Last reviewed 21 July 2013

As the pathfinder programmes continue to trial the special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) reform proposals, Suzanne O’Connell considers the emerging messages.

The 20 pathfinder programmes have not had an easy time. They began work in autumn 2011 following the release of the Green Paper, Support and Aspiration: A New Approach to Special Educational Needs and Disability. Since then, the original 18 months’ duration has been doubled and the programmes will continue to pilot the proposals until September 2014.

This extension has created an uneasy tension with other projected deadlines. Many people have been left wondering how the draft Code of Practice and Children and Families Bill 2012-13 proposals can be truly influenced by the very gradual feedback from the pathfinders.

Rather than relying on one final report, the pathfinder programmes are reporting back on their progress as they go along. In March 2013, the SEND Pathfinder Programme Report was jointly published by the Department for Education and the Department of Health. Other pathfinder information and case studies are available on the pathfinder website, and information packs provide some examples of what is emerging.

It is a painstaking process, but some positive examples of good practice do seem to be evident. The testimonials of parents and professionals suggest that some of the inadequacies of the previous system can be addressed through this new framework, and that the greater integration of services and a people-centred approach can work.

It has taken some of the pathfinder programmes much longer than expected to set up the initial structures. For some programmes, the frameworks for consultation were not there and took time to establish. Additionally, some areas were keen to decide on the principles first, before launching into the detail of the proposals. This does not take place overnight.

The pathfinder programmes were given core areas to focus on. This article considers the emerging results of the following test areas.

  • Co-ordinated assessment and education, health and care (EHC) plans.

  • Personal budgets and direct payments.

  • The local offer.

Co-ordinated assessment and EHC plans

A central part of the SEND proposals is the development of the EHC assessment and the subsequent EHC plan. The pathfinder programmes have been constructing their EHC plans and the processes that will enable parents, pupils and professionals to contribute to them.

The importance of outcomes, as opposed to the provision, is a central part of the EHC plan. One piece of feedback suggests that practitioners are very good at measuring activities and processes, but less so at measuring whether people’s lives are improving. There can be a tendency to confuse outcomes with solutions.

A person-centred outcome:

  • is a personal goal, not a service goal

  • is something you have influence/ control over

  • is achievable

  • is measurable and specific

  • may have obstacles in the way of achieving it.

The example is given of speech and language therapy where the outcome might be: “To be understood by my friends so I can play with them at the after-school club every day”.

Once the outcome is established, you can focus on finding the right solution. For example, is the resource you need to achieve your outcome available? This can be an item or an activity, and can either have an associated cost or be free of charge.

Pathfinder programmes are incorporating outcome and provision tables within their EHC plans. The focus is on writing specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound outcomes in the short, medium and long term. The way in which some of the EHC plans are emerging is very much as a child-friendly document, perhaps even written in the first person.

The Hartlepool case study EHC plan includes:

  • a focus on outcomes

  • detailed provision to support progress

  • the frequency and provider of support (eg the name of the speech and language therapist)

  • the annual cost

  • the funding agency (eg health or education).

In Southampton, key working is a major part of its programme. It has developed two new key worker roles to be the single point of contact for the family. These contacts meet with the family to plan the assessment process, co-ordinate the assessment team, and draw together the EHC plan.

In Gateshead, a systems navigator supports families during the assessment and review process. He or she makes the initial contact, collects the information and explains the process. Following this, Pupil and Parent Services are responsible for co-ordinating the gathering of assessments and reports.

A key worker is identified in Gateshead once an EHC plan is in place. He or she provides the link with the family to ensure that there is ongoing support. In some pathfinder programmes, it is the school’s special educational needs co-ordinator or health visitor that becomes the single point of contact once the EHC plan is agreed. He or she co-ordinates the delivery of the support and convenes the review of the plans.

Personal budgets

There is no doubt that a strong theme within the proposed legislation and guidance is that parents must not only be consulted, but are intrinsic to the process of deciding how their child should be supported. Evidence of this commitment is the allocation of a personal budget, with the option of a direct payment. This represents a trust in parents as the main advocates for their own children.

The pathfinder programmes are starting to report some success in testing this part of the Bill. In East Sussex, there has been in-depth work with four schools to deliver nine personal budgets. From the examples given, although there was a clear focus on outcomes, there was also a carefully itemised costed list of what needed to be delivered. However, there is also a theme emerging of building on the resources that are already there – for example, the strengths provided from within the family, and creative solutions by the school.

The West Sussex pathfinder programme gives an example of direct payments to the mother of a 15-year-old girl with severe physical difficulties. This direct payment enabled a personal assistant to be appointed by the mother who was then able to work more effectively between home and school. This continuity of care seems to have had positive repercussions.

In some cases, schools will find themselves having to relinquish the level of direction over staff. The personal budget and the opportunity for parents to employ help directly could bring with it new issues of accountability, roles and responsibilities.

The local offer

All the pathfinder programmes have been involved in actively developing the local offer. This is the publication by local authorities of the provision and services available to support pupils with SEND. What is emerging is that it is not only the local authorities that will need to put a local offer together, but schools as well.

The Darlington local offer engaged more than 30 schools, and 13 have now gone live with a draft local offer. The schools were given guidance and support around its development, and the offer will be brought together collectively as a single point of access.

St Hild’s Church of England School in Hartlepool has constructed its own SEND offer, which is now available to view on its website.

What next?

Nine pathfinder programme champions have been selected to support non-pathfinder areas in the preparation of implementing the reforms. They will be providing advice and support during 2013–14 and have been given the responsibility of sharing information across a specific region. They will draw on the case studies and emerging practice documents to provide practical examples.

What the Government must acknowledge from the experience of the pathfinder programme is just how colossal an undertaking this has been. This degree of change to the structure and ethos of SEND provision will take time if it is to be done correctly.