New pledge for children with special needs


September may mark a fresh start for all schoolchildren, but this year’s biggest change comes for pupils with special educational needs (SEN).

Heralded by the government as a “landmark moment”, the change comes thanks to a pack of newly launched reforms that claim to integrate a child’s education and health needs for the first time in 30 years.

While it is still too early to know if the reforms will make a difference, considering they only launched last week with a year-long rolling out process, they still highlight the importance of turning our attention to SEN services — both within the Jewish community and also among the wider society in general.

Common consensus seems to be that, while the changes mark a promising step forward, there is still a great deal more that needs to be done.

Firstly, the reforms themselves: until now, it was up to the individual’s local education authority to conduct an independent special needs assessment. Children with the most severe cases were given SEN statements that offered them statutory support within their mainstream or special schools — meaning that, while education was prioritised, it came at a cost to their health care or parents’ involvement.

But following amendments laid out in the new Children and Families Act, which passed as law in March, there is now, supposedly, a far more cohesive service in place. Children on statements will be transferred to Education, Health and Care plans (EHCP), providing a more holistic experience. For the first time in a long time, the government has promised to put children and their parents at the centre of the system.

And the good news is that this support is offered until the age of 25, meaning parents can rest assured that care will be given after their children leave school.

“These reforms represent big changes for families who only ask for what we all expect for our own children — support to help them develop and thrive,” Children and Families Minister Edward Timpson told the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) annual conference in July.

“That is what these reforms are all about: taking us from a system that, despite best efforts, has simply become too complex, fractured and adversarial to one that is clearer, more joined up and much more focused on children achieving their best.”

The revamp sounds promising, but what does it mean in practice? And more importantly, will it actually have an effect on those institutions who work with children with SEN?

Langdon College principal Christopher Mayho said the reforms were “a very positive piece of legislation, enabling the person with a learning difficulty or disability and their family greater educational choice”.

The college, which is based in Manchester, provides both residential and day school services for up to 30 students with SEN. It relies on local authority funding for every pupil, which has proven to be a challenge in the past when juggling educational assessors with health and care providers.

“Local authority funding can be better managed when all the person’s needs are considered altogether, rather than the situation at present, which is very departmentalised,” he said. “We are hopeful that in a year or two, there will be many people who have benefited from the reforms.

“This act is so important because it helps focus people’s attention. But it does indicate that 16 hours of education, as received in a mainstream setting, is the tip of the iceberg of what is required for young people with a learning difficulty or disability. If improvements are to be made, greater amounts of time are needed.”

Sora Kopfstein, headteacher of Kisharon Day School in Barnet, said: “In principle, this is a very positive move forward. It is now legally binding to bring the child’s education together with their social and health care, which makes far more sense in a special needs school like ours. There is no point in working in isolation.”

As a subsidiary of the disabilities charity Kisharon, the day school caters for 45 children between the ages of four and 19 — dealing with those who suffer with difficulties ranging from moderate to profound. It now works with four local authorities in north-west London, negotiating funding for every child on a case by case basis.

According to Ms Kopfstein, whose students often begin their education earlier at the charity’s Tuffkid nursery, the government’s changes will presumably ease the daily dealings between service providers, and also ensure that parents are involved.

But like most bureaucratic wrangles, she said the issue came down to money.

“I remember going to a very early meeting when it all started. What became clear was that, while the Department for Education was keen on reforms, there would not be more funding,” she said. “Local authorities are struggling because each new educational health care plan is a much more complex document to produce.

“The theory behind the change is beautiful — the idea of working with parents and social services to meet the needs of every pupil. But the difficulty is in the reality of making it work.”

Ms Kopfstein argued there is still a long way to go, both in providing for children with SEN, as well as educating wider society to break taboos.

“We focus on life skills and preparing our pupils for independent living, but it is never too soon and it is never enough,” she said. “Our aim is to allow young people to have equal opportunities and be the best they can be.

“I am often surprised by the ignorance of people,” she added. “It is all about education and awareness. We want our children to be a part of the community and to give something back, so they don’t feel like they are just the recipients of charity.”

Her feelings were echoed by Norwood’s director of operations, Angela Duce, who oversees its special education support. The charity runs two services, Binoh and The Hope Centre, which work in conjunction with special and mainstream schools to give extra support for children with SEN between the ages of three and 19.

Ms Duce said the changes in law would enable Norwood to expand its services and work with more schools — adding to the 200 children it currently caters for at Binoh and the Hope Centre. The latter teaches pupils under the evidence based approach pioneered by Reuven Feuerstein, an Israeli cognitive psychologist, whose "thinking skills" techniques have been widely adopted across SEN sector.

“We are now looking to expand a three-tiered service in schools, providing universal, targeted and intensive services,” she said. “It’s a work in progress, but the reforms at least give children with SEN full access to all schools and the national curriculum.”

“The changes are good, but ambitious. What they say on paper about keeping children in the mainstream is great. But the worry is that, with cuts to funding, less pupils will be provided with EHC plans.”

Ms Duce repeated the importance of increasing awareness. “If we don’t focus on helping children to achieve their potential and be included in school, then you exclude them from society as a whole,” she said.

“Instead, you’re setting them off on a lifetime trajectory of being excluded. By bringing together a child’s education and health care, you can actually focus on the outcome and how the community can ensure they are both included and resilient.

“We should be making sure that SEN services are not seen as a separate provision, but are an important part of society as a whole.”


- Jweb: online directory
- Jsense: Manchester-based SEN provider
- JADDS: Support group for parents and carers
- Jewish Autism Trust:
- SOSSEN: Independent helpline for SEN services
- Contact a Family: national disability charity
- Kisharon:
- Langdon:
- Norwood:

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