By Natalie Kenneison, Chief Operating Officer at Imosphere
There were 390,109 children and young people with Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans maintained by local authorities as of January 2020. This was before COVID-19 was the only topic on people’s minds, before the country endured three lockdowns and before 8.9 million pupils had their education and lives disrupted in ways we could never have imagined.
Towards the end of 2020, local authorities were already beginning to see an increase in requests for EHC plans as pupils returned to school after the initial COVID-19 impact. We can only expect this to increase further after schools returned in March 2021. We will begin to see the impact of lockdowns on the social, emotional and mental well-being of the children and the effect home-schooling has had on their progression.
The impact of growing numbers of EHC plans and the likelihood that existing plans will need amending, as new needs are identified and progress towards current outcomes stalled, is that it will increase the pressure on schools, local authorities and the education sector as a whole.
I was pleased to see that the Government had put forward £42 million to extend projects for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) on top of the £730 million for high needs funding. But as demand grows from some of the most vulnerable in society for this pot of money, the question is, will it be enough and how will we know?
A living EHC plan
The EHC plan is supposed to be a live document outlining the key needs and outcomes with the provision required to meet these. The initial idea of a live document was to deal with one of the problems of the previous statement of SEN which could sometimes go unchanged for years, with the needs of the young person grossly out of date.
However, EHC plans now only remain live if they are reviewed. There is regularly too much emphasis placed on the initial funding given when an EHC plan is completed. It’s perceived as though it’s the final part of the process and the funding will remain the same forever when, in fact, it’s just the starter for ten. Where EHC plans come into their own and have the potential to deliver the intended results is at the annual review.
The annual review is the opportunity to see if things are working as expected. Is the provision detailed moving the young person towards meeting their outcomes? Does the funding need to change due to the amendments required?
Annual reviews will be the place to really understand the impact the pandemic has had on young people with EHC plans. We will learn if there are categories of needs which had not previously been widely recognised but must be now in order to support these young people effectively. How much has progress towards outcomes stalled? And are these even the right sort of outcomes now? Are there new challenges for these individuals to overcome and how are we going support them? What new services are needed and how are we going to put them in place?
There will be a huge amount of information which will come out of these annual reviews: needs going up, some coming down; but this information is so qualitative, and embedded so deeply into individuals’ plans, it is hard to understand the whole picture for each young person and keep track of where changes in need have occurred.
Tracking progress and change over time
To understand the true impact of COVID and whether the amount of money that is available for high needs is enough, we need to be collecting quantitative information about the needs of young people, to build up a fuller picture and to show what is working and what is not. Being able to break down the needs into specific areas, not purely academic requirements, but ‘dealing with change’ and ‘interacting with peers’, so we are able to meet these and hopefully reduce the level of need by developing and commissioning the appropriate provision to overcome the long-term impact of COVID.
There is so much we can be doing to understand and improve. All of the information needed will be found in annual reviews and by using digital tools to collect this data, local authorities can really support this important group and make the change needed.