Sunday, 26 January 2014

Demand a moratorium on the Children and Families Bill now

The Educational Rights Alliance has been following the progress of the Children and Families Bill keenly.

We have noted the following:

  • the absence of real parental engagement and consultation

  • the lack of involvement by children and young people

  • the domination of large charity consortia in implementing these reforms 

  • the lack of evidence supporting these reforms (see, for example, this article). This includes a failure to reference and build on the substantial evidence already gathered about the SEN system (academic and otherwise) and a failure to engage with the systemic problems widely documented in relation to inclusion and equality

  • the limited and sketchy evidence gathered from Pathfinders. Many LAs are not trialing direct payments despite being offered extra money by the Government to do so. Many who say they are trialling direct payments are merely offering them for provision which could have attracted direct payments without a pilot (e.g. transport).

  • the absence of evidence that the switch to Education Health and Care Plans will result in any improvement in access to education and equality for children with SEN/disabilities

  • the failure on the part of all those groups promoting these reforms to explain what evidence they have that this Bill will make things better for children and young people

  • the significant concern at the potential 'marketisation of SEN provision' - see SENDirect

  • the anxiety expressed by some teachers/SENCOs that the switch to EHCPs will lead to a drive to reduce the number of children with legally enforceable provision

  • the criticism of the new draft SEN Code of Practice. In particular, we note that it may actually make things worse for pupils as it erodes their rights. See responses from IPSEA, EDCM, CDC, Children's Commissioner

  • the lack of a human rights based approach to this legal reform when the reform so clearly touches on individual rights

In view of all these concerns, we believe the progress of the Bill should be halted. 

We believe there should be a moratorium now and that a widespread, open consultation should begin.

The Educational Rights Alliance believes that reform which engages human rights must be forward-looking, progressive and inclusive. Human rights standards should run through this Bill like a thread. The lives and education of our children and young people are too important to be squandered on reforms which lack this commitment or any obvious evidence base.

We ask individuals with SEN and disabilities, parents, academics, charities, teachers, teaching unions,  and schools to stand with us and demand a MORATORIUM.

You can contact your MP directly via this link to make this demand.

And you can also take action by following IPSEA's action plan here.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

The National Autistic Society Autism Accreditation programme - time for a change of policy?

The National Autistic Society has an Autism Accreditation programme that provides "autism specific quality assurance" to over 300 organisations throughout the UK and across the world. The aim of the programme is to improve the quality of care for people with autism by:

 "providing a unified standard of excellence in both policy and practice"
"presenting a systematic framework for continuous self-examination and development"
"giving guidance and support to the services who use our programme so that they can meet the established criteria required for accredited status."
Many different kinds of organisations have been accredited, including local authorities, NHS trusts, schools, education authorities and private companies. 

These aims are laudable and we support the NAS in its goal of improving services for people with autism and their families.

However, there are significant downsides to how this process works. Autism Accreditation doesn't publish the "established criteria" that must be met in order to be accredited. How high or low are these standards? We don't know. So how can families be assured that an accredited body is meeting a good standard, when there is no substantive information about what accreditation means? 

A more serious situation can arise if an organisation goes through the accreditation process and then fails, or passes but with weaknesses. There is no requirement on the part of the organisation nor Autism Accreditation to publish the service audit. In fact the opposite applies. The NAS website states:

"Autism Accreditation has gone to great lengths to make this [accreditation] process as fair and transparent as possible.."
"The evidence collated by the review team and the review team's findings are a matter of confidentiality between the service and Autism Accreditation and will not be shared with third parties without your consent"
Fairness and transparency only work one way though- to the benefit of the paying client and to the detriment of the service user. Certainly some organisations do voluntarily publish accreditation reports, but many do not. Why would an organisation that failed accreditation publish? Where does this leave service users and their families? Do they not have a right to know whether the service they are using is good or poor?

This was brought into sharp relief by a decision made by the Information Commissioner's Office on 6 January. It concerned the NAS's Autism Accreditation service and North Yorkshire County Council. NYCC asked Autism Accreditation to audit its service in 2012 as part of a strategic review. A local parent group asked to see the audit so they could respond more effectively to the Council's then consultation on autism services for children. The Council refused, and the parent group appealed to the ICO. (It is worth noting that a public body spending money on a public service did not deem it in the interests of the public to see how well that service was run.)

In his decision in favour of the parent group the Information Commissioner cited the following reasons:

  • Failure to disclose [the audit] could potentially indirectly discriminate against autistic children as they would not have the benefit of knowing which schools the auditors consider to provide the best performance to meet their children's particular needs or if their child's school could be performing better as regards to the needs of their child. 
  • There is a strong public interest in allowing the public access to information on how schools compare to each other and whether they provide as good a service as others. 
  • The local authority can be called to account by parents. 
  • Allow parents to make an informed choice as to the most appropriate schools for their children
  • Allow for a more informed dialogue between parents and local authority. 

    We believe the forthright reasons given in this case apply more broadly to the work carried out by NAS Autism Accreditation, particularly concerning potential discrimination. Given this clear decision by the ICO, and the unacceptable levels of confidentiality applied to audits, we are calling on the NAS to change its policy so that the default position is timely public disclosure of all audit/accreditation documents and evidence on public bodies written or collected by NAS Autism Accreditation . 

    It is time to put people with autism and their families first, not paying clients.

    Our letter to the NAS is attached.

    Who are independent supporters?

    On 7 January 2014, the Department for Education announced that: 

    "More than 1,800 champions will be on hand from this September to help parents navigate the new special educational needs process following a £30 million funding boost".
    In his press release, the Minister for Children and Families, Edward Timpson, suggested that part of an Independent Supporter's brief would be to help "challenge" local authority decision-making on behalf of families.

    The Council for Disabled Children (CDC) has been appointed by the Department to develop the detail. They say they will:
    "run an initial ‘trial’ phase over the next few months looking at different delivery methods and develop appropriate training. This will be achieved through a robust and transparent procurement exercise inviting bids from private, voluntary and community sector organisations to develop the services. CDC will assess the bids, ensure best value and commission the work".
    The CDC has issued a briefing which sets out some of the detail around the proposal. The briefing also claims that:
    "Independent Supporters will help to build resilience in families"
     And that:
    "At its heart, Independent Support is intended to build family resilience and not encourage dependency."
    Our response

    We are concerned at the language used in this briefing, the apparent lack of engagement with parents on this issue and the absence of detail, so we have written a letter to the Minister asking for more information.

    Read our letter here.

    Ofsted and local authority SEN services

    On 7 January 2014, in the House of Lords, Lord Nash made reference to an OFSTED study into local authority specialist services to investigate how children and young people with SEN have their needs identified.

    Ofsted offers a potentially crucial form of oversight of LA practices and services so the Educational Rights Alliance has written formally to the head of  Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw to ask about the scope of this study and to offer to participate.

    Read our letter now and contact us if you have any views or you'd like to get involved.