John Harris

Journalist & Author

Another omnishambles – and this time it threatens me and my autistic son | John Harris

The black hole of official indifference, now given official licence, threatens accountability and special needs provision

Two threads run through the current government’s rhetoric, just as they defined a lot of what we heard in the Blair and Brown years.

People – and particularly parents – must be empowered, and the supposedly slow hand of the state has to be quickened and made more responsive, or done away with altogether. Now as then, the watchwords are choice, competition, localism, empowerment.

Strange, then, that so much of what this government and the last have done has pointed in the opposite direction, towards centralisation and the emasculation of the citizen. Strange, too, that a particularly egregious example of all this has just been unveiled, and very few people seem to have noticed.

The government’s drastic proposed changes to England’s special educational needs (SEN) system will affect close to 1.7 million children. The plans threaten to chop down parents’ rights, hand power and initiative from families to local authorities and also strengthen the centralised fist of the Department for Education. Moreover, everything is behind schedule. Sarah Teather, the Lib Dem minister who claimed the reforms were something of a personal crusade, was a casualty of September’s reshuffle. Having been up and running for mere months, the department’s hurried “pathfinder” schemes will not report until the reforms hits the Commons, as part of the Children and Families Bill. Omnishambles threatens to strike again.

I first wrote about this six months ago, when the reforms were announced, drawing on my experience of the SEN system, and what it took to get roughly the right provision for my six-year-old son, who’s autistic. As things stand, the most reliable arrangements are founded in statements of special educational needs, which currently apply to around 225,000 children, and usually deal with every aspect of their education – including NHS therapies. If you can stomach the cost and stress involved in getting one, statements represent a pretty solidmeans of holding your local authority to account. The usual route lies in a request made by parents, or a child’s school: some authorities tend to oblige, and others only issue statements after the most grinding of fights.

If a request is made by parents or a headteacher, a local authority has a legal duty to respond within six weeks. If it declines to commence the requisite assessment process, parents can appeal via the SEN tribunal system. The next step, if you’re lucky, is what’s called statutory assessment, which has a legal limit of 12 weeks, and then the finalising of the statement itself, which can take no longer than eight weeks. That’s six months in all: a long time when all you can think about is the urgency of so-called early intervention, but at least the limit is there.

But not for much longer, it seems. The government wants to replace statements with “single plans”, spanning education, health and social care. On the plus side, these will extend from birth to 25, as long as a young person remains in education or training – but that step forward is compromised by the fact that they will be less exacting. Witness one of the most fundamental aspects of what’s being proposed: the government’s draft legislation – belatedly published in early September, and now being looked at by the education select committee – makes no mention of defined rights for parents or schools to request an assessment, nor a prescribed period for a request to be dealt with. To anyone who has been through the special needs process, what that suggests is grim: the black hole of official indifference, now given official licence.

Under the current system, local authorities have a duty to specify the provision that will be made. The word specify is fantastically important: it means you can argue against fuzzy promises of “regular” this or “frequent” that, and push for guarantees of, say, speech therapy or physio for stated periods, at specific intervals (an hour once a week, for example). With echoes of a move that was defeated by parent campaigners back in 2001, the new plans contain only an obligation to “set out” what will be provided: “wildly different”, as one campaigner puts it, and a change that will rub out decades of case law that have hardened parents’ rights.

In the switch from statements of educational needs to the new single plans, there is another glaring problem. Under the current system, all of a child’s therapies and programmes – even if they’re provided by the NHS – come under the umbrella heading of “education”, and thereby fall under the remit of the special educational needs tribunal. If something fails to materialise or is taken away, you can at least take your case to an affordable(ish) forum of appeal. But no more: the government plans to separate everything out into three categories of education, health and social care – but keep only the first one under the tribunal’s authority. What that means for parents like me is obvious enough: the knocking-away of accountability that currently underlies things such as occupational therapy, and help with our children’s speech and language.

All this seems comically antithetical to what habitually comes out of ministers’ mouths: an officially sanctioned power-grab by often unreliable public institutions, at the expense of the few solid rights that parents currently possess. Although the cost of implementing the reforms looks huge, much of this is seemingly driven by the same logic as the cuts that are already impacting on the lives of children with disabilities and learning difficulties: in pushing public bodies further away from accountability, the government seems to be giving them freer rein to hack back provision even more. On occasion, in fact, the DfE has looked only too happy to create exactly that impression: do not forget that last spring, the plans arrived in a flurry of headlines about as many as 450,000 children being taken out of the category of special needs altogether, as if they had been put there thanks to a spasm of profligacy and trendy teaching.

To cap it all, the draft legislation contains at least one burst of power politics at its most brazen. The existing SEN system’s statutory code of practice – the details of how it’s actually meant to work – can only be altered after any changes have gone through both houses of parliament. In the suggested new reality, the secretary of state will be able to change its provisions at will. Once again, it seems, talk of empowerment and accountability masks the usual centralism.

Towards the end of last week, having thought about my own case and pored over the exhaustive analysis of the reforms by the special needs charity Independent Special Education Advice (IPSEA), I contacted the DfE with an itemised list of concerns, expecting at least cosmetic engagement with what thousands of people are increasingly worried about. But it didn’t happen: a spokesperson said ministers “want to hear people’s views” and would consider them, along with what the education select committee has to say, “very carefully”. Their four-sentence statement ended thus: “These reforms will put parents in charge, giving them better information and a comprehensive package of support that meets their needs.”

In fact, unless MPs can work miracles, the whole thing looks dangerous and ill-thought-out. That may sound painfully familiar, but we need to think about the fallout not in terms of political pantomime, but as it will affect children and parents who need government to get things right. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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