Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Children and Families Act: "Better outcomes for children"? Where's the evidence?

The Children and Families Bill has become an Act

We have been vocal in raising our concerns about the Bill (see our blog post demanding a moratorium for example). 

We have tried to ask questions about the absence of evidence supporting these reforms and we have persistently requested explanations from those organisations who have been leading the implementation of the reforms on the part of the Government.

We have been deeply disappointed at the lack of response. It appears that many organisations have been unable and/or unwilling to justify their whole-hearted embrace of these reforms. Similarly, there has been precious little in the way of concrete explanation to support the argument that these reforms will improve the lives of disabled children and their families. 

In terms of evidence, there have been multiple Pathfinder pilots but they are not genuine pilot studies as no one has waited for the evidence to be gathered from them before making decisions about what works and what doesn't. Further, considerable reliance has been placed by some organisations on the seemingly welcoming jargon and rhetoric (e.g. the use of terms like 'co-production') which accompanied the Bill when much of this rhetoric has not been translated into binding obligations on the face of the legislation. We already know that LAs do not follow the current law and we cannot see how has the Government improved the rights of children with this new legislation.

The result of this legislative process is chaos. A very brief recent report on BBC South (starts from around 10.56), scratches the surface of this. A Council leader, for example, describes them as "complicated reforms" which are unlikely to "bed in quickly". Compare this to the promise in the Green Paper of a more straightforward, streamlined system which will be easier for parents to navigate.

This a massive problem because making systems more complex, reduces their transparency. It also makes it much harder for parents to know and assert their rights on behalf of (and with) their children. If parents cannot navigate the system, how does this empower them or improve the protection of disabled children's rights?

'Independent Supporters' are not the answer to this as their role is not to challenge local authority decisions. However, the fact that the Government has had to promise £30 million for the creation of 'Independent Supporters' to support local authorities (LAs) in the switch to Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) is testament to the complexity of the system and, no doubt, the panic in local government. These 'supporters' may have little to do with 'championing' parents' cases as they appear to be little more than an information source - see our latest blog post on Independent Supporters'. Of course, whose information is being distributed and for what purpose are questions yet to be answered.

Why the applause?

Yet, despite this, there were organisations who instantly responded to the Bill's passing with a twitter 'yipee'. Why? We thought we would ask them to explain their support. Every time we did, the response was almost universal silence.

The Council for Disabled Children (CDC), who won the commercial tender to become the Department for Education's 'strategic partner' in these reforms, similarly applauded the Bill's passing. The CDC is the umbrella body for the disabled children’s sector in England. It seeks to represent over 120 organisations: details can be found here.

Its Director said:
“The Children’s (sic) and Families Act marks an important step to getting better outcomes for disabled children and young people and (sic) with special educational needs."
We believe much more must be done by those who have supported this legislation to explain the statements they make about its positive potential.

Consequently, we have written to the Council for Disabled Children with a simple question:
"To date we have been unable to find evidence that the Act will improve outcomes for disabled children and children with SEN, and so we would be interested in seeing the evidence you rely on in making this statement, and the underlying associated data."
You can read our letter here.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

House of Commons Select Committee inquiry: CAMHS

We posted in February setting out details of a House of Commons Select Committee inquiry into CAMHS and asking for your help. Read the details here.

Your response was fantastic. Thank you!

We have now submitted a paper taking into account the feedback we have received from parents and professionals.

We need to ask for permission before we use the paper publicly so watch this space.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

“The role of Independent Supporters is not to challenge local authority decisions”


You may remember the Department for Education’s (DfE) fanfare announcement of £30 million for the creation of ‘SEN Champions’, also known as Independent Supporters (IS).

Many organisations immediately applauded this initiative despite the complete lack of detail and limited consultation surrounding the proposal.

We were sceptical and so we raised questions - see our previous blog post here.  We wrote a letter to the DfE setting out our concerns. You can read that here.

In February, the DfE responded – see our blog post here. A copy of the DfE’s letter can be found here.

We felt it didn’t answer all the questions so we wrote another letter and produced a response document.

We received a response on 3rd March which we are now posting here.

Our response

We thank the DfE for its response but remain concerned about the purpose of these proposals and the potential misdirection about their substance. Our response is as follows:

A service for parents?

First, we remain unconvinced that this is a proposal which will substantially benefit disabled children and young people. Indeed, it now seems clear that Independent Supporters are less ‘SEN Champions’ and more a bureaucratic mechanism to help LAs manage the change to Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) by providing additional staff to give parents details about the new EHCP system and avoid chaos in the changeover.

This seems to be confirmed by the DfE’s comment that:

They are intended to add to the existing services that local authorities can draw upon to support families, not to replace them.”

So they are services for LAs to draw on - and we thought they were champions for parents.

Access for all?

Second, we asked whether there would be open access to the service. It appears not. The DfE confirms that Independent Supporters should be:
"“targeted at families in most need of support. How it will work in practice will vary in each local area."

Does this mean that LAs will decide who gets access? The DfE has not disputed this. Neither has it confirmed who will decide which families are ‘most in need of support’ 

This is deeply unsatisfactory. It leaves parents with an inconsistent service which is largely dependent on local arrangements. It also potentially prioritises the needs of LAs (who cannot always be relied upon to act consistently or lawfully) above the needs of disabled children and young people.

Supporting families to take action?     

Third, we asked : will Independent Supporters be able to advise families taking action against LAs, including at Tribunal? 

The DfE initially responded ambivalently:

“The nature of Independent Support will vary, depending on the needs and circumstances of individual families”
 However, in reality, the answer is clearly 'NO' as the DfE has confirmed:
 “The role of Independent Supporters is not to challenge local authority decisions, rather to make sure families and young people have all the information and support needed to play a full part in assessment and planning and make their views properly heard.” 
So, in reality, they’re not ‘champions’  at all. They provide the LAs' information about the system to parents.
The evidence supporting Independent Supporters
Fourth, we asked for copies of all the evidence directly supporting the announced proposal for Independent Supporters. We were given generic references to the Lamb report (2009), the Green Paper (2011) and the Draft Code of Practice consultation (such as it was).
It is disappointing that the proposal was never in the public domain and open to public discussion before its announcement as a fait accompli. We are not aware of any individual or organisation who has advocated the creation of ‘independent supporters’ in the form proposed. If you do, let us know.

We would also like to know how the DfE chose the organisations it decided to speak to and why those organisations did not press for wider debate.

The absence of open consultation
Fifth, we raised our concerns at the lack of open consultation. The DfE response was that:

“All individual Parent Carer Forums were not directly engaged prior to the announcement, but as my earlier letter made clear we did engage their National Network. The SEC and a wide range of other organisations were directly contacted on the day of the announcement and the Department and CDC welcome any comments from SEC and other organisations as the details of the programme are developed.”
This is not good enough. 

We believe there has been too much 'behind the scenes' discussion between the DfE and selected organisations throughout the reform process. However, decisions made by public bodies about the use of public funds which affect the lives of vulnerable families should be open to the highest levels of scrutiny and discussion. Further, we think the Public Sector Equality Duty obliges public bodies to have due regard to those who are protected under the Equality Act when making their decisions. Where was the stakeholder engagement with protected groups?
We also think it is disingenuous to suggest that debate will be welcomed after a decision has already been made and the money has been put in place. The scheme has already been decided on. Further, we have yet to see any evidence that the Council for Disabled Children (CDC) is willing to engage in discussion on the substance or implementation of this proposal. Indeed, thus far, they have left the DfE to respond for them rather than provide direct answers to our questions.
We would ask:
  • Does the Special Educational Consortium (SEC) consider that being informed on the day of an announcement is acceptable? If not, we would invite them to take this up with CDC and the DfE. They should also consider taking up the offer to make representations on the IS scheme.
  • Similarly, if Parent Carer Forums (PCFs) are unhappy about their National Network engaging in discussions without consulting them, we would urge them to raise this with the NNPCF and to hold their national network to account.
 Silence from the CDC
Sixth, we think it is deeply disappointing that a charity whose brief is to represent the interests of disabled children (CDC) has not been more forthcoming with information about why it is undertaking this project for the Government. The DfE tells us
“the CDC has already received more than 250 enquiries from individuals and organisations, the majority of which have expressed an interest in delivering Independent Support.  CDC will invite bids from a wide range of private, voluntary and community sector organisations in the late spring/ early summer.”
We contacted the CDC again after it started advertising for posts but it has not responded and has left the DfE to reply for it rather than explain its involvement. We think it should explain why it believes this initiative will help families given the specific restraints set out above. We also believe it should explain its extraordinary use of terms like ‘culture of dependency’ and ‘resilience’. They are patronising and derogatory and have no place in the SEN debate.

A confidential contract?

Finally, we asked the DfE why it believed its contract with the CDC for the delivery of this project is confidential. It was not put out to open tender. We have simply been told, again:

The specific sums identified for the CDC’s management fee to deliver the Independent Support programme are confidential”.

We have already been informed by the DfE that many of the core provisions relating to the implementation process (e.g. the ‘robust’ procedures for tendering and securing the independence of Independent Supporters) will be set out in this contract. So, how can it be right that it is withheld from public consideration?

We have made a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 for the release of this document. If the DfE thinks it has grounds to withhold it, it should set out which statutory exemption applies.

Were you involved in the discussions with the DfE? What do you think?

The DfE tells us that it consulted the following organisations prior to its announcement:

  • Action for Children
  • The Association of Directors of Children’s Services
  • Barnardo’s 
  • Contact a Family
  • The Council for Disabled Children 
  • KIDS
  • The National Network of Parent carer Forums
  • The National Development Team for Inclusion
  • Scope
  • The Together Trust
We have told you our views. We would very much like to hear the views of any, or all, of these organisations.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Why we are demanding justice for LB (Connor Sparrowhawk) and all our young people

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” 

Article 1 UNDHR

Many people reading this will already be aware of the appallingly unnecessary death of Connor Sparrowhawk (movingly known to his family as LB – ‘laughing boy’). Connor’s life was tragically cut short by profound failings in his treatment and care whilst at a short-term assessment unit run by Southern Health. Connor, who had autism, learning disabilities and epilepsy, drowned in the bath at the treatment centre. The independent report into his death, which can be found here, concluded his death was preventable. The unit had already been the subject of a damning inspection report by the CQC after his death which can be read here.
We have followed the story of Connor, his life and his death, through the impassioned and eloquent writings of his mother, Sara Ryan on her blog: My Daft Life. Connor was clearly unique and much loved.
We wanted to add our words of support to Connor’s family at this dreadful time. We wanted to say how much we support them and how much we admire the way they have pursued justice for him. They honour Connor with their actions and dignity.
But our sympathy cannot change anything and change is what we need because we have had enough of our young people being treated as second class citizens because of their disabilities. We are tired of having them considered a burden and/or ‘too expensive’. We are outraged by the profound indifference and hostility they may encounter from those who are paid to help them

We demand change now. We demand justice: for Connor and all disabled children and young people.
Human rights and justice now
We believe that ensuring respect for disabled people's inherent rights to dignity and equality are essential first steps in any process of change. Nelson Mandela said that “to deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity”. This is self-evidently true, yet, time and time again, we witness the denial of basic rights in relation our own children. In being denied their human rights, they are, as Mandela said, being dehumanized.
Why does this happen when the legal and moral imperatives for change are on their side? The law protects them and yet it does not operate to safeguard their interests in practice. Why?
We need to start demanding answers to these questions and we need to start using the legal language of human rights to exact change at every level: social, political and economic. We must put an end to indifference and the casual violation of children’s rights and the rights of disabled people. We put this bluntly because injustice deserves no disguise, fine words or positive spin.
We should not forget that, although it is easy to isolate us or sideline us from the main debates on politics, health and education, the law remains on our side. The international human rights framework can obviously be applied in the education and health context and we should use it. In addition, the Equality Act 2010 entitles our young people to equal treatment which is more than a prohibition on discrimination: it is a right to have difference respected as a matter of law.

By demanding respect for rights, we emphasise the inviolable nature of our children’s fundamental dignity in all matters that affect them, no matter how challenging this is for others. We demand that decision-making and actions are conducted and carried out in ways which promote and safeguard their rights from violation. We shift focus from “servicing” the “needs” of our children and young people to building their capacity to understand, claim and fulfil their rights. We also specifically reinforce the legal obligations on state authorities to understand, respect, promote and guarantee these rights.

So we say to all those who possess a louder voice than us, including the large charities working in this field, that it is never the wrong time to do the right thing.

Stand with us.

Demand justice for LB and all our young people.

Speak out for equality and challenge inequality.

Shout loudly that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.

Work tirelessly to make this mean something in practice.