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Changes to support for children with special educational needs and disabilities in England

Published Date: 20 Dec 2023

The Department for Education in England is testing changes to the special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) framework in some local authorities.  

Separately, over half of all local authorities have been asked by the Government to review their spending on SEND. This is being done through two programmes called ‘Safety Valve’ and ‘Delivering Better Value’.  

We’ve written this FAQ so that you’re aware of changes that might be happening in your local area.   

The most important points to remember are that there’s been no change to the law and your child’s legal rights around SEND have not changed. If you’re invited to take part in testing around any changes, you have the right to say no. If you agree to take part, you still keep your existing legal rights around SEND. 

If you have any concerns or would like more information, you can contact our helpline 

If you have any feedback about what’s happening in your local area – positive or negative – please do share that with us. It’s really useful to hear what’s happening on the ground. You can email us at [email protected].  

What is the SEND review improvement plan? 

In March this year, the Department for Education published the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) and Alternative Provision (AP) review improvement plan 

This sets out how they plan to change support for children with SEND. It follows a consultation in 2022 (sometimes known as the SEND review green paper). You can read our response to the green paper on our website.  

The improvement plan says that they will test some of the proposed changes before making any changes to the law. This testing is being done through what’s called the ‘Change Programme’.  

Any changes to the law are unlikely to take place before 2025. They will also depend on what happens in the next general election, which must happen before January 2025.  

Why are they doing this?  

The Department for Education thinks that:  

  • outcomes for children with SEND are not as good as they should be  
  • parents don’t have confidence in the SEND system  
  • even though more money is going into SEND, the SEND system doesn’t seem to be getting better.  

The Department says they will address this by getting the SEND system to focus more on early intervention and better inclusion in mainstream education settings. They think that this will help improve outcomes, raise parental confidence and lead to fewer children needing more expensive support later in life.  

We support the aims of the SEND review improvement plan. However, we’re worried that the needs of deaf children are being overlooked. For example, we think the Department needs to do more to make sure there are enough Teachers of the Deaf to help deaf children and their families, particularly in the early years.  

Where are the reforms being tested?  

The Change Programme is taking place in the following local authorities in England. In each region, one or two of the local authorities will act as a ‘lead’ authority.  

  • North East: Hartlepool (lead), Durham, Gateshead, Stockton-on-Tees. 
  • North West: Manchester (lead), Oldham, Rochdale, Trafford. 
  • Yorkshire and the Humber: Wakefield (lead), Bradford, Calderdale, Leeds. 
  • East Midlands: Leicester, Leicestershire, Rutland (possibly joint leads). 
  • West Midlands: Telford & Wrekin (lead), Herefordshire, Shropshire. 
  • East of England: Bedford (lead), Central Bedfordshire, Luton. 
  • London: Barnet (lead), Camden, Enfield, Islington. 
  • South East: Portsmouth (lead), Brighton, East Sussex, West Sussex. 
  • South West: Gloucestershire, Swindon (joint leads). 

These are the only areas in which we’re expecting there to be any testing. If you think that any other local authorities are testing any of the below changes, please let us know.  

What should I do if I’m asked to get involved?  

You should make sure you’re clear on and comfortable about what the local authority wants to do and what this will mean for your child. In particular, the local authority should make clear how your child will benefit from being involved

If you’re feeling pressured to take part, you should say no. The local authority cannot force you to take part. Laws around SEND and Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans, including your own legal rights, have not changed – the local authority cannot ignore this.  

What’s being tested?  

The Government is testing some changes around EHC plans, including:

1) Template EHC plans 

2) Multi-agency panels

3) Mediation

4) Tailored list of settings

The Change Programme will also test some proposed changes around: 

5) Local SEND and alternative provision partnerships and local area inclusion plans

6) National standards

7) Data dashboards

8) ‘Early Language Support for Every Child’ (ELSEC) pathfinders 

The below are not being ‘tested’ but there may be activity around this in your area:  

9) Banding and tariffs – used to make decisions about SEND funding

10) ‘Safety Valve’ and ‘Delivering Better Value’ programmes to reduce pressures on SEND funding 

In the rest of this FAQ, we provide more information about each of the above.  

1) Template EHC plans  

What’s being tested? The Department has created a new template EHC plan. The Change Programme may test this new template with families if their child is getting an EHC plan for the first time.  

What do we think? All EHC plans have to include specific sections. However, at the moment, local authorities are allowed to create and use their own templates. We think that a new national template that everyone must use will be helpful. The most important thing is that the plan clearly sets out your child’s needs and what support must be in place to meet those needs.  

What do you need to know? Your wider legal rights around EHC plans have not changed. For example, you still have the right to request that your child be assessed for a plan. You also still have the right to appeal against any decisions made about what goes in your child’s plan.  

You can find more information about EHC plans on our website 

2) Multi-agency panels  

What’s being tested? Multi-agency panels are intended to bring together different professionals to look at local authority decisions on EHC plans. The Department says they want to see if this will improve the quality of decision-making.  

What do we think? We’re not sure about this. We think it’s important that multi-agency panels don’t slow things down or interfere with parents’ decisions or rights. If a multi-agency panel is looking at an EHC plan for a deaf child, we think that the panel should involve a Teacher of the Deaf. This is to make sure that the panel understands what support deaf children might need.  

What do you need to know? Again, your legal rights have not changed. In particular, there are legal timescales that local authorities must follow.  

3) Mediation  

What’s being tested? Currently, if there’s a disagreement between the family and the local authority around the contents of an EHC plan, the family can request mediation. This is where a third party comes in to see if it’s possible to reach agreement on the EHC plan without the family having to make a formal appeal to the SEND Tribunal. Currently, mediation is voluntary but the Government have said they want to make it a requirement in the long-term. In the meantime, the Department says they will test different approaches to see how they can ‘strengthen’ mediation. For example, they say they will improve the training that mediators receive.  

What do we think? We think that mediation can sometimes be helpful and positive in finding a way forward. However, as now, we think it should be up to parents to decide if they would like to try mediation. We don’t think that mediation should be a requirement. We also don’t think that the Government should be making it harder for families to appeal to SEND Tribunals if they feel it’s necessary. We think that the Government should focus on improving the quality of local authority decision-making. 

What do you need to know? As now, mediation is still voluntary. You have the right to request that it takes place. But the local authority does not have the right to force you to undergo mediation if you don’t want to. Again, your legal rights have not changed and local authorities must still follow legal timescales around EHC plans.  

4) Tailored lists of settings   

What’s being tested? The Department will test whether “advisory tailored lists” of education settings that might be appropriate for children with SEND are helpful to parents and/or local authorities.  

What do we think? We think that providing parents with a list of schools that might be able to meet their child’s needs could be helpful.   

However, we’re concerned about how the lists will be developed. For example, we’re concerned that the lists won’t include information about national and regional special schools for deaf children, or about any resource provisions in neighbouring areas. We also worry that local authorities might use the lists as a way of discouraging families to think about asking for a specialist placement.  

At the moment, the Department says the lists will be “advisory”. We’re worried that this might change over time – that the lists might be used to limit the schools that families can request for their child.  

What do you need to know? The laws around choosing a school have not changed. As a parent, you still have a legal right to express a preference for the school you wish your child to attend, even if the school is not on the advisory tailored list.  If you’re not happy with the school chosen for your child, you can appeal. You can find more information about this on our website.  

If your local authority asks for feedback on their tailored lists of settings, you can ask that it includes national specialist provision for deaf children, including those listed on our website.  

5) Local SEND and alternative provision partnerships and local area inclusion plans  

What’s being tested? These local partnerships are a way of bringing different professionals together to plan and review support for children with SEND who are in alternative provision. The partnerships will be asked to develop local area inclusion plans for how they will do this. The Change Programme will test how the local partnerships will work and who will be involved.  

Alternative provision refers to education support for children where, because of behaviour issues, exclusion or illness, they have been provided with a different education from normal (for example, in a Pupil Referral Unit).   

What do we think? We think that local partnerships could be a good thing. If there are gaps in support for deaf children, local area inclusion plans could be a way of starting to improve things. However, we’re worried that deafness could be overlooked because more children have other types of SEND. We’re also worried that local partnerships will focus on support for children in school and not the support that families need in the early years.  

We think that local SEND and alternative provision partnerships should:  

  • involve the head of the local specialist education service for deaf children  
  • review how many Teachers of the Deaf are needed to meet the needs of deaf children in the area  
  • review how many and the quality of resource provisions for deaf children  
  • consider if the local authority should work with other local authorities across the region to jointly provide services and improve support for deaf children 
  • have a focus on early years support for deaf children.  

What do you need to know? Local partnerships will be expected to involve parents. They are likely to turn first to their local parent carer forums. If you’re not a member of the parent carer forum, you could ask about opportunities for other parents to be involved (for example, any local deaf children’s societies). You could also ask how local partnerships and inclusion plans will consider the needs of deaf children.  

6) National standards  

What’s being tested? The Department is planning to introduce new national standards. This will set out clear expectations for the types of support that should be available. It will focus on mainstream education settings. The Change Programme will test new national standards on early years speech, language and communication first.  

What do we think? Many parents of deaf children report feeling uncertain what support they should reasonably expect for their child, particularly in the vital early years. National standards could help parents with this. However, we think national standards will only be helpful if they are deaf-specific and cover the support that deaf children need from birth. We’re also concerned that the Department’s work on national standards seems to be focused on providing information to professionals, rather than to parents too.  

What do you need to know? If you live in one of the Change Programme areas, you could ask how any work they are doing on national standards will cover the needs of deaf children. You could also ask what information will be provided to families as part of this.   

 7) Data dashboards  

What’s being tested? The Department wants to create new data ‘dashboards’ so that it’s easier to see how well the SEND system is working across England and how different local areas compare to each other. They have developed a draft dashboard which they will be testing with professionals in the Change Programme areas.  

What do we think? We think it’s important that parents of deaf children are able to see more information about how support for deaf children in their area compares to other areas. So we think that the new dashboards could be a good thing. However, we have not yet seen what the dashboard looks like. We’re concerned that it will only include very general information about children with SEND, and not data on deaf children specifically.  

What do you need to know? If you live in a Change Programme area, it’s possible that the local authority will ask for your feedback on the data dashboard. However, at the moment, it looks like the dashboards will not be shared more widely.  

8) ‘Early Language Support for Every Child’ (ELSEC) pathfinders 

What’s being tested? The Department is working with NHS England to test a new approach, called ELSEC, to identifying if children have speech, language and communication needs and to provide better support. They will try out the ELSEC project in early years settings and primary schools in some areas.  

What do we think? It’s really important that any speech, language and communication needs are identified as early as possible. However, we don’t know enough about ELSEC at the moment. For example, we don’t know if the project will work with children who have other needs, such as deafness. We also don’t know if and how the project will join up with the support that some children already receive through, for example, Teachers of the Deaf.  

What do you need to know? If your child is identified as having speech, language and communication needs (through the ELSEC project or elsewhere), you should ask what support will be provided and how this will be joined up with any other support that your child is receiving.  

Our website has more information on speech and language therapy

9) Banding and tariffs  

What’s happening? Bandings and tariffs are a system used by many local authorities to decide how much funding should be provided to support children with SEND. This is seen by some as a way of making sure that children with similar needs receive similar levels of funding for their support. The Department says they want to introduce a national system of bandings and tariffs.  

What do we think? We don’t support any move to national bandings and tariffs. We think that the support deaf children receive should depend on what their individual needs are. We don’t think it should depend on how they fit into any fixed ‘bands’ and ‘price tags’. The SEND system needs to be flexible if it’s going to effectively meet the needs of children with SEND.    

What do you need to know? As far as we know, this is not being tested through the Change Programme. However, many local authorities already have their own system for bandings and tariffs. More may be thinking about introducing this.  

The law says that local authorities must think about your child as an individual when they’re assessing what their needs are and what support should be in place to meet those needs. This is sometimes called a ‘person-centred’ approach. This means that they can’t decide not to provide support just because it doesn’t fit with their banding and tariffs system.  

10) ‘Safety Valve’ and ‘Delivering Better Value’ programmes  

What’s happening? Some local authorities have over-spent on their budgets for children with SEND (called ‘high needs’ funding). The Government has set up two programmes that aim to reduce this spending.  

The Safety Valve programme is for local authorities that overspent the most. These local authorities have to agree a plan with the Government to reduce their spending. At the time of writing, there are 34 local authorities in this programme.  

The Delivering Better Value programme is for local authorities that have overspent but not as much. These local authorities have been asked to look at what changes they can make. At the time of writing, there are 55 local authorities in this programme. You can see a full list at the bottom of this blog by the Special Needs Jungle website 

What do we think? The Government say it’s possible for local authorities to make savings whilst still providing high quality support for children with SEND. However, there are concerns that the programmes are leading to too many children being denied an EHC plan or a place in a special school, as a way of making cuts.  

We think that the best way the Government can reduce costs is by investing more in early intervention and mainstream inclusion. We don’t think it’s right to cut support for children who have already been failed by the SEND system.  

What do you need to know? Over half of all local authorities are in one of the above programmes. However, even if you live in one of these areas, your child’s legal rights around EHC plans have not changed. You can still appeal against any decision made by your local authority on your child’s plan. For example, if the local authority says that a plan is no longer needed (called “ceasing a plan”), then you can appeal against this decision.