School povertyThe Children and Families Bill has received Royal Assent after more than 2 years of consultation, debates and local authority testing, but Mencap has warned that it could fail to meet its goals.

Described by the government as one of the biggest changes in special education for three decades, the Act aims to transform the system for children and young people with special educational needs (SEN) by placing families at the centre of decision making. It sets out requirements that education, health and care services should work together to provide coordinated support across all areas of a child or young person’s life.

Further reading: Children & Families Bill just the beginning of cultural change for disabled children, charities say

The Act will replace SEN statements with Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans, and the system will run from birth to 25, rather than ending when a young person leaves school.

Stipulations in the Bill include:
• Making health bodies responsible for meeting a child or young person’s health needs as assessed in their new EHC Plan
• Ensuring that a child or young person’s social care needs are met if they are listed in their EHC plan
• Making the Government formally review the appeals/complaints process and look at ways to better integrate this for parents appealing across education, health and social care
• Strengthening the ability of young people with an EHC plan to remain in education or training beyond the age of 18 if they wish to do so.

Fears of failure
Mencap has worked with its sector partners in the Special Educational Consortium and Every Disabled Child Matters since the inception of the Bill but the charity’s head of policy, Dan Scorer, fears that without greater attention given to the Code of Practice which underpins it, the Bill could fail to meet its goals.

The charity warns that the timeframe for implementing the reforms is another cause for concern, with professionals looking set to get only a few months’ notice of their new obligations before they are expected to meet them.

"Our work doesn’t stop here. After working to make sure the legislation has the potential to improve life outcomes for children and young people with a learning disability, we now need to shift our focus to the quality of the guidance, which is fundamental to making this a reality," Scorer said.

“Disappointingly, the Code of Practice is by no means fit for purpose. The guidance does not tell professionals what they need to do in order to support children with a learning disability under the new system and this threatens to undermine the good intentions within the Act. We need to get this guidance right, and fast, as the legislation must be implemented from September this year.

"For the Act to become a reality on the ground, local areas must now embrace the cultural change that is implicit in these reforms: to place children, young people with a learning disability and their families at the heart of decisions about their education, health and care."

Clearer rights for children with SEN
Jolanta Lasota, chief executive of Ambitious about Autism, also believes that problems in implementation could yet undermine the gains of "all the young people and parents who campaigned to end the scandal of just 1 in 4 young people with autism going on to any education beyond school.

“The Children and Families Act creates clearer rights for young people with special educational needs – including those with autism – to continue their education beyond school and get the support they need to achieve a fulfilling adult life.

“However, parents of children with autism are already reporting that pressure on local authority budgets is leading to cuts in the essential services they depend on, such as speech and language therapy.

“If the Children and Families Act is to genuinely improve the situation for the 1 in 100 children with autism, it must be accompanied by clear guidance about what support must be provided in school for all children with SEN – whether they have a new Education Health and Care Plan or not.”

The Children & Families Bill will take effect from September 2014 - for full details visit: http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2012-13/childrenandfamilies.html