Partnership working and common sense needed for SEN reform

This week, Sarah Teather, Children's Minister is State for Children and Families announced that families are to be given personal budgets for special educational needs support (SEN).

For the first time ever, parents will be given the power to control personal budgets for their children with severe, profound or multiple health and learning - meaning they can choose the expert support that is right for their child, instead of local authorities being the sole provider.

The Department for Education (Dfe) is positioning this as the biggest reform of SEN for 30 years and it plans to also force education, health and social services to plan support together by law.

SEN statements and separate learning difficulty assessments will be replaced with a single, birth to 25 years assessment process and education, health and care plan from 2014. Parents with the plans would have the right to a personal budget for their support.

Through our extensive groundbreaking work with children's services over the past six years to introduce personal budgets for children, young people and families we are very much aware of the profound difference that personal budgets can make. We know that parents are the ones best placed to decide what is best for their children and this has been proven time and time again with the successes we are seeing with social care personal budgets. This success has been the result of six years worth of pilots and work to test personal budgets. Only now are local authorities beginning to be in a position for roll out, and this is just a handful of authorities.

Our work with 45 children's services over the years has demonstrated that the implementation of personal budgets has to be done in meaningful partnership with families. This is essential to making this new approach work. Significant work is now needed to work out how personal budgets for SEN will work in practice and it is critical that the lessons from the introduction of personal budgets in adult social care are learned. The focus needs to be on improving choice, control and outcomes for people without increasing bureaucracy and red tape and all too often this gets lost in the rush to implement new policy and meet targets. Setting a date of 2014 for single assessments, single plans and personal budgets is very ambitious and we have concerns that such a short timescale could well see this work rushed and not done alongside families which would simply create a new structure replicating many of the problems experienced now.

A common sense approach needs to be applied to all this work so that everyone from families to service and frontline workers understand this work, why certain areas of funding now form part of a personal budget and why it's happening. Personal budgets are just one part of a wider programme of whole system change for children and young people with SEN and children with more complex needs. New approaches to assessment, planning and commissioning all need to fit together in a sensible way so that everyone knows what is happening and all participants can be held to account for their part in this transformation.

It is very encouraging to see that education, health and social care will have to start working together by law and according to Sarah Teather this will help stop the 'agonising' battle that many parents face when they are forced to go from 'pillar to post' between different authorities and agencies. Families often complain that they are not listened to and that their expertise of bringing their child up is not valued or recognised by professionals from all services. Bringing together services will hopefully help improve this situation. Integrated working does however pose challenges for services. It's not just a case of forms and paperwork, but a change to the dependency culture that services engender, the development of a simple language of understanding and a real, joint commitment to improving outcomes for the child and family as opposed to just another system which continues to disempower.

Handing choice and control over to families is something that we will always advocate for and we know that parents are best placed to decide what's best for their children. This is a good step forward but it is critical that this policy is implemented in the right way for the right reasons to ensure that outcomes are being met and that these changes have a positive impact on SEN provision.

Nic Crosby

For more information about our extensive work to support local authorities to introduce personal budgets for children, young people and families, please see our children's pages.

For more information about how we can support organisations to deliver the reforms, please click here.

For more information about the changes to SEN provision, please see the DfE website.

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Last Updated : 18 May 2012. Page Author: Laura Bimpson.