Samantha Hale: Vulnerable pupils left playing waiting game

THE first days at school are a mixed bag of excitement and worry for children up and down the country. But for children with special educational needs, it is an event that demands careful planning and management.

Last month, my firm’s latest research into the state of our education system revealed that plans designed to help children with special educational needs in Yorkshire starting secondary school were delayed in more than 20 per cent of cases. That translates into more than 200 children – many of whom are among the most vulnerable in the education system. It is simply not acceptable.

There are currently nearly 27,000 children and young people with a Statement of SEN (special educational needs) or an EHCP (education, health and care plan) in Yorkshire. Around 1,200 of those started secondary school earlier this month.

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Local authorities have a legal duty to put plans in place by the February preceding a child’s transition to secondary school. Despite this, 213 children were left waiting for their plans across Yorkshire.

Uncertainty is a huge issue for these special children and for their families who have to work extra hard to make any change a success, but this deadline is nothing new for local authorities to comply with. It has in fact been set in stone for some time. It even pre-existed the changes to the SEN system from the Children and Families Act 2014.

Even so, when challenged on specific delays, one council told us that it viewed February as a guideline rather than a firm and legal deadline. Frankly, it is a shocking misunderstanding of the law and a real cause for concern that some councils seem to be missing the whole reason why the deadline has been put in place.

Some children prefer to visit their new school and speak to their new teachers several times during spring and summer before the term ends, so that everything isn’t entirely new in September. But if they don’t know which school they will be attending, this vital exercise is impossible.

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A headteacher said: “We will have to work so much harder with September’s intake because we have no idea who our pupils are and what they need to move forward.”

By now, local authorities should be well versed in their legal duties in relation to children with SEN transferring to secondary school. Furthermore, they should have adequate resources and processes in place to ensure that this legal deadline is met, in all but the most extraordinary cases. It is therefore unacceptable that local authorities are not only missing this deadline, but are doing so in a significant number of cases. Unfortunately, Yorkshire is not alone. This is a trend across England with councils missing the deadline for thousands of children.

The failure of local authorities to comply with this particular area impacts on both the children and their families in a number of ways.

Firstly, it jeopardises the ability of the family, school staff and the professionals supporting the child to collaboratively design and implement a suitable transition plan. This can make the difference between a school placement being a success or a failure.

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Secondly, for those families where the local authority has failed to include suitable provision to meet the child’s needs, and in some cases name a suitable school placement, the failure to comply with the legal deadline could mean that they were unable to appeal against the contents of it to a specialist tribunal before secondary school started.

The combined effect of these failings can be catastrophic for the child – with the uncertainty causing them to suffer high levels of anxiety.

I am not exaggerating when I say that this has a profound impact on their mental and physical wellbeing. It is not acceptable that any child should suffer such stress – especially not children who are already finding education a daily challenge.

It is absolutely crucial that local authorities are held to account, and that action has to be led by families. Anyone affected by these failings should raise their hand and make themselves heard.

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There is legal advice available on how to challenge local authorities who have acted in a way that deprives a child of their right to a suitable education, and the right of their parents to launch an appeal in time for it to matter.

Samantha Hale is an education solicitor at law firm Simpson Millar.