EHCP – Navigating a path for families in a struggling system
Debby Elley explores the need for a shift in our understanding and utilisation of EHCPs and how reimagining their role could provide families with a more stable foundation in an increasingly challenged system…
- by Debby Elley
Why schools and parents need to think differently about EHCPs
Debby Elley explains how reimagining the role of education, health and care plans could give families a surer footing in a faltering system…
The year is 2014. England fails to get past the first round of the World Cup in Brazil. The ice bucket challenge is in full swing. Elsa is still belting out ‘Let It Go’. Meanwhile, the world of education sees the introduction of education, health and care plans.
The England squad’s fortunes may have improved since then. However, nearly a decade on, EHCPs are becoming bogged down amid an increasing volume of bureaucracy.
There are currently over 500,000 out there, only half of which were issued within the prescribed 20 weeks. And with those growing numbers have come mounting delays in the completion and updating of documents.
It’s a challenging landscape for schools to navigate. But there are some steps you can take to change your own EHCP administration for the better, making for less bureaucracy and better quality plans.
Firstly, let’s not use EHCPs to outline basic standards of inclusive provision. Broad inclusive practices are essential, because they don’t need thinking about on a daily basis.
They simply help to foster the kind of environment in which SEND pupils are less likely to experience overload. The upshot of this is that there will be fewer daily struggles.
What we need are EHCPs focused around a core purpose of pinpointing additional interventions, rather than daily fire-fighting.
This is what my co-author Gareth D. Morewood refers to as a ‘proactive, rather than reactive’ approach, which is central to the model of inclusion we outline in our recent book Championing Your Autistic Teen at Secondary School.
Adopting a whole-school approach to inclusion will ensure that nasty surprises are kept to a minimum, and that trust between families and school remains high.
“What we need are EHCPs focused around a core purpose of pinpointing additional interventions”
Lack of regular contact
Parents tend to feel safer once they’ve secured an EHCP, since it’s a legally binding document. If you haven’t built those levels of trust, don’t be surprised if parents want their EHCP to include and cover everything.
A lack of regular contact between parents and settings can also affect annual reviews. I’m often surprised at how many families believe they’re expected to sit on their hands and wait for their next official meet-up.
This is rather than feeling able to pop in for regular short face-to-face chats with their SENCo about what’s working well and what may need a rethink.
I’ve experienced these kinds of short catch-ups as a parent myself. I’ve found that they were highly effective at helping to forge a trusting relationship.
Such meetings give everyone the chance to work as a team. They can lead to better discussions of what’s possible within the setting at the next EHCP review.
Carers who don’t have regular contact with their school can come to feel uneasy. So it’s hardly surprising if they then crave certainty at their EHCP reviews. Families who lack trust in a setting can have the tendency to turn their EHCP into a highly prescriptive wishlist, says Greg Loynes of Inscape House School – a provider of outreach support for mainstream schools in 14 local boroughs.
“The amount of times an EHCP will dictate myriad interventions…and when you add them all up, it’s more than a school day,” he says. “A well-written EHCP should last for a whole Key Stage. You’ll review it every year, and maybe tweak it. But an inflexible EHCP doesn’t allow for that, and will soon become outdated and unworkable.”
It’s important to be open and honest with parents over the resources the school has, and how they can best make use of them. Also crucial is that there be some guidance during the review meeting to prevent the content from becoming too inflexible.
It’s advisable for any chairperson to outline an EHCP’s true remit and then immediately focus on outcomes first. This is rather than shunting the outcomes discussion to the end of the list.
Putting carers in the picture requires openness. However, pretending there aren’t any difficulties relating to resources will only lead to anger, or parents feeling that you’ve hoodwinked them.
Bear in mind that families typically won’t be aware of exactly how the EHCP process itself actually works. They can often feel in the dark over what’s meant to happen next. You’d be amazed at how much a full explanation will help.
Poorly attended EHCP reviews can also be an issue. Documents run the risk of being lopsided at best, or outdated and inaccurate at worst.
The capacity of health and therapy professionals to attend and contribute to annual reviews can present challenges. They need time to write and submit bespoke contributions. Six weeks’ notice is generally the absolute minimum required for them to be able to provide any input.
Allowing outside professionals sufficient time will allow their contributions to follow a consistent format. This will, in turn, make it easier and quicker for the EHCP to include their final recommendations.
In terms of attendance, some settings adopt a termly approach to their invites. They compile a list of all children due a review over the coming term, which seems to work well. One school I spoke to even gives everyone 12 months’ notice.
That said, there are some realities we need to acknowledge. I’ve attended meetings where a health professional has had to wait some time before making their contribution. Ideally, everyone should be present throughout, but in practice, that’s typically not possible. It’s better to offer 15-minute slots in meetings upfront, rather than risk having no discussion at all. Presenting this as an option could mean the difference between getting the input you need and being turned down altogether.
Mixing and matching virtual meetings with face-to-face encounters isn’t perfect, but it’s better than nothing. Even just a small amount of attendance can stop you making plans that later prove to be unworkable.
Great schools will also hold pre-review brainstorming meetings with teaching staff. This is so that you can prepare them with essential information on progress and interventions.
One aspect of the current system that urgently needs changing, however, is how the onus is on schools to be almost entirely responsible for an EHCP’s progress, including chasing submissions.
In Greg Loynes’ view, it’s unfair for education settings to be shouldering such stressful and time-consuming work, when LAs could and should be doing more to make things easier.
And yet, despite all the measures that you can take to make EHCPs more focused, their format isn’t well-suited to practical classroom use.
The best settings will thus employ a host of strategies that bridge an individual’s EHCP and their classroom needs. This might include one-page profiles that include a photograph of the student and contain essential information for teachers, presented from the student’s viewpoint.
“It’s unfair for education settings to be shouldering such stressful and time-consuming work”
Gareth Morewood advocates using ‘Stress Support Plans’ to identify and offset potential daily obstacles. You can compile these with input from students, parents and teachers.
In our book, we also recommend that parents create simple charts to communicate potential issues, their causes and classroom strategies that have previously worked well.
I’ve done that myself. I knew it had worked when I arrived at parents’ evening and didn’t have to explain autism to anyone I met with.
Once parents can establish that kind of trust, they won’t feel the need to throw the kitchen sink into their EHCP. Because it’s not just the England squad that can benefit from better teamwork.
The Council for Disabled Children has developed a suite of free EHCP e-learning courses that cover following areas:
- Delivering Quality Annual Reviews
- The role of CAMHS in the EHCP process
- Holistic outcomes in EHCPs
- Focus on Health Advice
To find out more and register a place, visit learning.councilfordisabledchildren.org.uk
Training provided by Gareth D. Morewood that’s centred on a whole-school approach to improving integration and support for SEND students. Find out more at studio3.org/education
Untangling education, health and care plans
More families than ever are applying for education, health and care plans, but that doesn’t mean they’re being used as intended…
You don’t need to work in education to understand why news of a proposed 20% reduction in Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCP) has caused considerable alarm.
That’s just one of the intended outcomes from the government’s ‘Delivering Better Value in SEND’ (DBV) programme. This also aims to encourage less reliance on specialist settings in favour of bolstering SEND provision within mainstream schools.
The government is at pains to emphasise, however, that the headlines have got it wrong. Responding to questions raised by the parent-led group Special Needs Jungle, the DfE SEND team clarified that the much-quoted ‘20% fewer’ figure referred to a cut in projected EHCP growth. This was rather than the total number of EHCPs issued at present.
It’s little wonder that EHCPs have become their focus of late. The number of initial EHCP requests during 2022 was 114,457 – up a whopping 23% on the previous year.
But if we are to reduce the projected number of EHCPs – and if the majority of SEN pupils are to remain in mainstream settings – then Phase One of the DBV (identifying and collating good practice) will need to uncover why there’s been such a growth in demand.
Compromised, but essential
We shouldn’t take the fact that parents so commonly request EHCPs as an indication they’re working well. In fact, a whole host of bureaucratic and financial factors are currently compromising their efficacy. And yet, despite the problems, EHCPs remain essential – just not for the reasons you might expect.
The initial phase of the DBV will hopefully uncover the elephant in the room. This is that parents are using EHCPs as a failsafe to guard against the inadequacies of SEN support across our mainstream education system.
Cash-strapped schools are also relying on them to meet even the most basic of SEN needs, which current budgets won’t allow.
The two issues are intertwined. They both contribute to a marked rise in demand, and increased tensions between education staff and parents.
“Parents are using EHCPs as a failsafe to guard against the inadequacies of SEN support across our mainstream education system”
Families will often seek to get EHCPs in place during primary school. When you consider that it can take over four years just to get an autism diagnosis, you can see why parents aren’t inclined to hang about.
Mainstream secondaries also generally don’t have a great reputation when it comes to SEND. Horror stories quickly spread among SEND parents, whose motto may as well be ‘Be Prepared’.
For many parents, an EHCP therefore amounts to a safety harness they affix to their youngster before assuring them that abseiling down a cliff ‘will be fine’. It’s become their protection for environments that are fundamentally non-inclusive.
Protections and proof
This begs the question – if so many people are using EHCPs as protections within non-inclusive settings, why don’t we try and make secondary schools more neurodiverse-friendly?
That might sound like wishful thinking. However, as things currently stand, we’re often relying on small pockets of intervention as a defence against a problem that runs wide and deep.
One mother told me that her son’s EHCP ‘Proves to his school that it’s not unfair to be treated differently.’ If the correct definition of ‘equality’ hasn’t been actively embedded in a school’s culture, it’s hardly the job of an individual’s EHCP to enforce it.
Other parents have reported that getting an EHCP helped them to protect their youngster’s mental health by building awareness and ensuring that staff actually believe them. This is particularly when a pupil’s needs aren’t immediately apparent.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a parent say, ‘School says he’s coping; I see a different story.’ The EHCP has become a way of proving that ‘different story’ to any doubters.
When a child’s needs aren’t obvious, families may well be shocked at the level of ignorance they encounter. But then that’s hardly surprising when you consider the level of SEND training that teachers receive. Autism training, for example, should be detailed enough to shine a light on behaviours such as ‘masking’. Insightful autistic teenagers will sometimes use this as a survival tool in order to fit in.
If the training is basic, then the level of understanding in our nation’s classrooms will reflect that.
Sources of conflict
It would also be good to move away from the kind of dedicated ‘SEND training’ that’s here one INSET day and gone the next. Instead we should focus on teacher training that promotes inclusive practice as standard. I recently joined forces with education specialist Gareth D. Morewood for our book Championing Your Autistic Teen in Secondary School, in which we relate simple strategies that can benefit all pupils and deliver calmer environments. Individual – generally smaller – schools are making progress in this area, but they’re still notable exceptions.
Greg Loynes is assistant headteacher at the Together Trust’s Inscape House School in Cheshire. This is a specialist independent setting for autistic pupils. Part of his remit is to advise the mainstream settings in 14 nearby boroughs.
In Loynes’ view, “There is no detriment to a lesson delivered in an autism-friendly way, because it’s going to have a clear structure, clear outcomes, clear progression through tasks and it will be visual, as well as verbal.”
My own autistic son had an EHCP that wasn’t bogged down with detailed minutiae. It also didn’t become a source of conflict. This was because his setting, Priestnall School in Stockport, invested in a culture of inclusion. This was proactively encouraged by leaders who had engaged a highly-prized curriculum support team.
It also enjoyed a partnership with the nearby Inscape House School. This allowed Priestnall’s SEND pupils to periodically benefit from specialist support without having to move schools permanently. This proved expensive in the short-term, but more cost-effective in the long-run. The Autism Education Trust’s Good Autism Practice Report highlighted this partnership model.
Fear and mistrust
Borrowing SEND practices from specialist settings could also have a significant impact when it comes to managing behaviour, creating less stressful environments.
Inscape House was among the first schools in the country to adopt the School Wide Positive Behaviour Support approach. As Greg Loynes explains, “We’re working at the sharp end of challenging behaviour, and we’re turning kids around. In mainstream schools, these kids are being excluded and facing detention. In essence, schools are punishing them because they’re neurodiverse and the school isn’t meeting their needs.
“A positive behaviour support approach looks at the function of behaviour, and what need it’s trying to meet. Lots of kids are trying to self-regulate in mainstream settings, but aren’t able to.”
Flexible, imaginative approach
Mainstream schools’ non-inclusive reputation has meant that parents of children with SEND feel pressurised to oversee their children’s EHCPs like hawks.
This didactic approach can lead to conflict, however. This is because it doesn’t allow supportive schools to adopt a flexible or imaginative approach in an effort to generate positive outcomes.
Where schools are unable to honour an EHCP wishlist down to the letter, owing to budgetary constraints, trust between both sides breaks down and legal daggers are drawn. This makes for yet another nail in the coffin of co-production.
A combination of fear and mistrust is why the darned things have become so seismic and unwieldy. Does the teacher of a 32-strong class have the time to read even one, never mind multiple 40+ page documents and implement what they contain? Those that can will rely on a SENCo to do that for them. Otherwise, the chances of a school translating an EHCP into good practice are pretty much non-existent.
When the Delivering Better Value in SEND programme comes to investigate EHCPs, their planning, content, delivery and updates will be carefully scrutinised. This is as it should be. But from a wider perspective, EHCPs could become much more effective tools overall. Take away the cliff, and you’ll no longer need such huge safety harnesses.
Debby Elley is the co-founder of AuKids magazine and co-author, with Gareth D. Morewood of Championing Your Autistic Teen at Secondary School (£14.99, Jessica Kingsley Publishers). Receive a 20% discount off the book’s RRP when ordering from jkp.com by entering the code ‘Champ 20’ at checkout until July 2024.