Education, Health and Care plans: why the policy needs to translate into practice

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A teacher and a student

By Professor Laura Crane, Director of the Autism Centre for Education and Research (ACER) at University of Birmingham & Heba Al-Jayoosi, Head of Inclusion at Mayflower Primary School

A recent report by BBC news highlighted how councils are failing to meet deadlines to issue Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans to children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). But what are EHC plans, and why is this issue so important? Professor Laura Crane, Director of the Autism Centre for Education and Research (ACER), and Heba Al-Jayoosi, Head of Inclusion at Mayflower Primary School, explain.

A decade ago, the government introduced an important piece of legislation called the Children and Families Act (2014). This Act was celebrated as one of the most substantial reforms in decades, and the Department for Education promised a radically different system for children and young people with SEND. One key innovation was to replace Statements of Special Educational Need with new and improved Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans. EHC plans are documents that detail a child or young person’s education, health and care needs, as well as the support that they are legally entitled to, potentially up to the age of 25 years.

Contrary to popular belief, not every child or young person with SEND is automatically eligible for an EHC plan. Rather, the idea is that most children and young people with SEND have their needs met within the school’s existing SEND support. Children and young people are only assessed by their local authority for an EHC plan if it’s felt that it’s not possible to meet their needs within a school’s existing resources. In such instances, local authorities have 16 weeks to decide whether an EHC plan will be given, and they have 20 weeks from the date they receive the request to provide the final EHC plan.

Over the past decade, there have been several evaluations of the Children and Families Act, including evaluations of the process of accessing an EHC plan. The consensus from this body of work is that the policy is great on paper but hasn’t necessarily translated into practice. So, what went wrong?

The situation we’re in is that demand is outstripping capacity, as the number of requests for an EHC plan are rising year on year. This situation is perhaps unsurprising since schools are struggling to cater for the diverse – and increasingly complex – range of needs that their children and young people present with; an issue compounded by the longstanding financial and attainment focused pressures that schools have been under. While EHC plans are supposed to be a collaborative effort across education, health and social care, research suggests that the responsibility for EHC plans disproportionately falls to those in education.

The government has promised a record cash investment to meet the educational needs of children and young people with SEND – providing more schools, and more support to meet growing demand. However, the issues that schools are facing are deep-seated, and solutions will need to be much more far reaching. To give a few examples:

  • Staff shortages across key professional groups (e.g., educational psychologists, speech and language therapists) are impacting on both applications for EHC plans, and the provision of support afforded in response to an EHC plan. However, it is essential to have trained and qualified staff to provide the necessary support for EHC plans from start to finish.
  • Inconsistencies in the format of EHC plans across local authorities results in less-than-seamless transitions for families who move from one local authority to another. Therefore, the processes involved in applying for EHC plans must be more consistent nationally, for the benefit of both the professionals and the families involved.
  • Updating EHC plans is a lengthy and time-consuming process to do well, but the responsibility tends to fall on overstretched Special Educational Needs Coordinators (SENCOs). Schools need dedicated time and funding to develop good inclusive practice generally, whilst also ensuring that the children with the highest needs get the support they need. Without this dual focus, EHC plans risk marginalising and disadvantaging the very people that they are seeking to serve.

Our research examining the impact of the Children and Families Act highlighted how families felt that their expectations were significantly built up by the promise of major reforms to SEND provision, only to be hugely let down by the reality. As such, the government’s recent SEND Improvement Plan has rightly highlighted building parental trust as a key priority: giving families greater confidence in the system, knowing that their children will get “the right support, in the right place, at the right time.” If the incoming government succeed in building that trust, it’s now – more so than ever before – absolutely essential that they deliver.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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