduction of the Children and Families Act there has been a marked national increase in the number of tribunals for post-16 students.
And when it comes to post-16 and post-18, the SEND reforms are not sufficiently robust. An Ofsted thematic report last year found that too many young people with SEND are poorly prepared for adult life.
Nicki sustained a brain injury at the age of 17; when she arrived at National Star she could not safely cross a road on her own or go out independently.
Following a period at a specialist college she is living independently, and has just finished two years of mainstream college.
But in order for her to access specialist education, her parents were faced with the decision of refusing to allow her to move back home following the accident. They had to prepare a 107-page document and the process took months.
Enabling young people with SEND to achieve their aspirations is what the Children and Families Act was meant to be all about. This will only happen when the government learns that value for money should mean more than just this year’s bottom line.
Until then local authorities will continue to struggle with the increased demand for ECH plans and extra funding, with the real losers being the vulnerable young people we should be protecting.
Pauline Bayliss-Jones is the principal of National Star College