The impact of the SEN Reforms on Local Authorities

The impact of the SEN Reforms on Local Authorities

Two years on:
The impact of the SEN Reforms on Local Authorities

The findings in this policy paper were used to inform the discussion at a whole day seminar which enabled an early review of the SEN/disability policy and legislation. The seminar was organised by the SEN Policy Research Forum in June 2016. This Forum contributes intelligent analysis, knowledge and experience to promote the development of policy and practice for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities.

Chris Harrison delivered a session on the Impact of the SEN reforms on local authorities: Chris concluded that reforms had sparked welcome changes by shifting ways of working through engagement with families. Though the reforms are ‘the right thing to do’, their implementation has proved a major challenge with uneven change across LAs. The reforms came at a time of austerity which has led to financial constraints, restructuring and the refocusing of LA attention away from schools. He suggests some simple ways to prevent LAs slipping into a negative cycle. The full policy paper is provided below:


Local authorities (LAs) in England have been working closely with partners, parents and young people in their local areas to implement the SEND Reforms as set out in the Children and Families Act 2014.

The reforms have been largely received as a step in the right direction, but many local areas are still struggling to make the changes they had hoped for.

This paper examines some of the possible reasons for the varying levels of success across the country and suggests how progress may be accelerated. The paper has been written as part of a wider analysis considering the impact of the reforms on families, education services and Local Authorities.

The paper is based on the author’s experience as an SEN officer in a pathfinder LA, as part of a team of consultants working across a range of LAs in England supporting the implementation of reforms and as a result of information gathered through a small-scale survey in two regions which have SEN officer liaison groups.

The paper is written from the perspective of an LA SEN officer with the aim of stimulating discussions that will bring about positive change.

National Context

Each LA is slightly different in the way it organises itself in relation to SEN, but there are some basic activities that form the core duties of an LA officer:

Providing (to greater or lesser degrees across LAs)
Strategic planning.

Since the reforms these duties have remained the same, but the way in which they are carried out has changed significantly. The following table shows this shift in relation to Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans by comparing the approach before and after the reforms.

Before After
“Done to” Co-produced, person-centred
3 to 19 (years) 0 to 25 (years)
Education Education, Health and Care
Timelines 26 weeks Timelines 20 weeks
Paper process Personal and multimedia
LA resources Personal budget
Various sources of information The local offer
Separate commissioning arrangements Joint commissioning

The duty for the LA to facilitate an SEN assessment process remains, but the way in which the EHC plan is co-produced and constructed in an integrated way with health partners is radically different. It requires different relationships with families and with partner agencies. The content needs to be focussed on outcomes and should support young people towards their ambitions into adult life. In some areas much of this was new to the traditional SEN teams prior to the reforms, and required a significant cultural shift in working practice and behaviour.

The requirement for the LA to commission services and education placements remains, but the way in which they now do this needs to be radically different.

LAs now have the opportunity to jointly commission services with health, which means efficiencies can be made and attention can be focussed on the service families need across all agencies. However, this is a fairly significant challenge if services are to be commissioned jointly and secure real benefits for families.

LAs have varied hugely in their approach to providing services. Many no longer see themselves as service providers and have moved to a model of commissioning. Others have retained services either as a free or sold service to schools and families.

LAs still need to have a strategic planned approach to SEN and disability. This approach needs to plan how the LA with its partner agencies will develop its new arrangements and this should build on the views of its families. There is now a need to plan in collaboration with partners and involve parents in developing new services.

Local SEN officer feedback on implementing the reforms

We asked SEN officers about their aspirations at the start of the reform process. They said they welcomed the:

Principles of the reforms
Expectation of a new dialogue with families
New ways of working holistically with health and social care
Opportunity to remove the deficit model
Transparency of the local offer
Potential for improvement.

After 18 months, we asked SEN officers how they had found the experience of implementing the reforms. They said it had been:

A continuing journey with much more to do
A little disappointing because a big system change has delivered only partial success.

When we asked them what they thought the main benefits were. They said:

They now had a more transparent process
In the majority of cases parents liked the process
The process was more engaging
They enjoyed the aspects of co-production
They had better relationships with key partners
The reforms gave license to innovate.

We asked what the main challenges they faced were. To summarise, they said:

Meeting challenging timescales – 20 weeks EHC statutory assessment process
Meeting challenging timescales for the transfer review process
Gaining a real understanding of post 16 issues
Managing an ambitious programme of change against a backdrop of diminishing resources
Managing a multitude of challenges and changes as well as implementing reforms
Having the capacity to meet timelines and managing high volumes of work
Having the capacity to deliver quality as well as quantity
Writing person-centered plans with well written outcomes
Managing the expectations of families
Having a workforce with knowledge beyond education
Dealing with waning enthusiasm of partner agencies
Worrying about the prospect of the end of temporary reform grants.

We asked what impact this had had on the teams implementing the reforms:

In many cases there has been a high staff turnover
New approaches need new skills
High risk, high stress environment needs resilient teams
In a quest to make teams more holistic some temporary de-skilling has happened
People still think ‘it’s the right thing to do’ but ‘hadn’t appreciated how difficult it was going to be’.

In observing a number of LAs across England it has become apparent that there are varying levels of success in implementing the reforms.

There are a number of reasons why this is the case. The reforms are not the only thing impacting on an LA’s capacity to deliver change. Other important factors include:

Budget reductions
The LA’s changing relationships with schools
Working with health at a time of significant pressure in that service area.

All these things have an impact on capacity and resilience of staff in delivering change. In areas where there have been multiple layers of simultaneous change, the impact on teams has been high and potentially negative. In areas where implementation of the reforms has been relatively successful the impact on all areas affected by the changes has been well-managed and controlled.

In areas experiencing difficulty the level of change and the level of challenge has impacted on the ability of the team to operate effectively. High levels of challenge, results in high levels of staff illness and high staff turnover. In one authority it appeared that all members of the EHC team were either off sick, intended to leave or had already left and been replaced by either temporary or agency staff. This particular team was experiencing significant difficulties in managing timelines, delivering high quality EHC plans and managing expectations of families.

In other areas the picture is much more positive, with high levels of engagement, good quality EHC plans delivered on time with strong levels of engagement from agencies and good ‘customer’ satisfaction and feedback from families.

Throughout the impending cycle of Ofsted/CQC local area inspections the above scenarios and the many associated features will be observed.

Managing the pressure on EHC teams to get a good outcome for families

Where the pressure on teams has been managed well, teams have been able to deliver a good quality service.

There are a number of features inherent in LAs which have put additional pressure on EHC teams.

Systems and processes

The functionality of IT and data systems.
Effective budget and financial management.
Effective information sharing between agencies.

Financial pressures

Meeting targets for budget reductions.
The capacity of the EHC team.
Changes in pay levels of a team as a result of restructuring.
Restructuring of teams causing uncertainty and disruption.

Implementation of Reforms

Good tracking of timelines.
Receipt of timely and quality responses from agencies.
Quality assurance of plans.
Levels of parental engagement.
Levels of agency engagement.
Numbers of statements that require transferring to EHC Plans.
The focus on SEN support as well as EHC plans.

In LAs where these pressures are well managed a positive scenario emerges. Families are highly engaged with the process, agencies give quality advice, systems are understood, budgets are managed, EHC plans are issued on time and families like the plans that they receive.

In LAs where it has been more difficult to manage these pressures, a less positive scenario can emerge. Families are not fully engaged, partner agencies do not contribute effectively to the process, EHC plans are late and families are not happy with the ‘product’ they receive.

This negative scenario can spark a negative cycle.

If parents are not happy with or confident in the process and feel they have not been listened to, they are more likely to lodge a complaint, to appeal to SENDIST and to register dissatisfaction with councillors. Parent groups are more likely to lobby and register concerns about the staff, managers and processes. Councillors start to lack confidence and become concerned about SEN arrangements. Senior managers in the LA become nervous about the competency of the teams they oversee. Managers in the SEN teams become embroiled in managing the impact of the negative cycle rather than managing a team and the delivery of a service. Staff retention, staff wellbeing and staff morale become complex issues to manage. Ultimately families do not get the service they need.

What LAs can do to avoid such negative cycles

Quality assure EHC plans on a regular basis and get parental feedback on reports you have written about their children.
Have effective tracking systems in place for EHC timelines and take steps to ensure professionals contribute on time, and your teams issue plans on time.
Provide appropriate training for newly established teams. Invest in and value your teams.
Keep up active engagement with parents. Parents do know how good you are, so invest in your relationships with parent groups.
Risk assess service restructures in relation to the impact on team knowledge and resilience.
Refocus attention on SEN support in mainstream schools.
An EHC Plan is not the only solution, do not lose sight of SEN Support planning at a school level.
Focus on outcomes and the ‘so what’ factor. Monitor whether the processes and plans are truly making a difference for the child or young person.
Look at what is working well in other LAs.

In Summary

The SEN reforms have sparked welcome changes by shifting the way we think and operate through engagement with families. Ultimately the reforms are ‘the right thing to do’.

Yet implementing the reforms has proved to be a challenge and change has not been uniform across LAs. The reforms came at a time of austerity which triggered financial constraint, restructuring and the refocusing of LA attention away from schools.

As a result, the progress of change has been variable. In some areas a very positive outcome has been achieved, while in others there has been only a partially positive outcome. In some areas it has been altogether much more problematic with real difficulties delivering the much-desired reforms. As a result, parents are receiving very different experiences across the country.

There are some simple activities that will help prevent LAs slipping into a negative cycle:

ensure that there is a robust SEN Support Offer
develop a strong planning continuum which includes thresholds that are clear and understood so that progression to an EHC plan is for the children with the most complex needs
engage with families
quality assure your products and services. Invest in the wellbeing of your teams.

Overall … keep going … it’s worth it. A quote from an LA officer:

“This is a challenging time and frustrating but also exhilarating. Have to keep reminding myself to hold onto the aspiration – we will get there but it will take time”