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.

No comments:

Post a Comment