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Shake-up of SEN hampered by lack of evidence

Minister admits pilot work on the changes is still ‘embryonic’

The biggest shake-up of the special educational needs (SEN) system for 30 years is being hampered by a lack of evidence about the costs and impact of key reforms, it has emerged.

Pilot schemes to test fundamental changes to the system, which include giving parents personal budgets to spend on their children and replacing statements with combined education, health and care plans, are to be doubled in length to three years to gather more information.

Children’s minister Edward Timpson has admitted that some of the work done so far is “embryonic” and that the legislation needed to usher in the new arrangements may be pushed back in order to “get it right”.

Giving evidence to MPs at the Commons Education Select Committee earlier this month, Mr Timpson said that some “good evidence” has been collected, but added: “In other areas, we still need more evidence - particularly, for instance, around personal budgets - to be satisfied that we will be able to come up with the right regulations and code of practice.”

He said “embryonic” work is taking place that would be “helpful to have as we go through the passage of the bill”.

The legislative process for the new SEN arrangements was due to start in early 2013, with the reforms to be introduced in 2014. Mr Timpson said it is “still very much” his intention to have the legislation on the statute book by early 2014, but explained: “I want to make sure we get this legislation right. If that means a short delay in the introduction of the bill, then so be it.

“In the meetings that I have already had with members of the special educational needs groups, parents and those taking part in the pathfinders (pilots), it is clear that there are some issues that have been raised about whether the legislation is clear enough, sharp enough and whether it sets out in a robust form what the rights of parents and young people will be.”

Other evidence submitted to the select committee highlighted concerns about a lack of evidence for the SEN overhaul.

“It is important not to underestimate the groundwork needed to put in place such significant cultural and working practice changes,” said Jean Haigh, regional lead for the pilot in seven local authorities in the South East of England, in a written statement to MPs.

“This all takes time and it is only now that the first education, health and care plans are coming into fruition nationally,” she added. “This means that the evidence which shows how they work in the medium to longer term is not yet available.

“Nor is there sufficient evidence about the potential costs of the new system or the structures that will be required to implement them. We are concerned that there may be unforeseen impacts that will only become clear after the plans have been in place for at least a year.”

Christopher Robertson, lecturer in inclusive and special education at the School of Education, University of Birmingham, said that Mr Timpson had “come fairly close to admitting development work on the pathfinders was insufficient to build policy”.

“But there is still a question now about how adequately lessons learned from the pathfinders will be able to be incorporated into legislation,” he added.

Paul Williams, head of Shaftesbury High School in northwest London and chair of the SEN committee at the NAHT heads’ union, said the delay was “sensible”.

“This is perceived as the most important legislation in SEN since 1981, so there needs to be an appropriate amount of time to ensure that views are heard and acted upon, and solutions are found to issues that emerge,” he said.

TES, 01 December 2012

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