Wednesday, 3 September 2014

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.

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