Endless paperwork, depressingly long waiting times for appointments, the constant infuriation of having to ‘prove’ your child’s difficulties. These frustrating sentiments will be shared by many parents and carers of children with SEND trying to secure the necessary support for their child. As a Headteacher and adoptive father of four, I have seen the SEND system up close and personal - and I fear that too many vulnerable children are at risk of not having their needs identified or met.

As a parent, trying to navigate the SEND system, particularly to apply for an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) requires a huge amount of time, and the comprehension of a seemingly endless list of SEND-specific abbreviations. Throw in the subtleties of each local authority’s own processing systems, and applying for an EHCP on behalf of your child can very soon feel like a full-time occupation.

It can also feel deeply unfair. We recently applied for an EHCP for one of our children. Like all care-experienced children, he had suffered trauma; he had also accrued a number of diagnoses - a speech and language disorder, global developmental delay, and hypermobility as a result of chronic neglect. He had also experienced four different homes before he was adopted and was at least two years behind his age-expected milestones. Yet, when we initially applied for an EHCP assessment, the application for an assessment of his needs was rejected by the local authority. Fast forward six months and, following mediation and a tribunal appeal, the local authority not only agreed to assess but subsequently to issue the EHCP. And what a relief that was! Yet, none of our son’s needs had changed during those six months, begging the question: how many vulnerable young people fail to secure the recognition and support they need, because they are initially refused by their LA? How many children are falling through the SEND gaps? Did we only get an EHCP for our child because we were ‘pushy’? Why do some local authorities reject the majority of applications, whilst others agree to assess almost all of them?

These questions are particularly concerning when framed around the most vulnerable young people in society - care-experienced children.

If we start from the premise that all care-experienced children have experienced trauma, it would logically follow that they are likely to be at higher risk of significant barriers to their education – whether that be their social and emotional development, their cognition and learning or their speech and language. As for any young person, if needs are not being identified or met, educational struggle and failure is likely to follow. This seems to be supported by some thoroughly depressing but important data, sourced by Adoption UK:

  • Approximately 50% of care-experienced children have recognised SEND, compared to 15% of their non-care-experienced peers (DfE, 2020)
  • Children who enter care (including those who later leave care through adoption or special guardianship) experience delayed identification of SEND (Education Policy Institute, 2021)
  • Care-experienced children are less than half as likely to achieve grade 9-5 in English and Maths compared to their non-care-experienced peers (DfE, 2019)
  • Looked after children are nearly five times as likely to be suspended from school than their peers (DfE, 2019), and adopted children are up to four times as likely to be suspended (Adoption UK, 2019)

So, with care-experienced children at a disproportionally higher risk of delayed identification and eventual diagnosis, you would imagine that the EHCP assessment system would itself be differentiated in some way. Yet, for so many care-experienced children, there are real challenges with applying for an EHCP assessment. Often paperwork and professionals are spread across multiple LAs, whilst parents, social workers and foster carers often have their hands full managing transitions and basic attachment. Of course, many LAs would prefer applications for an EHCP assessment to come through schools directly. However, care-experienced children are much more likely to experience changes in enrolment, with previous school records often delayed in following them to new school settings. Add to mix, the frightening recruitment and retention crisis in mainstream school settings (a survey in April 2022 highlighted that 44% of teachers are looking to leave the profession) and it becomes clear that despite the best of intentions, too many schools simply don’t have the funding, capacity or continuity of staffing to support effective applications. Whilst these issues are not unique to care-experienced children, their circumstances often make them particularly vulnerable to slipping through the EHCP net.

As a Headteacher and adoptive parent, I was lucky enough to have the knowledge and professional support network to navigate the system, however frustrating, bureaucratic and illogical it seemed at times. Others don’t, and many are being penalised.

With the support of Adoption UK, Robert Leitch has launched a parliamentary petition, calling on the government to provide all care-experienced children with an automatic right to an EHCP assessment, upon request.

Children who have experienced care have already had an uneven start in life. It’s time to streamline the process for these vulnerable young people. It wouldn’t take much to modify the process for all care-experienced children. With the support of Adoption UK, we have launched a parliamentary petition, calling on the government to provide all care-experienced children with an automatic right to an EHCP assessment, upon request. This simple change would ensure that no care-experienced child misses out on the opportunity to have their needs identified - creating a far more level playing field, and providing these young people with the very best chance to succeed in their education. You can support us by signing this petition here>> Provide all care-experienced children with a right to be assessed for an EHCP - Petitions (parliament.uk)

Let’s fix the EHCP net before any more care-experienced children fall through it.

Rob Leitch

Rob Leitch is an adoptive father to four children, and Executive Headteacher of My Online Schooling, having previous served as a Headteacher and senior leader across a range of school contexts in the UK. @Rob_Leitch