Special needs plans for Lancashire children cannot be sped up

Almost 85 percent of education, health and care plans for children with special needs in Lancashire are produced within 20 weeks
Almost 85 percent of education, health and care plans for children with special needs in Lancashire are produced within 20 weeks

There is little scope to speed up the process for assessing the support needed by children with special educational needs and disabilities, a committee of councillors has been told.

Education, health and care plans (EHCPs) are documents which are drawn up to determine the additional help which a young person requires across a range of services.

READ MORE >>> New group putting the case for special needs services in Lancashire

If a local authority decides that an EHCP is necessary, it has a legal duty to produce it within 20 weeks of the original request for the plan being submitted.

Members of Lancashire County Council’s children’s services scrutiny committee quizzed children’s social care bosses about whether that timeframe could be reduced.

“Twenty weeks seems such a long time – and it must be frustrating for our parents and children when they want an outcome straight away,” committee chairman Andrea Kay said.

The authority’s head of inclusion, Sally Richardson, said that there had been an increased demand for the assessments, which are governed by a “statutory process”.

“It [involves] working with people from health, education and social care – we need to be able to pull all the information together and there are timelines for that,” Ms. Richardson explained.

“Where there is a need to change provision quickly or children are at risk of exclusion [from school], we do try to bring [the plans] forward more quickly, but it is difficult as it stands at the moment.”

The meeting heard that if a child is excluded while awaiting an EHCP, the authority is still obliged to find them suitable alternative education within six days – irrespective of how long it may take to complete the plan.

During 2017/18, almost 85 percent of EHCPs in the Lancashire County Council area were completed within 20 weeks – ahead of the England average of 67 percent. A local target was introduced to increase the proportion of 20-week completions to 90 percent during 2018/19, although data for that year is not yet available.

The quality of the county’s EHCPs was criticised in a joint OFSTED and Care Quality Commission report into special needs provision for children in Lancashire, published in November 2017.

Changes to the way in which the documents are produced now form part of an improvement plan for special needs services in the county.

A strengthened audit process to analyse EHCPs has already been implemented, according to the latest update on the plan’s progress, issued in April.

However, a promised electronic case management system – to improve communication between parents, carers and professionals – will not be in use by next month, as had originally been planned.

Meanwhile, a commitment to improve the quality of the advice on which an EHCP is based is unlikely to hit a target implementation date of September, while work on ensuring the voices of young people themselves are part of the process has yet to begin.

Committee member and school governor, Anne Cheetham, said she knew of two instances in which there had been “little or no movement about a young person’s future” over the course of a number of years – something which head of children’s social care, Sally Allen, pledged to investigate.

“I do wonder occasionally whether people are actually talking to the right [colleagues],” Coun Cheetham said.

“I realise there is an awful lot to tackle and that every child is different, but if we can get it right when they’re in primary [school], hopefully we’ll have a more level playing field when it comes to secondary,” she added.