A new special educational needs (SEN) system has been in place for more than a year. But have the changes been positive? Laxmi Patel gives them a broad thumbs up – but warns that cuts are taking their toll

1. More involvement from children, young people and families

The new system puts children and young people at the centre of discussions about the support offered. Schools must consult with children and their families when making decisions about the support offered and be prepared to offer support in new ways.

Education, health and care plans (EHCP) have replaced statements and learning difficulty assessments. For the first time, parents and young people can ask for a personal budget, which is the estimated cost of support set out in the EHCP. They can also ask for direct payments meaning that, in theory, parents could receive money to purchase and manage services themselves to, for example, employ their own teaching assistant.

The new regime means teachers are now more accountable for the progress of every child

I say “in theory”, because the local authorities and headteachers can refuse this request. In many schools, for each child to have their own teaching assistant would be unworkable. But in some instances, for example where the child has very specific needs and where consistent support is required across home, travel to school and at school, it may be the best possible outcome for that child. Arrangements like this will introduce employment, health and safety and training issues for schools. These cannot be ignored as part of the new child-centred approach.

The new law gives young people new rights at 16. From that age, schools must consult with the young person directly and unless the young person does not have the capacity to make decisions, their views will take precedence over their parents’ views.

2. SEN support now goes up to 25

A young person with an EHCP is entitled to continue to receive support up to age 25, provided their educational outcomes have not yet been met. This means that schools and colleges can offer courses beyond the traditional age 19 cut-off, provided they are registered to do so, and that the school or college can be named in the plan. Local authorities must consult with the school or college before naming it in an EHCP but, once named, the school or college must admit the young person. Schools and colleges need to be aware this supersedes other admissions routes.

3. Teachers are more accountable

The new SEN regime places responsibility on teachers who are now more accountable for the progress of every child, including those supported by specialist staff. There is emphasis on the need for teachers to identify SEN and to deliver high-quality, differentiated teaching for pupils with SEN. This means that as part of performance management, teachers will be judged on how well they teach children with SEN. It should address SEN-related training and development needs. Senior management needs to ensure that teachers have access to the training, sufficient time to plan and differentiate lessons and to liaise with support staff.

4. School Action and School Action Plus

These separate categories are now one category and schools can devise their own scheme for measuring progress based on these steps: Assess, Plan, Do, Review. Schools need to make their progression route to increased support clear and know when it is necessary to request support from outside agencies and when to request an EHCP needs assessment.

5. Concerns over budgets

We all want excellent facilities and teaching for all our children. The new SEN regime gives a sense of gradual shifting of responsibility from local authorities to schools. There is more emphasis on the need for excellent teaching and the need to provide for children and young people with SEN from the school’s own resources. Support available for pupils with SEN is inevitably affected by budgetary cuts to local authorities and the NHS. This means schools are finding it increasingly difficult to access external advice without a long wait, if at all. One way of accessing additional funding for children with SEN is to get it in the child’s EHCP.