News and Comment

Countdown to the local offer for children with SEND

Tuesday 12 August 2014

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It might not seem like it as we bask in the midsummer heat, but September is coming up fast and local authorities are preparing to implement their ‘local offer’ for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) from 1st September. The local offer is basically what it says on the tin: what’s on offer for children and young people with SEND and their families, in their local area, and councils are working now to get all the information about this offer into one comprehensive and accessible place.

My fellow OPM researchers and I have been visiting families in a number of areas which took part in the SEND pathfinder evaluation, piloting the education, health and care (EHC) plan which will replace the annual statement of SEN over the next few years. As part of our interviews with families we’ve been asking whether they are aware of their local offer and what they think about it. There’s a mixed picture – some haven’t heard of it at all, while others have, but don’t know what it is yet. But there is one common theme which is plenty of enthusiasm for the concept in principle. Unsurprisingly the parents we’ve talked to love the idea of having information, links and contacts for services that are relevant and accessible to their child or young person, in their area, all listed in one place.

Earlier this summer OPM helped Achieving for Children, a community interest company delivering children’s services in the London boroughs of Richmond and Kingston, to hold a series of engagement events where parents and school staff could find out more about the SEND changes and the local offer in their area. Again the general idea was welcomed: ‘it should have always been there’, and was seen as ‘a step towards greater transparency’. Some key messages from parents and staff who attended were:

  • the local offer could help to address patchy knowledge of provision which can leave parents frustrated in their efforts to find out what’s available
  • families want the local offer to enable them to meet their family’s individual needs without getting lost in the detail and abundance of information, ‘in order to avoid it becoming like a maze’. Accessibility and usability of the planned website is crucial, i.e. it needs to be clear, user friendly and intuitive
  • people also wanted to know who would help them to navigate and make sense of the local offer – ideas included an online forum, someone playing an ‘information navigator’ role, or a telephone helpline?
  • as well as the website, alternative formats should be provided for families with different preferences and levels of capacity to access information online.

Richmond and Kingston demonstrated in this engagement process an inclusive and genuinely co-produced approach to developing their local offer, and through it gained valuable input from those who have a real need and appetite for their local offer to meet their needs. Other councils are doing likewise, Darlington for example, who have a survey and wide array of resources on their local offer webpage. Many are drawing on expertise and materials from the Council for Disabled Children and a number of voluntary sector organisations are also offering helpful guides to the SEND reforms more generally.

But while lots of councils have developed smart and clear front-end pages for their local offers, where you can click on categories of services, actually clicking through reveals mixed levels of effectiveness in terms of content and searchability. An article on parent-led website Special Needs Jungle raises interesting questions about how far local offers will end up reflecting local need, if they are developed from a starting point of ‘what technology do we have’, rather than ‘what do users want?’  So concerns remain about how accessible the local offer will be come September and whether families will really notice the difference when they try to get information about what’s available to them. We’ll be continuing to meet with young people and parents in SEND pathfinder areas over the rest of this year and will be keen to find out how it’s panning out from their perspective.