EHC Plans: The beginning of a journey, not the end goal

For many years now, I've been hearing the same language used by people going through their social care assessment and provision of care 'journeys'. Phrases such as 'managed to get', 'fought for' and 'finally received' have been ever-present throughout my time working within the sector. The language we use in our everyday lives provides great insight into the journey we've been on, and for me, hearing this type of thing over and over again means we still have some way to go before people feel that they don't have to battle for their legitimate right to have a support plan.

Having spent a lot of time working with the education sector to help them better manage the increasing need for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) support, I’ve again been witness to the same language and experiences that sadly have so much prevalence across social care still today.

This all sounds horribly negative I know, but please stick with me on this. I believe there’s an opportunity to still get things right within education when it comes to not only producing effective Education, Health and Care (EHC) Plans, but also using them to create a positive, ongoing experience for young people needing support.

Where we are with EHC Plans today

Today, it currently takes approximately 20 weeks to have an EHC plan completed. It’s seen as the ultimate target for many parents or carers of young people with SEND to receive one, and the latest figures from the LGA (2019) show an 11% increase in requests for them over the last year. With requests on the up, the risk is that we’ll continue to see Local Authorities struggling to manage the increasing need for SEND support, with plans taking even longer to complete.

What happens next?

The idea is that, once completed, it becomes a living document that’s regularly reviewed and adjusted depending on the changing needs of the young person.

It’s been designed to support ongoing, joined-up working, and to help everyone working with the young person to provide them with the best possible steps towards having a great life. However, five years after the introduction of the Children and Families Act, when EHC Plans were launched, we now seem to be at risk of these documents becoming stagnant and not necessarily always being used to regularly review the needs of those requiring support.

Why EHC Plans can become stagnant

The trouble seems to be that after all the hard work involved in developing a good EHC Plan, there is almost a fear of a young person’s needs and desired outcomes changing (for Local Authorities as well as for parents/carers and schools).

For Local Authorities, change means more work and potentially more time commitment from a workforce who are already struggling to keep up.

For a parent or carer, and for a school, if the young person’s needs are reducing, this may then mean a reduced budget for support - what impact will this have? Will it feel like improvements are being punished? What if needs have increased but this hasn’t been recognised? What if new outcomes are needed for the young person to stretch to their true potential?

There is evidence here that this fear of change could well be holding back our services from improving and therefore holding back our young people from being the best they can be.

What needs to change

Rather than EHC Plans being seen as the end goal, we need to start seeing them as the beginning of the journey. They were never meant to be static documents, and for them to be fit for purpose as time progresses, they must be kept alive. This can only happen through regular and meaningful reviews of their progress towards their agreed outcomes. Reviews will ensure that the outcomes stay relevant and that everyone involved understands them and continues working towards them as things change.

Measuring and responding to change has to be seen as a good thing, and the right thing to be doing. It’s not about reducing our most vulnerable people to checkboxes. Instead, it’s about enabling us to put some confidence in the system and to strive for improvement, not relying on the status quo.

Let’s take the time out for those vital pit stops so we can ensure that those working with young people are always using up-to-date information so that things keep moving in the right direction and that money is being distributed fairly based on current needs, and not on needs as they were from three years ago.