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.”
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 here. It 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.
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.