The voluntary sector has a role in SEN assessments

The green paper on special educational needs and disability moots greater use of the voluntary sector. Una Summerson looks at how the sector sees its role changing in the future.

Families with disabled children have for some time been calling for greater transparency about the assessment process, greater scrutiny about resources and more clarity about accountability when services are not provided.

Some parents believe local authorities have a conflict of interest, particularly during times of budget cuts, because councils assess needs as well as providing services.

There have also been concerns about the independence of parent partnership services.

In a bid to address such concerns the recent green paper Support and aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs (SEN) and disability asks: “What role should the voluntary and community sector play in the statutory assessment of children and young people with SEN or who are disabled? How could this help to give parents greater confidence in the statutory assessment process?”

Four roles are identified by the green paper for voluntary sector involvement in assessments. These are:

● Providing information on the assessment process so that families know what to expect

● Acting as an advocate for families

● Supporting families through the process

● Putting together, with the family, a support package that reflects their circumstances and ambitions

Contact a Family, a UK-wide charity providing practical and emotional support to families on any aspects of caring for a disabled child, is fully behind the idea of assessments being swifter, more transparent and less adversarial, and would welcome a single assessment process which prevents needless repetition for families.

When it comes to looking at the four identified roles, there is a strong view that the voluntary sector should maintain independence. Being able to provide comprehensive and independent advice is vital for parental confidence in our work, so third-sector organisations don’t see themselves as taking a lead in the carrying out of individual assessments.

In relation to the second and third roles, these play to the voluntary sector’s strengths. As an organisation we are good at making links and connections, clarifying options and choices and supporting families in navigating the systems and assessment processes as well as ensuring that they make the right points to the right people.

We would help parents understand what to expect of process, what professionals should and shouldn’t do and what the outcome should be. We also feel that linking parents up with each other to share experiences and/or signposting where appropriate to more specialist services, such as those that deliver advocacy, helps families take control and builds confidence.

There is also an important role around co-ordinating local parent carer forums in showing local authorities how they can work better with parents through the assessment process. The development of local parent carer forums through Aiming High for Disabled Children has in many cases led to less combative relationships between parent carers and their local authority, reducing stress, pressure and time for all involved. The government’s commitment to fund parent carer forums over the next four years means this can continue.

The voluntary sector can also play a role in training professionals to ensure they understand the educational, health and social care needs of the whole family.

However, in relation to the last identified role, it becomes trickier for the voluntary sector. Contact a Family feels it has an important voice in ensuring needs are recognised and met. However, our relationship with parents would change dramatically if the support a family received was down to us or our direct input. It would become a very fine balance.

Local authorities have acknowledged they could do better around assessments, and are keen that the voluntary sector supports them to improve. How extensive that support is needs to be investigated and Contact a Family looks forwards to working with local authority pathfinders to explore this further and engaging in what I’m sure will be an extremely interesting debate.

Una Summerson is the head of policy and public affairs for Contact a Family

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