18 September 2023

There wasn’t a lot to welcome in last year’s SEND consultation paper, which set out the Government’s plans for changing the SEND system and, in IPSEA’s view, risked weakening children and young people’s right to special educational provision that meets their individual needs. One thing we did welcome, though, was the long-overdue acknowledgement that a national template for Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans is necessary. 

An EHC plan is a legal document describing a child or young person’s special educational needs, the support they need, and the outcomes they aim to achieve. Ever since the Children and Families Act 2014 was passed, every local authority has been able to decide for itself what the local format should be for an EHC plan. This has resulted in huge variations, which are particularly problematic for specialist schools that educate children from a number of different local authorities. 

The SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan published earlier this year confirmed the Government’s intention to go ahead with a national EHC plan template. This is being worked on by the “EHCP Reform Team” at the Department for Education, and the plan is for this to be tested in the local areas that are taking part in the SEND Change Programme. 

Detailed, specific and legally enforceable 

IPSEA regularly raises with the Department for Education our concerns about the extent to which local authorities disregard the law on supporting children and young people with SEND. We see a national EHC plan template as a way of making it harder for local authorities to avoid their legal obligations – but only if it’s legally watertight and results in no unintended consequences for the child or young person. 

From our knowledge of the SEND legal framework and experience of advising parents/carers on securing an EHC plan that meets all their child or young person’s needs, we know that the main thing that needs to improve is the amount of detail and specificity in individual EHC plans. 

The planned new template isn’t simply a question of how best to lay out information in a document. It’s an important opportunity to help local authorities engage with all aspects of a child or young person’s special educational needs and/or disability, including any health and social care needs they have. 

While co-production with parents matters, so does the law. The template shouldn’t simply look user-friendly but must enable every piece of provision to which a child or young person is entitled to be set out clearly and specifically, connected explicitly to both a need and an outcome. 

Needs, provision, outcomes – in that order 

In our view, the starting point in producing an EHC plan should always be the child or young person’s education, health and social care needs. We think that a table format with columns for ‘needs’, ‘provision’ and ‘outcomes’ – in that order, left to right – is the most logical and useable way to present a child or young person’s EHC plan. Needs must always be at the forefront. 

There should be separate tables for education, health and social care needs/provision, with provision specified to meet each need and correctly classified as education, health or social care. 

We have also told the Department for Education that the national EHC plan template should come with a single set of guidance notes attached, to help parents, local authorities, schools, health and social care providers and others understand how various terms are defined and what is required in each section of the plan. Guidance notes should also clarify issues such as who is responsible for providing and funding specific provision. 

Not a miracle solution 

Getting the new template right should be a priority for policy-makers. Their aim should be to solve existing problems, not create new ones. It shouldn’t be necessary for parents/carers to have access to legal advice in order to make their child’s EHC plan work to meet all their needs, as the law intends. 

We know, of course, that a single national template won’t in itself be a miracle solution. The quality of a child or young person’s EHC plan is always going to be dependent on the quality of the evidence on which it’s based. 

For that reason, we think that the Department for Education should also produce a national template for evidence given by individual professionals as part of the EHC needs assessment process. This would make sure that the information and advice on which a child or young person’s EHC plan is based is as complete and detailed as possible, in line with what the law requires.