Last June, the coalition government published the first SEND Code of Practice to which schools, colleges and many other organisations must have regard. Earlier codes covered SEN only, but disability is now included alongside it. There are some important benefits in bringing together the two sets of legislation – the Equality Act 2010 covering our duties to disabled children and the Children and Families Act 2014 covering duties to children with SEN.
The integration of the two sets of responsibilities is both legislative and at the level of practice. In the legislation, all the strategic duties bring together responsibilities to disabled children and children with SEN.
To give just two examples: the joint commissioning duty and the duty on local authorities to integrate services to promote the wellbeing of children – both apply to disabled children and children with SEN. At the level of practice, the Code encourages joined-up action, for example in encouraging schools to plan reasonable adjustments, required under the Equality Act, at the same time as they plan SEND provision.
This makes good sense, but it goes beyond that. The Code links these processes to the promotion of wellbeing for disabled children and children with SEN. And for anyone who thought we had lost the benefit of years of work on Every Child Matters (ECM), be reassured: wellbeing is defined in the Children and Families Act, reinterpreted as seven aspects which are recognisable as the five ECM outcomes.
The principle of children and parents participating as fully as possible in decision-making is seen as an important element in promoting wellbeing and sits at the front of the SEND sections of the Children and Families Act, as well as being woven through the Code. What does participation mean in this context? It works at two levels: first, strategically, for example, local authorities are expected to engage closely with children, parents and young people in the development of the Local Offer; second, children and young people are expected to participate in decision-making relating to themselves as individuals: agreeing outcomes, determining needs and provision.
There is evidence in other parts of the Code of a new focus on other aspects of wellbeing. First, the four broad areas of SEN are defined differently: behaviour is not seen as a department of SEN, rather it is constructed as a child’s response to an underlying difficulty – a difficulty that might have its origins in a learning difficulty or disability or might arise from other issues, such as housing, family or other domestic circumstances. Second, the explicit inclusion of mental health difficulties in the broad areas of need means that, where a mental health difficulty affects a child’s ability to learn, schools should use the framework provided by the Code.
These developments must all be seen within the broader context of the government’s taskforce on child and adolescent mental health. The government has committed to take forward the taskforce’s recommendations and make child and adolescent mental health a significant part of its work.
Could these developments combine to pave the way for a renewed focus on the wellbeing of young people and their participation in decision-making?
Wellbeing could be better supported by the new joined up approach to the commissioning of services by local authorities and clinical commissioning groups.
We have had similar legislation before, for example on pooled budgets, with limited success. However, the changes in the Children and Families Act give everyone another opportunity to make it work and to make it work better. Schools who persevere locally to establish a more joined up approach will, I believe, reap the benefits in terms of the wellbeing of their pupils in the longer term.
Anna Feuchtwang is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Visit www.ncb.org.uk