Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Independent Supporters: can anyone answer some very basic questions?

We have had great difficulty in obtaining basic information about the finer details of the Independent Supporters' (IS) initiative. See our last post here.

It seems all roads lead back to the Government's funded Strategic Reform Partner, the Council for Disabled Children (CDC). However, obtaining information from the CDC has not always been easy. One of the big problems with charities taking on work for the state is that they are not covered by the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and we are reliant on their sense of public accountability and transparency to obtain information. For such organisations, publishing the information they want to share and answering other people's questions are, of course, very different things.

Currently, we await a response from the CDC to the questions set out in a letter to the charity SENSE. SENSE are the charity who won the contract to organise the legal training for IS. You may remember that, in respect of 11 of our 19 questions, SENSE referred us back to the CDC. You can read SENSE's response here. We understand SENSE has discussed the letter with the CDC so, hopefully, the CDC will be able to reply promptly given the importance of this information to parents.

In the meantime, we note that the CDC has published some details of the timetable to train Independent Supporters. You can read this here. It appears that IS will receive both legal training and training on their role and remit (including what to do when issues arise which are outside their remit). We also note that training on the role of IS may be made available by the CDC to local authorities but not, it seems, to parents.

We think information about the role and remit of the IS should be within the public domain and that there should be consistency nationally on the operation of this service. We think the 'local protocols' and 'Memoranda of Understanding' referred to by the CDC here should be published. We should know who is signing these agreements and what they say.

We have now written to every organisation who won a contract to deliver the IS service (save for Birmingham Parent as the link on the CDC's website is to Birmingham City Council - surely some mistake?). The list of organisations involved is set out hereOur letter can be read here and we will post all responses.

Why are we so concerned about this intiative? The lack of parental involvement is one issue but the lack of certainty about the true nature of these 'Parent Champions' is also very unfair to parents. Our concerns about IS increase when the CDC make comments like this (read here):

"There was a concern that IS may lead to an increase in tribunals. CL (Christine Lenehan, Director of the CDC) reassured the board that Independent Supporters will be working with and  not against LAs and that legal training is provided to give Independent Supporters an understanding of the legal framework of the reforms, not advice on how challenge LAs on the law."

The fact that this could actually be a measure to provide additional staff for LAs during the 'transition' seems to be supported by comments found here which again appear to be from Ms Lenehan:

"It would be unrealistic to expect Local Authorities (LAs) to continue to meet the costs for all Independent Supporters, once central Government funding expires in 2016."

And again:

"TP (Toby Price of the London Borough of Sutton) mentioned the importance of marketing the IS service to LAs to ensure that they co-operate and work collaboratively with Independent Supporters. MB (Martin Bull of Independent Support) informed the board that bids for phase 1 of IS required a reference from an LA (or if multiple bids at least 1 LA). CL (Christine Lenehan) mentioned that it would be a good idea to put together a piece of work to help Independent Supporters broker good relationships with LAs and that this work should be endorsed by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS)". 

We think that there needs to be clarity about the role and remit of Independent Supporters. We hope the organisations we have written to will agree.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Taking grass roots action: how do we plan for inclusion in practice? The ERA to meet Wiltshire Council

In January, we wrote to Wiltshire Council about their intention to establish an ASC resource base at a school in Salisbury. 

We wanted to know more about how Councils consult and plan for inclusion in practice. It is doubtless true that many local authorities see resource bases as a cost effective method of securing 'inclusion' in the mainstream so we were very keen to see what evidence the Council had to support its decision and how it was involving parents and children with autism in its planning.  Obviously, if inclusion is to have any meaning beyond the mere physical presence of disabled pupils in mainstream schools, it requires careful and widespread consultation and engagement. We think this is certainly required by the Public Sector Equality Duty set out at s.149 of the Equality Act.

You can read our letter here.

The response was very disappointing. The Council said the proposal was “a central part of the drive to develop a more inclusive education for pupils with SEN” but it provided no detailed information to support its plans. We were concerned as the genuine inclusion of pupils with ASC is a highly complex matter requiring advice, research and in-depth discussion with parents and children. See the Council's response here.

After pursuing several requests for further information under the Freedom of Information Act, we were very disappointed to note that the Council's final response seems to confirm:

(i) Wiltshire Council has undertaken no consultation with any group or person with autism about the planning for this particular base.

(ii) Wiltshire Council has no records of its decision-making. This means it has no records supporting the choice of school for this base and it has obtained no written advice from any professional with expertise in autism to assist with its planning to support children's inclusion.

(iii) Wiltshire Council can provide no detail about the nature of the proposed base e.g. it can provide no detail of the numbers of chilldren, the complexitiy of their disabilities, the planned training of staff in the mainstream, the therapies on offer etc.

We think children deserve better than this haphazard planning. As we have noted, inclusion means far more than simply being physically present at a school and it is unacceptable that those with expertise in autism, including parents and children, have not been consulted, or that if they have, no records have been made of their advice.

So, we wrote to all elected members to raise these issues as it is important that democratic representatives are able to excercise democractic accountability. You can read our letter here.

We are extremely pleased to confirm that Councillor Richard Gamble, Wiltshire Council's Portfolio Holder for Education, Skills and Youth, immediately offered to meet us to discuss these matters further.

Our meeting with Mr Gamble will take place tomorrow and we will report on its outcome. We intend to raise all the points above and to ask how the Council can better include parents and children in their planning. Such inclusion should not, of course, be limited to a quick reference to the local Parent Carer Forum but it should be genuine and attempt to access the widest range of voices.

The ERA aims to act openly in all its activities so we will report back on the meeting as soon as we can.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

'On the issue of evidence ...we will have to agree to differ'. On that, at least, we can agree!

This is probably the final instalment in the long running saga of our attempt to engage the Government's Strategic Reform Partner, the charity consortium the Council for Disabled Children (CDC), in open discussion about the evidence supporting the Children and Families Act.

You may remember that their Director, Christine Lenehan, had welcomed the CFA calling it an "important step to getting better outcomes for children and young people".

We wrote to Ms Lenehan about this in March asking her if she had any evidence to support this statement. We received a reply on 28 July. You can read more about this here and here.

We were grateful for Ms Lenehan's response but we wrote back as we felt she hadn't answered our question. You can read our letter here.

Ms Lenehan  promptly replied to our further letter setting out the changes the CDC had 'championed' (i.e. joined-up working, 0-25 approach and the Local Offer). Her response can be read here. Ms Lenehan concluded:

"We believe therefore that the new reforms mark a real opportunity for change and through our networks and partnerships we will be challenging government to ensure they deliver."

It was helpful of Ms Lenehan to share her opinions but the question of evidence had, we felt, still been ignored.

So, we wrote to Ms Lenehan again noting the continued failure to supply examples of any evidence to support her contentions that the reforms are an "important step to getting better outcomes".You can read our letter here

In the letter we noted that we saw no evidence supporting that contention that the legal changes introduced by the CFA will make any discernible difference to most of the day to day struggles parents face (e.g. evidence from pilots, research etc). We also noted the consistent use of rhetoric rather than evidence: e.g. 'parents' champion', 'parents feel more supported than ever', 'co-production' etc etc.

Ms Lenehan has responded with this letter.

It helpfully informs us that disagreements in the disabled children's sector are not uncommon but it confirms that:

'On the issue of evidence ...we will have to agree to differ'

We agree. We will have to disagree because we have asked for evidence and none has been forthcoming. This is disappointing. We can only conclude that the comment was an opinion or a hope rather than a statement supported by concrete evidence. 

Of course, if we are wrong in our conclusion, we are happy to be be put right by public reference to the evidence we have been asking for over the last 6 months.

SENSE responds on Independent Supporters' legal training:"The Educational Rights Alliance need to address this question to CDC"

Ever since the surprise announcement in January that the Government would be providing funding for so-called 'Parent Champions' in the SEN system, we have been asking questions about these 'Independent Supporters' (IS), their role, their mandate and the contract governing their selection.

This has not been an easy task. It seems it has proved challenging for the organisations implementing this proposal to set out the detail of how it will operate in practice. You can read our previous posts and our attempts to obtain information about these 'Champions'  here and here.


We have pursued this issue because we feel that the lack of transparency, consultation and clarity of purpose accompanying this proposal typifies some of the key problems with the Children and Families Act reform process: the exclusion of parents' views, announcements made without evidence or planning, an unwillingness to engage beyond selected groups or individuals and lots of rhetoric and fine words which don't translate easily into practice. As a result, we have several key concerns about the implementation of the 'Independent Support' project:

1. Lack of transparency

£30m was alloted to this time-limited initiative (it lasts until 2016) without any open consultation. It is clear that there were discussions but only with a hand-picked group of organisations (see here), some of whom have since bid for, and won, IS contracts.

This lack of transparency could be said to undermine claims that the Government has been working exclusively in the best interests of children and young people. The exclusion of parents' views from the development of this initiative is also clear from the National Network of Parent Carer Forums' (NNPCF) Position Statement in July. The NPPCF claimed that it had barely been consulted and had not been "involved in strategically developing the programme".

2. Lack of independence

The independence of 'Independent Support' is a clear concern. How independent of local authority (LA) control and influence will they be?

When we wrote to the Department for Education (the DfE) we were told:

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

You can read that post and correspondence here.

SN Jungle posted some interesting information on their blog in July quoting from the minutes of an Early Support and Independent Support Programme Board Meeting. In it, they said the Council for Disabled Children's Director (CDC), Christine Lenehan:

"reassured the board that Independent Supporters will be working with and not against LAs and that legal training is provided to give Independent Supporters an understanding of the legal framework of the reforms, not advice on how challenge LAs on the law.”

You can read this post here.

Additionally, some parents have reported that there is a close connection between the proposed 'Independent Support' service in their area and the existing Parent Partnership Service (now renamed the Information, Advice and Support Services Network). Parents have historically reported mixed experiences with Parent Partnership Services. The close ties between PPS and their Local Authority has led to questions about the impartiality of some services and the blurring of lines between local LA policies and the law.

Put bluntly, 'Independent Supporters' who can't provide accurate, impartial and independent advice to parents and who aren't able to help parents challenge local authorities (LAs) are doing them a grave disservice. Indeed, they are potentially increasing the significant barriers parents already face to obtaining accurate legal information to enforce their children's rights. This is because if 'independent supporters' fail to challenge and advise impartially and in accordance with the law, parents (and their children) will be credited with a benefit they have simply not received. Parents may also rely on advice from 'Independent Support' when they might otherwise have sought independent and impartial legal advice from lawyers or organisations like IPSEA.

3. 'Support' not rights

We are concerned at the intention behind the intitiative. The rhetoric is patronising not empowering e.g. from the CDC's press release here:

"Independent Supporters will help to build resilience in families"


"At its heart, Independent Support is intended to build family resilience and not encourage dependency."

We seriously object to the language of 'dependency' being applied to the parents of children and young people with SEN and disabilities. We have been unable to get any kind of explanation for its use by the CDC.

Also, we believe that the term 'independent support' reflects a culture where parents are belittled and patronised by a system operated by "those who know best". It suggests that what parents really need is 'handholding' and 'signposting'. In reality, what parents and young people urgently require is access to impartial, free and effective legal advice so that they can understand their rights and enforce them. It appears that this is simply not what 'Independent Supporters' are here to provide.

4. The organisations delivering Independent Support

In July, the CDC issued a list of organisations who had won contracts to deliver 'independent support'. The list can be accessed here.

We approached all these organisations on twitter (if they had a twitter presence) asking them what experience they had of SEN law and SEN advising and what they understood the mandate of an 'independent supporter' to be. We got very few replies.

It is notable that some organisations, like the education advice charity IPSEA, are absent from a list which contains the names of many groups parents may struggle to recognise.

5. Legal training

In July, CDC also announced that it had awarded the contract for designing and delivering the legal training of 'independent supporters' to the charity SENSE, Details can be found here.

SENSE are supported in this project by Irwin Mitchell and the barrister Steve Broach.

Effective legal training is obviously vitally important as so many local authorities implement policies rather than the law. Unsurprisingly, we had some further questions to ask.

On 14 July, we wrote to Irwin Mitchell solicitors with some questions. You can read our letter here .

On 29 July, we received a response from Irwin Mitchell which you can read hereIt recognised the significance of effective legal training in enabling parents to access the new system and understand their rights. It also notes the importance of the questions we have raised. However, it confirmed that Steve Broach, Irwin Mitchell and SENSE had agreed that SENSE were best placed to answer the letter because they are leading the project.

In August, we had contact from SENSE after a few chase-up tweets and they confirmed they were liasing with the CDC about answers to our questions so they could provide us with a "full response".

Yesterday, on 3 September, we received this letter from SENSE which they have permitted us to share.

The following points are important:

1. The response to 11 of the 19 questions is simply "The Educational Rights Alliance need to address this question to CDC". This is despite the earlier promises of a 'full response'. We have since been told that the promise of a full response was "misleading". We have, of course, now forwarded our letter to Ms Lenehan of the CDC but it is very disappointing for a parents' group to have to chase for information in this way.

2. It is concerning that the organisation contracted to deliver legal training cannot answer questions about the experience, role or mandate of the individuals they are designing legal training for.

3. The legal training consists of (and this has been clarified): "one day of face to face training (including speaking notes), one day of on-line training and a raft of fact sheets and precedent letters" developed by SENSE, Irwin Mitchell and Steve Broach. It has been confirmed that Irwin Mitchell has already delivered training not to 'Independent Supporters' but to 'trainers' who will then deliver the training to 'Independent Supporters'. Thus, the legal training delivered to 'Independent Supporters' will not necessarily be delivered by lawyers. In fact, we have been told "the trainers are not from Sense and partners – they have been recruited by CDC and you will need to liaise with CDC about their qualifications."

We think that parents could have designed and delivered an independent and impartial legal advice system for far less than £30 million but then we were never consulted or asked if we needed 'independent supporters'.
You can decide for yourself whether this is good enough.

Postscript: the ERA intends to write to all those organisations with IS contracts to inquire about the detail of the service they will offer to parents. Watch this space.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Help us to work with the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists

You may remember that we posted about our concerns about some speech and language therapy practices back in July. We had made contact with the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT) about these concerns and you can about them in our post here.

We are really pleased to report that Kamini Gadhok, the RCLT's Chief Executive, has now invited us to feed into the work they are doing to produce new guidance for speech and language therapists in the SEN system. We are also delighted to hear that a highly experienced education law QC will be providing advice to the RCSLT on this matter.

We very much look forward to providing feedback and we hope that parents, children and young people will continue to contact us with their thoughts and experiences so that we may pass them on.

The Local Offer - a brave new world?

This week, the commencement of the Children and Families Act heralded a new system for the asssessment and delivery of SEN provision for children and young people.

There has been much discussion about whether the Act will, in practice, lead to significant improvements to the daily lives and struggles of families with disabled children and young people. Some are optimistic that the promises and rhetoric about a 'culture change' will translate into real change. Others (frequently those with disabled children) believe that the Act has done little to address some of the core problems with the existing system (amongst them endemic unlawful practices) and that the new language around the Act will do little to change the reality of struggle in a climate of 'austerity'.

It seems that if you look at the detail of the Act, much of the reform process has been a fight to standstill: to ensure children and young people don't lose their rights, their statements and that parents aren't forced to jump through hoops (e.g. the initial proposal for compulsory mediation) to get basic SEN provision.

However, the Act certainly introduces some new procedures. Amongst them, one in particular has been described in glowing terms by charities: the Local Offer.

IPSEA provides some excellent factual information and advice on its fantastic new website and it describes the Local Offer this way:

"The LO should not be just a directory of services or series of links. It must say clearly what the LA expects to be available in terms of:

  • what schools/colleges and other settings will provide from the funding they receive for SEN
  • what schools/ colleges and other settings in its area will provide from the funding they receive to support those with a disability
  • educational, health and care provision
  • training provision
  • transport arrangements between home and school/college/early years settings
  • support for preparing for adulthood and independent living

An LA must consult children, parents and young people in developing this LO and in periodically reviewing it. They must take make sure there is a way for public comments to be made and published about the LO and they must then take them into account."

More information can be found on IPSEA's website and in a factsheet produced by lawyers Irwin Mitchell here.

Clearly, whether the Local Offer actually makes any difference to parents and their children will depend on both the willingness of local authorities to embark on consultation processes which produce genuinely accurate information about the services available and whether the Local Offer itself assists parents in accessing those services. It certainly cannot create services where none exist nor can it prevent services being cut. We are also concerned that health services such as speech and language therapy can sometimes be very hard to access because of their restrictive criteria about who therapists will see. We don't see how a Local Offer will help with this: in a nutshell, knowing a service exists does not mean a child can access it or that it will be any good. Although parents can take judicial review action to address some problems in this area, a judicial review of the Local Offer could not guarantee that any child actually gets the services they need.

The Local Offer came into force this week. On 1 September, all local authorities were supposed to have published their Local Offer. More details about the legal requirements about publishing the Local Offer can be found on the barrister, Steve Broach's blog here.

Fiona Nicholson at EdYourself and Bringing us Together have both produced information about compliance with the Local Offer. You can click on the links to access it. Bringing Us Together suggest that only about a third of local authorities had produced anything by 1st September.

We think this is not good enough. However, we also think that the Government has railroaded through these changes with little time for the slow-moving processes of local authority and NHS bureacracies to adapt. So, we think that the Government should be asked to account for this poor rate of compliance.

We have, today, written to Mr Timpson to make him aware of the situation and to ask if the Department for Education will accept information directly from parents on this issue. Mr Timpson did, after all, make this promise back in July:

"for authorities who are further behind the curve, I’ve made it my business personally to follow up on their progress".

Hopefully, Mr Timpson will indeed do this.

Our letter can be read here and we will post the response when it is received.