Catriona Attride: Thank you for joining us. So for those that don't know, can you explain to us what an EHCP is?
Sarah Fitzgibbons: Yes, of course. So EHCP stands for Education, Health and Care Plan, and it is the more modern version of what in the past would have been called a statement. And it was brought in under new legislation in 2014. So it's been around for a while, but obviously some people will still remember the statement.
An EHCP is a document which sets out in detail, various pieces of information about a particular child. And in order to get an EHCP, a child will need to be a child that has special educational needs or a disability necessitating adaptions at school, or other forms of therapy or social care help, or health support as a result of their special educational needs or disability.
The purpose of that document is to be a sort of one-stop shop essentially, which sets out in detail what the needs of the child are, what provision needs to be made whether it's at school or outside of school to meet the child's needs, what sort of outcomes we would hope for the child as a result of that provision being put in place.
And it will also name the school that is appropriate for that child in order that the provision that they need is actually met. And having any EHCP in place essentially means that the local authority where the child lives is legally responsible to deliver the provision set out in the EHCP.
And if they do not do so, families then have a legal right to essentially take proceedings against the local authority in order that they do provide that provision. So it's a way essentially of ensuring that a child has the best possible chance to receive everything they need to equally access education, and meet their best educational and other outcomes, is what's the legislation is trying to achieve essentially.
Catriona Attride: And is there a level at which you have to be in terms of severity of your learning need or physical needs to be considered for an EHCP? So if you've got someone who has got mild dyslexia, for example, can they qualify or do you have to have very severe dyslexia?
Sarah Fitzgibbons: No, you don't at all. And I think this is a really important question Cat because I think there are a lot of myths out there about what is required before a child will be able to get an EHCP. And actually the legal test is it's a very, very low bar, which often surprises people. Because as I say, there are lots of myths out there.
So essentially the test is set out in the children and families Act and the test is, number one has or may the child have special educational needs. And two, may it be necessary for those special educational needs to be put in place, provision to be put in place by way of an EHCP. So it's actually an incredibly low bar but families don't realize that.
Catriona Attride: No, absolutely. And I suppose what the EHCP does is it's giving additional funding, isn't it? So if you're in a school and your child does need some extra help, it can make available some funding for that school to bring in that extra help for your child rather than trying to do out of their already stretched budget.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: That's absolutely right. But I think it actually does more than that because often if a child is receiving SEN support, which is, I suppose, if you want to put it like this is sort of a lower level of severity often in terms of the needs of a child.
So often children may have SEN support before they apply for an EHCP. But if you're receiving that SEN support, often a full assessment of what that child actually needs will never have been done in a formal way. So as an example, an EHCP will allow a child who, for example, may have sensory needs to be assessed by an occupational therapist who is a specialist in sensory integration as an example.
And that OT may then say, well, as part of the EHCP, this child needs to have occupational therapy every week directly along with some other things. Now, if that child is only receiving SEN supporting school, because the only people who have ever been involved in thinking about what that child needs may be teachers, those teachers may never have really turned their attention to thinking about whether OT should be involved or any other types of therapy.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: So what the EHCP assessment at its best does is to bring in all the types of professionals that should be advising about what a child needs in order to be successful at school and more generally. So ultimately, you'll end up with extra funding, but also you'll probably end up with a much wider package of support for that child.
Catriona Attride: Right, so it's much broader than just what you're getting in the classroom. It's actually, we're looking at all the things that can help enhance that child's experience in their learning.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: Yes, exactly. And I think again, sometimes the sort of special educational needs is a bit of a misnomer because the law defines education much more widely than most of us would ever imagine. As part of an EHCP, occupational therapy for something like sensory needs or improving fine motor skills or speech and language support to improve expressive or receptive language or social communication.
That is all defined as education. And that will all be within section F of an EHCP, which is the section that a local authority is obliged to provide in order that a child can be properly educated. So, it can be an incredibly useful assessment not only because the child may end up with a wider package of support that will help them in wider ways and just literally very traditional education.
But also it might give a family a much better sense of what their child's actual needs are. Because sometimes that full assessment has never been done. A child may never have been seen for example, by an educational psychologist.
Catriona Attride: No, of course.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: But as part of this process, the local authority are required to produce a report from an educational psychologist. So for example, a family may find out for the first time as part of that process that their child's, I don't know, for example, processing speed is a bit slower than normal.
It's allowing everybody, and I have to stress, done at it's best but it isn't always done at it's best, it is really giving the family and the local authority and a school a very much a sort of a rounded view about both the strengths and the needs of the child.
Catriona Attride: Yeah, it's a really wide range and quite powerful document, isn't it?
Sarah Fitzgibbons: It is absolutely.
Catriona Attride: So, you and I have spoken on this subject in a previous podcast and based on that, I had always been under the impression that in my personal circumstances I have a son who has dyslexia and is at a school which has special support for him. And we don't have an EHCP because I was always under the impression that he wasn't bad enough in speech levels.
And actually you made me realize that actually that probably isn't the case and we should look at it. And what is interesting, I've made some initial inquiries since then speaking to his school and some other people and looking at my local authorities website on it, and I'm getting such conflicting information.
So I'm being told that the process can take up to 18 months and then I'm being told it could take 20 weeks. I'm looking at the website and I am someone who is very capable of dealing with forms and paperwork, and just totally overwhelmed by how difficult it seems to be to even ask for an assessment.
And I just wondered if you could talk us through, I'm assuming that that's deliberate from the local authority side, but what is the process? How do we go about getting an assessment? And what is the timeframe?
Sarah Fitzgibbons: Yes, and I think that's a really very, very common experience Cat. And I do hear that a lot and it was my own personal experience when I first looked at all of this because as you know, I have a daughter with various disabilities. And I remember when I first started looking at all of this, I just found it incredibly difficult to read-
Catriona Attride: It's overwhelming, isn't it?
Sarah Fitzgibbons: It is, and it's really hard to drill down into what you have to do and why and how it's all going to work. And I think as you say, sometimes it can feel a bit like the forms are overly complicated for deliberate reasons, but the reality is the law is actually very simple on this.
And the forms that are often on local authority websites can be used absolutely fine, but there is no need to use those forms to seek an EHCP assessment. All that actually needs to be done is for a family to send a letter to... The best person to send it to is the director of children's services at the local authority.
Each local authority will have a website and you can find the details for that person on the website. Often the best thing to do is well as to copy that into the SEN team at that local authority. But the only person you really need to write to as the director of children's services. And all the letter essentially needs to say is that you are the parent of this child.
Your child has the following additional needs, and you are seeking an assessment for your child in order that they are able to obtain EHCP. And that this letter is a formal request for that needs assessment. And you are attaching X, Y and Z pieces of evidence that support the fact that your child may or does have special educational needs.
Catriona Attride: Would that sort of thing be an educational psychologist report if you had one or something from the school at that point?
Sarah Fitzgibbons: It could be anything and my advice would always be to throw everything at it. So, you don't have to worry about not having extraordinarily large amounts of evidence, but everything you do have should be sent.
So for example, if you've got reports from school or you've got even emails from school talking about the fact that, let's use an example, that your child is struggling in a particular subject and that school has been trying X, Y, and Z, and they're still struggling.
Or you could have a letter from a pediatrician setting out particular diagnosis for your child. You could have an educational psychology report. You could have an OT report, a physio report. You could have something from your GP. It can be...
Catriona Attride: Anything that you've got, basically is.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: Absolutely.
Catriona Attride: Anything that you can send them at that stage to flesh out your request.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: Exactly, and probably it's helpful if in the covering letter you set out in a brief paragraph what you consider those needs to be and say that the documents attached support that. But really because the test is such a low bar essentially, does, or may the child have special educational needs and may an EHCP be needed to meet those needs?
Even something as basic as having a few pieces of paper from school reporting on the fact that your child is struggling in whatever ways they might be struggling, that of itself will be sufficient to meet that test. Now, whether a local authority agrees with you about that or not will be a different matter.
And that's something that I think we might be talking about on another day about challenging authority, but it's as simple as that really. It's a short letter together with what evidence you have. Get that in. My advice is always to send that by post, but I would also send it by email if you're able to get an email address.
And what I would always do is to put both the delivery and read receipt on those emails. And you will then have evidence when that email is opened at local authority and that someone has opened it.
Catriona Attride: Has opened it. Yeah, of course.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: And then you wait six weeks essentially, because the next step in the process is that the local authority has six weeks from the date that you make the request to come back to you either to say that they are going to do a needs assessment or to refuse to do so. So again, I would always advise putting that date in your diary.
And if the local authority hasn't come back go back straight away. Again, email is really good because you can get it there quickly and you can immediately have your delivery receipt and your read receipt when it's opened. So, sometimes people do have to chase. It's not uncommon at all.
And unfortunately, lots of local authority SEN teams are understaffed, under-resourced and parents keeping on top of the timescale will really help to keep the process on track. So then after that six weeks, you're essentially into the assessment period itself. And that goes on for quite a long time.
But one thing I think might be important to mention before we get into that bit is when you make that initial request for an assessment, another thing that I think is often worthwhile doing is mentioning in that initial letter who you believe as a family actually needs to be consulted.
Because once the local authority say they are carrying out an assessment, what they then have to do by law is seek a report from certain people. And that includes a pediatrician, an educational psychologist, the school, for children with sensory impairments, so hearing or visual impairments as an example, a report from a teacher of the visually impaired or hearing impaired.
And then there are other people who may provide reports and a family are entitled to ask the local authority to seek advice from anybody that they reasonably consider should be consulted. What often happens is even for a child who may have, for example, let's say sensory needs, even if the family make a request at the outset and it's clear from what the family send in that that child has sensory needs, it's not always the case that the local authority go off and actually seek the evidence from an occupational therapist.
Sometimes they just don't get reports that they clearly should be getting. And when you make that initial request, I think it's always really helpful to say, excuse me, to say these are my child's needs. Therefore, when you do your assessment, I am expecting you to get reports from and to explain who you think needs to provide the evidence, and maybe give a couple of words as to why.
Because again, you're keeping the process on track. What will happen then is that at that six week point where the local authority come back and say they will assess or not, as the case may be, they already know that you've told them that they have to seek these other reports. So it could be that they come back and say they don't agree.
But for example, if your child has physical disabilities and you said, I want a physio report. They're going to be hard pressed to say that's not reasonable.
Catriona Attride: Of course.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: And obviously there are other examples there as well.
Catriona Attride: What would be an example of an unreasonable?
Sarah Fitzgibbons: Well, it could be that... I'm trying to think. Most of them are reasonable, but say for example, you had a very specific type of therapy in mind that you felt would benefit your child, but it wasn't really a therapy that is traditionally used within the NHS.
And it's something quite modern that they use in America, but not in this country. And you said to the local authority, well, I think you really need a report from these specific people that do this quite novel therapy. Something like that would be unreasonable.
Catriona Attride: So the point is that there's not much that would be unreasonable.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: No. Seeking advice from an occupational therapist for a child who struggles with fine motor skills or sensory things. A child who has some physical difficulties seeking physio would be entirely normal. A child that has any type of speech or language delay, you'd be seeking speech and language.
So all of these things are entirely within the realms of reasonable. And educational psychology has to be provided anyway along with parental views, school views and the others that I mentioned earlier. But if you get all that lined up straight away, it doesn't give the local authority time to delay in saying, oh, we didn't realize you wanted X, Y and Z.
Catriona Attride: Of course, because they've already been warned. So they know from the outset.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: Yeah, and I think it's also about setting expectations as well, because if you go in with a letter where you've clearly set out your story with the evidence, and you've said I think you need to do X, Y and Z. It's already flagging to the local authority that you are a family who understands the process and you will keep control of it. And you won't be somebody that they can essentially delay with or-
Catriona Attride: Yeah, to railroad basically.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: Exactly.
Catriona Attride: I think the takeaway on that bit is do your homework and demonstrate that you've done your homework so that they can tell that you know a bit about what's going on.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: Yes, absolutely. And I think that's the case throughout that process. So then those experts have a further six weeks to produce their reports. And that can be quite an involved process. And again, a time when families can really add value to the process.
Catriona Attride: So what you were describing there, does that bring us up to like 12 weeks?
Sarah Fitzgibbons: Exactly.
Catriona Attride: ... At that point. So what was happening then?
Sarah Fitzgibbons: Reports are coming in and then essentially with up to the 14 week stage, so two weeks thereafter, a local authority will issue a draft EHCP if they've decided that that's appropriate. So if they've decided that that's not appropriate by the 16 week stage, you will receive a letter saying that the local authority have decided not to issue an EHCP.
So if you get your draft EHCP at around about 14 week mark, you then have 15 days as a family to respond to that draft and to make representations on the contents of the draft plan, and to request school or whatever it is, it could be a college if it's for older children, that you consider as appropriate.
And at that stage, families also have the right to request a meeting with the local authority to discuss the plan. And then within 15 days of that step, the local authority then has to consult with the school that families have suggested and/or any other schools that they consider to be appropriate. And then within 20 weeks, so essentially, the last step of the process will be the LA issuing the final EHCP.
Catriona Attride: So I'm being very personal here thinking about my situation, so how about if your child is already in a school that is meeting their needs because you're funding it yourself. Are you still able to sort of retrospectively... So for example, in our case, I would say my son is doing better now because of where he is.
Would the local authority be able to say, for example, oh, well, look he's doing well, so actually he doesn't need any EHCP because look at how he's performing? But the only reason he is performing we would say is because of where he is.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: Yes, and that might be the back and forth on that. But the reality of the situation is that your child would meet that very basic test because he does have additional needs. And so far as a family, you have chosen to finance the meeting of the provision that he needs personally. But that doesn't mean that he doesn't need the provision that would be set out in the EHCP. It's just that so far you haven't chosen to seek any EHCP. You funded it yourself.
Catriona Attride: Yeah. So that doesn't preclude you from having an EHCP?
Sarah Fitzgibbons: No, and the fact that your child has a diagnosis of dyslexia and you are able to demonstrate, I think Cat, from what you and I have discussed before that prior to him being in the setting that he's in and where he's had this fantastic extra support to really bring him on, really allow him to shine. Because I think you said that he's doing incredibly well.
Catriona Attride: Yeah, absolutely.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: That can be used as evidence that that wasn't previously the case.
Catriona Attride: No, absolutely. I mean, I was saying to you about his reading age. So his reading age when he started at that school was I think two and a half, three years below his age. And he is now six months over his biological age. And that's because of the support he's had.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: Yes, and look, there are some complications around that situation where you're saying child's already in a school because as part of an EHCP process as a family, people are able to request a school that they consider to be appropriate.
But if the family are actually asking the local authority to meet not only the special educational provision, but also the fees of then school, then other considerations come into play. So the local authority then are able to consider whether that is a reasonable use of public funds in essence.
So again, in a situation like yours Cat, you would be more focused perhaps than in other situations around ensuring that the evidence that you would be presenting within the EHCP process demonstrates why that particular school is the school that can meet your child's needs.
Catriona Attride: Over and above another school, basically.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: Exactly, and why your child would need, for example, small classes or very specialist help with dyslexia. So it would then be about ensuring that the evidence presents the reality of the situation being that your child is thriving in that school specifically because of what that school has to offer.
Catriona Attride: Yeah, absolutely. That's interesting. I think it's helpful to know that it doesn't matter where you are in your journey with a child with special educational needs. This is still open to you.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: Yes, it absolutely is open to anybody at any stage. Some people will sort of almost do a bit of a hybrid situation whereby they may feel that a particular school is the right school for that child, but that may not be a school that is ever going to be funded by a local authority because it's never going to meet that test about it being the right use of public funds.
And so sometimes what might happen is you may have a family where they will essentially agree with the local authority that the local authority will essentially fund the extra support, the SEN support, and the family will meet the school fees.
Catriona Attride: Right. So to say, there is the opportunity to do that then where you have a sort of two contributors.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: Yes. And I mean, that's not a typical EHCP, but it does happen, yes.
Catriona Attride: So they can be quite flexible.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: Yes.
Catriona Attride: So, if you've put your application in, you've had your assessment and you get it confirmed that yes, you can have your EHCP. What does that then mean in practical terms? How does it work? And I think one of the other things that I have heard is that once you've got the EHCP and it's for a set school, if say they're due to change school in, I don't know, two years because they're moving up to secondary school, do you have to go through the whole process again when they go to their new school?
Sarah Fitzgibbons: No. So once you've got to the end of the 20 week process, assuming it's being done in the 20 weeks and you've got your final plan, what that means is that the local authority are then obliged to deliver whatever is in that plan. So the school which is named in that plan is the school that your child will attend, and Section F of the EHCP sets out the provision.
And what that means is for example, it may set up things such as a child has full-time one-to-one support from a particular type of teaching assistant. And so from the date that the plan is in place, then the provision must be delivered to the child.
So, there will always be a period in which there's sort of people putting things together and getting things up and running, but it essentially means from that point, your child is legally entitled to whatever the plan says must be delivered for your child. And that plan will remain in place unless and until it is changed at the next annual review.
Catriona Attride: This is an annual review?
Sarah Fitzgibbons: Yes. For children under five, there's a discretion for it to be different timescale. So between three and six monthly reviews. But for most children and young people that will be annual reviews after the age of five.
Catriona Attride: And what's involved in the annual review processes? I'm assuming it's not a full-blown reassessment every time.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: No, but it can sort of get a little bit close to something like that depending upon what is actually needed. I suppose the point of an annual review is that children are growing up and changing and the EHCP at the point it was entered into, will set out what that child needs at that stage of their school-
Catriona Attride: Yeah, of course. And then that could well change in the course of a year I suppose.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: Absolutely. And so, it could be the case that the child has had a year of quite intensive speech and language therapy, for example. And as a result of that, it might be that the child's needs around language and communication have changed. That child may not need the same level of speech and language support, or they may need something slightly different.
And that could be the same for the way their work is presented to them, or they may need more or less hours of teaching assistants. It could be anything really. And so the annual review is the chance for everybody to reconsider what the plan says and what is needed in future.
They are a whole topic in themselves to a large extent, because the same kinds of issues that can come up when you're seeking a local... So you're seeking an assessment at the beginning, can come up with an annual review because essentially a local authority can decide at an annual review they're going to take away a lot of the provisions that-
Catriona Attride: Yeah. You've got to be sort of on your guard. At each annual review, you've got to know that you've got all your information and you're equipped with the position and what's going on and justify the provision. If you don't think it needs, it should be reduced, I suppose.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: Absolutely. So again, like the assessment itself, it's evidence-based and it's all about the evidence. So yes, it's a topic in itself really. And that, again, there is a sort of a timescale it's attached to an annual review. You mentioned about changing to different schools, Cat.
At the stage of transitions into different schools, then again, the annual review becomes more important at that stage, and it's a different process when you're leading up to a transition. And I would always say that local authorities and schools will often advise families to start thinking about the transition much later than they probably should.
It's always worth thinking about what the next school is going to be and how it's going to meet needs well in advance and making your own appointments to go look at those schools and really consider what you think is going to work for your child. And then almost building up that evidence-based having made that decision so that you can support it when you need to.
Catriona Attride: And I think what we will talk about in another podcast when we look at appealing will be what you do if you've got a particular school in mind and the local authority are determined that another school would be more appropriate. Because I think that happens particularly if you're looking outside of authorities, if you're looking outside your own local authority.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: Yes, that's a sort of a big area on appeals. And of course the other big area on appeals is just the contents of the provision itself because Section F is incredibly detailed. My daughter's EHCP runs to over 40 pages and that's because it sets out very specifically what she needs as against a whole host of needs. And obviously it also sets out what sort of equipment she needs and what happens day-to-day almost.
Catriona Attride: Does that change often? Do you find at the annual reviews, things are changing each year?
Sarah Fitzgibbons: Not so far, but she is still quite tiny. So she's still only in year two.
Catriona Attride: Right. Yes, of course. So you're not...
Sarah Fitzgibbons: But I'm sure as she gets into junior school and certainly into senior school, lots of changes will be made. And I also think it can be very different depending upon the needs of a child. So, if you've got a child that has quite a specific learning need, that'd be with very, very intense support that that need becomes a lot less.
Or they might have a particular social communication need that might become much more, needing much less support if it's really addressed intensively quite quickly, but certain types of needs and disabilities. My daughter is severely sight impaired and she's not suddenly going to become not sight impaired.
And so the support around that will sort of be quite consistent, whereas other aspects of her needs might change depending upon the high level of support that she gets. She may find things much easier and then therefore not need certain aspects of things that right now are very important.
Catriona Attride: Yeah, that's interesting. So there's lots to think about, isn't there? And I think my takeaway from all of this is not to be overwhelmed by the local authorities website at the beginning, and your advice on how to structure a letter and doing it that way seems to be the most straightforward and sensible way of progressing.
And then it is just being prepared to keep on top of them and keeping on top of the timetable and not letting it slip so that you are retaining some control over the process.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: Absolutely, and I think other thing that is so, so important and I think it can get lost because professionals can sometimes make families feel like this, but what I think families must never lose is they are actually the experts in their own children.
Catriona Attride: Absolutely. There's no one that knows your child better than you.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: No, and quite often I've found it for myself and I've found it for other people that I'll have somebody who spent two hours with my daughter and they'll want to tell me why they think she's doing certain things and be perhaps convinced that that's the case and that they understand her entirely. When actually they've been with her for two hours.
Catriona Attride: In a particular scenario as well.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: In a particular setting. They've only seen her by herself, not with other people. And it's absolutely right that the professionals need to give their views on things, but families really helping and supporting those professionals when they're preparing those reports is absolutely key because those reports can only be based upon what those experts have witnessed.
Catriona Attride: Of course.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: So if families make sure that they get in touch with those professionals and say, I'm here to answer any questions you've got. I'd love to tell you about X, Y, and Z, and really help those experts to get a proper sense of your child. And to, in those situations, really think about on your child's worst day, what are they like and what do they need, because that is what the EHCP needs to provide for.
Catriona Attride: Yeah, absolutely. Because ultimately, how you might be on the good today is a polar opposite often to the worst days. And like you say, we need to be looking at the worst case not the best so that we can build up.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: Yes. And so it's about supporting those professionals to really produce a report that is truly reflective of who your child is and what they need. But it's also about keeping families involved in the process and remembering that they are the experts, because sometimes because the local authority is driving the process, you can start to feel slightly removed from it.
But always remembering that your views are a legal requirement as part of the process and that you are entitled to say what school you want and the local authority have to be the ones to say why that isn't appropriate. Those are the key things.
And so families are at the heart of this process and it's important to treat yourself like that and really make sure that you do maintain that place in the center because the child will have the most chance of having the best plan if families do stay in the center of the process.
Catriona Attride: No, absolutely. That makes sense. Well, Sarah, thank you so much for your time today and explaining the process. I found it incredibly useful and I am sure our listeners will. And as I mentioned, we are going to continue having some discussions over podcasts on this process and other factors that come up from it. So I look forward to next time we speak. Thank you for joining me today.
Sarah Fitzgibbons: Oh, thanks Cat. It's a pleasure to be with you. Thanks very much.
Catriona Attride: Thank you for listening to Talking Family & Wealth. To find out more about the series, please visit gateleyplc.com/talkingfamilyandwealth. From here, you can subscribe for all updates, meet our speakers and get more information on all of the topics being discussed.