After months of debate, the Children and Families Act 2014 came into force yesterday (1 September). The Act is wide-ranging, dealing with everything from parental leave to free school meals, but by far the most meaningful changes relate to adoption, looked-after children, and special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

I want to focus on the last of these amid fear that changes and cuts to local authority budgets could undermine reforms made under the Act.

The Act intends to create a culture change within the system by placing young people and their parents at the centre of decision making, enabling them to become active participants in their own care. One of the key principles behind this change is a focus on achieving the best possible outcomes for young people, away from a previous emphasis on outputs; local authorities are now encouraged to work towards outcomes, such as having the confidence to travel independently to a drama class at college, instead of simply attending the course.

This will happen through the introduction of Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans—where educational needs are considered alongside health and social care needs to encourage better joined-up working across different agencies, institutions and charities working with young people. EHC plans will be maintained until the outcomes for that young person are achieved (up to the age of 25). They can also be delivered through personal budgets—payments made directly to an individual or family so they can buy their own care services—meaning, in theory, that young people and their families will have more choice over their care.

This all seems very positive, but there are a few concerns I’d like to raise.

  • The Act will change how local authorities spend money on school leavers with high levels of need. They will now have to think carefully about how they budget for all children and young people with high levels of need up to the age of 25. This could make it difficult to preserve specialised services for school leavers with complex needs.
  • Local authorities will face another round of spending cuts this year, adding to increasing worry that we’ll see a preference for cheaper short-term options over more expensive long-term solutions.

What does this mean for charities?

Again, some positives notes as well as a few causes for worry.

Thousands of charities work with children and young people with SEND to provide support and guidance, campaign and advocate for disabled rights, and deliver direct services. The reforms have the potential to improve access to good quality support, bringing a welcome focus on co-operation, integration and joint commissioning. And certainly charities that work closely with disabled young people, especially those providing specialist care, will have a good understanding of their needs and should be included in the development of EHC plans.

However, concerns exist around delivery; for the impact that charities can have will be limited if they are fighting against a culture where providing the cheapest service is seen as an adequate way to meet young people’s needs.

Those in charge of coordinating an EHC plan need to work closely with young people, the charities that support them, and the statutory services involved in their care, if they are serious about achieving the best possible outcomes.

We’ll certainly be watching to see how the new system translates in practice and what impact this has on the lives of those it is meant to support.

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