Our children deserve help to improve their life opportunities

CROYDON COMMENTARY: It is autism awareness week. There’s been events staged at the Town Hall, and tomorrow there’s a special meeting at which teens, young adults, parents, guardians and carers can discuss their situations with councillors and officials.
SARAH BOWELL, pictured right, is the mother of a teen with autism. Last week, she spoke at a council cabinet meeting, her brief address being greeted with stony silence by elected councillors. Here, she takes a takes a look at the council’s recent efforts to improve its provision for the borough’s young people with SEND

Last week, Croydon Council published their  Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Draft Strategy.

In its own words, the strategy sets out Croydon’s “aspirations for children and young people with SEND, and the approach to meeting their needs and addressing barriers to learning”.

While these aims are undoubtedly laudable, the strategy as it stands isn’t convincing in how it will achieve them.

SEND provision in Croydon has been dire for some time. In my view, there are many things that need to be added to the council’s strategy. There’s an awful lot to do.

Key areas of development set out in the strategy are to improve early identification of need, provide better graduated responses with better joint working, and to improve Post-16 opportunities and outcomes.

However, there is no real detail in the council’s report as to exactly how these areas will be developed and, critically, no information is provided as to how success will be measured in the months and years after the strategy has been implemented.

Jerry Fitzpatrick, centre, the Addiscombe councillor now the borough’s ‘Autism Champion’, meets parents and carers at the Town Hall this week

Currently, local authorities such as Croydon Council, along with health service clinical commissioning groups and education providers are required to follow the SEND Code of Practice – statutory guidance produced by the Department for Education and Department for Health – to help them implement changes made to the sector in 2015, including the introduction of Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs). As their name suggests, these plans are designed to help to ensure joint working across a range of disciplines, making it easier for children and young people to access the support they need across different services.

Far from being “ambitious” and “aspirational”, however, Croydon’s strategy doesn’t appear to go much beyond these basic legal requirements.

Despite having a goal focused on better joint working, there is no explicit mention of how social care will be involved in this aim. There is zero in the report about how those with EHCPs can access social care.

I know from my dealings with my son how difficult it is to find ways of being included in what for many are normal activities – such as the cubs, guides or scouts. I’ve seen how some teens, excluded from these social activities, can give up because they feel nobody wants them.

According to Croydon’s new report, to improve Post-16 opportunities, transition planning for adulthood will start from age 13. While this may sound impressive, the Code of Practice already requires transition planning to begin in Year 9 – the school year in which most students turn 14. In practice, therefore, the strategy merely states that the LA will meet their statutory duties.

The strategy also talks about the “development and publication of local eligibility guidance for children for whom the council undertakes an EHC needs assessment”. The Code of Practice already sets out clear requirements for an EHC assessment. While local authorities are entitled to develop their own criteria, the lack of detail in Croydon’s strategy makes it impossible to know how much the new guidelines will differ from the current legal requirements, or how they will avoid applying blanket policies – something they must not do by law.

Of real concern are those areas where the strategy appears to diminish requirements in the Code of Practice. There is no information provided as to how the council’s new “early years passports” will align with EHCPs, or if they will act as a replacement of sorts. If the latter is the case, it could make it more challenging for young children to access a place at a special school, many of which require a child to have an EHCP, or be undergoing assessment for one, in order to be considered for admission.

And of course, while maintaining an EHCP is a legal obligation, maintaining a Croydon style passport may (will) not offer the same rights.

Much of the strategy focuses on encouraging children and young people to access support in mainstream schools, rather than moving to special schools or other settings, such as alternative provision.

For some children, a mainstream school with appropriate support can be the best setting, and they can thrive. Mainstream education is also less costly than specialist provision, something that local authorities up and down the country will be considering in the current financial climate.

However, it is important to note that the Green Paper on SEND, published in 2014 as a pre-cursor to the Code of Practice, states explicitly that there should not be a bias towards inclusion or mainstream schooling.

It’s disappointing that the strategy misses the opportunity to address key issues having an impact on young people’s access to support in Croydon. For example, children’s occupational therapy services are only available to children up to the age of 16, while adult occupational therapy services do not become available until a young person is 18. As a result, those in Years 12 and 13 in Croydon who require OT are faced with the prospect of private provision (which is costly and can have very long waiting lists), or having no OT support at all for two years.

The council’s new strategy also makes no mention at all of placing SEND young people into apprenticeships. There is mention of providing help into supported internships. But then, you don’t get paid if you are in a supported internship. This is another example of how our SEND young adults are excluded by the council – in this case, excluded from the opportunity to earn a wage.

Tom Bowell meets Jerry Fitzpatrick at this weeks Town Hall event

This week, the council held an autism question and answer session at the Town Hall, presided over by the borough’s new “Autism Champion”, Councillor Jerry Fitzpatrick.

The responses of parents and carers to Cllr Fitzpatrick since he took on the role last year have been overwhelmingly positive.

“It was amazing. I actually felt listened to,” one mother at the Town Hall event told me. “That Autism Champion has a listening ear and a big heart.”

It is very much needed.

I am not proud to say that I come from Croydon, because of the way Croydon has treated my son. Because of delays and failures over his EHCP, my son, nearly 18, has had only hours of the education provision he is entitled  to, thanks to the council.

At last week’s cabinet meeting, the SEND strategy was presented and I was among the parents and young people given the chance to provide their feedback. Council leader Tony Newman invited us back in six months to discuss the progress made.

We can only hope that the cabinet took note of all of the feedback provided and that any changes to be made to SEND in Croydon help to improve the lives and opportunities of our children and young people – they deserve it.

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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