Edward Timpson speaks about special educational needs policy reform

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families Edward Timpson speaks about special educational needs policy reform in the Pears Annual Lecture, organised by Ambitious about Autism.

Thanks, Robert (Buckland, MP, Chair) for the introduction - and the valuable contribution you and your colleagues on the All Party Parliamentary Group on Autism have made to our reforms to special educational needs (SEN). I’m grateful for the opportunity to discuss them with you here today.

Thanks too to Ambitious about Autism for your positive and constructive engagement with these important changes.

These, as you know, are currently going through Parliament as part of the Children and Families Bill. This has just been through the committee stage in the House of Commons, with the report stage and third reading to come.

As your outstanding work at TreeHouse School shows, you know better than most what it takes to help children and young people with autism fulfil their potential. Which is why I so greatly value your input and that of other support groups, young people with autism and parents in shaping our reforms so that they really deliver for children and families living with the condition.

But our reforms are as much about a change in culture as a change in law. The 20 local pathfinders we’ve set up are pivotal to this change. Over 700 families are involved in these across 31 local authorities. Helping not only test the reforms, so we get the law and regulations right, but, as your conference title says, turning policy into practice.

Hearing what David (Nicholson, Youth Patron, Ambitious about Autism) and what the young people in the film had to say now, offers us a strong reminder of just what this means for children with autism.

It’s clear that in cherishing hopes and dreams, they are no different from their peers.

This sentiment also came across loud and clear when I met a very passionate group of parent bloggers, who have children with special educational needs, a few weeks ago.

They put it well, when they said they only wanted for their children what we want for our own children – support to help them develop and thrive, so they can make the most of their talents - whatever that might be. Surely the least these families deserve, given the huge challenges they already face.

Problems with the current system and the need for change

Instead, too many found themselves, to quote one mother, in “an unending battle” with the system that’s supposed to help them.

Too many found that their children’s special educational needs were picked up late.

Too many had to fight to get different services to work together – services that focused too much on the SEN label rather than on meeting the child’s needs and supporting their life outcomes.

And too many found that young people lost the protections and rights they had at school when they went on to further education.

So, it’s little wonder that young people with SEN often have such poor prospects, lagging behind their peers at school and college and being more likely to be out of education, training and employment at 18.

This is clearly unacceptable – a terrible waste of untapped potential and lives peppered by missed opportunities.

Which is why we must work together to fundamentally transform the system, so that it fits in with the needs of children and young people with SEN rather than the other way around.

Reforms in the bill

The reforms in the Children and Families Bill aim to do just this – to create a clearer, more joined-up approach that’s more focused on outcomes and better supports transition to adulthood.

Crucially, they’ll also do much more to involve children, young people and their families:

  • through a more integrated, streamlined assessment process
  • through a new birth to 25 Education, Health and Care Plan that sets out, in one place, all the support across services the child will receive
  • through a local offer outlining what support is available to children with SEN and their families in their area
  • and through joint commissioning of services by local authorities and local health bodies

How the reforms benefit children with autism

In doing so, we recognise that children and young people with autism can have particularly complex needs demanding intervention from a number of different agencies. So they should particularly benefit from the more joined-up approach in the Education, Health and Care Plan.

Many children with autism also stand to gain from a stronger push for early identification of SEN through initiatives such as the two to two-and-a-half year health visitor review. We’re committed to creating an integrated review from 2015 combining the health visitor review and the two year old Early Years Foundation progress review.

In addition, young people and parents will be able to opt for a personal budget, so they can have more choice and control over the support they or their child receives.

Changes to the bill/supporting transition

Now, as many of you will know, we’ve made a number of changes to the bill, having drawn on the views of children and young people with autism, parents and others in the field.

Most, notably, we’ve clarified our commitment to maintaining and, indeed, extending, existing rights and protections. I hope this reassures parents, who’ve fought so hard for their children, about what these changes mean. The truth is that their children will be better off because, for the first time, comparable protections will be in place from birth right through school into further education and training.

I know that one of the biggest frustrations young people with SEN and their families face is having to fight to get good information about what support’s available.

So, we’ve made some changes to the local offer to make this easier. These will require local authorities to involve children, young people and parents in developing and reviewing the local offer. The local authority will also have to publish and respond to their comments about the local offer.

It’s this direct input from families and local flexibility that will drive services to be truly responsive to needs on the ground.

We’re also developing proposals to ensure families get coordinated information across education, health and social care as part of the joint commissioning of services.

I’m conscious that transition from school to adulthood and independence also presents a huge challenge for young people with autism and other special educational needs.

Which is why we’ve made progress in this area a priority through the new 0 to 25 system, which stretches support further than ever before.

The focus on outcomes in the education, health and care plan, on what the child, young person and their family want to achieve in education, work and other areas, includes planning around key transition points.

Provisions in the bill further strengthen this support after the age of 16 in a number of ways - by, for example, for the first time, giving young people up to the age of 25 the right to request an assessment for an education, health and care plan.

Young people will also have the right to request that a particular college is named in their plan and to appeal against a decision made by the local authority at the tribunal.

In addition, we amended the legislation – following representations from Ambitious About Autism and others during the pre-legislative scrutiny stage – to ensure that local authorities maintain plans for young people who are not in education, employment or training up until age 18.

And for young people planning to leave education within 2 years, local authorities must ensure that the education, health and care plan looks ahead; that they set out clear transition plans, focused on outcomes, that help the young person progress successfully to adulthood.

Change to a single SEN category/support for those without a Plan

We’re keen to ensure that all children get the right support they need at the right time.

Better identification of their needs is key. Which is why we recently contracted the Autism Education Trust to continue and expand its important work in this area; so the trust’s work to train staff in schools will now be extended to early years and further education.

Better identification of need is also the spur for our proposals to replace the current school action/school action plus system with a new single SEN category.

This is a simplified, rigorous approach that aims to focus the system on the impact of the support provided to the individual child rather than on how child accesses support.

The changes, which will be set out in the new SEN code of practice, don’t change the legislative duties on schools. But they do challenge schools to improve the quality of teaching and learning for all pupils, rather than inappropriately and inaccurately labelling some pupils as having SEN.

This drive to raise education standards and better prepare all children for adult life is underlined by our commitment to raise the participation age in education or training to 18.

Supported internships

However, we know that young people with autism can find it especially hard to find work. Which is why we’re trialling supported internships for young people with complex learning difficulties or disabilities, at 15 colleges around England. These are further education courses, based mainly with an employer, that provide young people with SEN with on-the-job training and support from expert job coaches.

Similar programmes have already yielded some success stories. One young man called David, who is on the autistic spectrum, found a job in the catering department of the University of Surrey after taking part in an internship supported by the university, Guildford College and EmployAbility, a not-for-profit body that helps disabled students find work. The confidence he gained led him to taking on a role as a voluntary caterer at the Olympics.

A fantastic example of how targeted support can go a long way towards helping young people with SEN become more independent.

These are just the sort of outcomes that our reforms aim to achieve.

But, as I’ve said before, it’s a shift in culture, above all, that’s needed to really transform support and aspiration for children with SEN and their families.


Getting different services to work together and put the child and their family in the driving seat isn’t easy. But pathfinders, across the country are developing new systems with families at their heart, proving it can be done.

In West Sussex, the SE7 has developed new arrangements based on early years multi-agency planning meetings. The 30 families who’ve been involved report that the new approach is proving much more supportive and responsive to their needs.

Elsewhere, Medway has carried out single coordinated assessment for a small number of younger children and used a video play tool to bring parents and professionals together as part of the assessment process. They have also acted to make sure assessment reports and education, health and care plans are clear and jargon-free.

As with those in West Sussex, parents and professionals are said to be delighted with this new approach which, they feel, truly puts the child at the heart of the process.

Over 600 families now have a new education, health and care plan. These seem to be going down well - of the 65 families surveyed for an evaluation, the vast majority said they felt positive about the pathfinder process.

I’ve seen for myself the difference the new plans are making on recent visits to pathfinders in Surrey and Bromley. I heard some really encouraging stories there from young people and their parents who said they felt much more involved in drawing up their package of support through the education, health and care plans.

I also heard about some of the challenges we face in making sure elements of the reforms, like personal budgets and transitions into adulthood, are working as well as we would want.

It seems, from what I’ve seen, that one of keys to success of the pathfinder work, is collaboration done in positive spirit - individuals and organisations being willing to work with others they haven’t worked with before, with a focus on what needs to be achieved and a plan, broken down into small steps, of how to get there.

As I said last year, the pathfinders will continue until September 2014 so we can make the most of their experience

Code of practice

Their insights, along with the views of other interested parties, will inform a new shorter, clearer code of practice. This will provide practical guidance to professionals and families and will include, for the first time, information on post-16 and the further education sector.

As you may know, we published an indicative draft of the code in March to support the committee’s scrutiny of the SEN clauses of the bill.

As the name suggests, the draft is indicative of the government’s thinking and is not, I should stress, a final document. So there will be plenty of time to have a say on this during the passage of the Bill and when we consult publicly on a full draft of the code this autumn.


Learning from the pathfinders and others will also feed into our approach to transition as we move from the old to the new system.

We want children and young people with SEN and their families to benefit from the improved arrangements as soon as possible, while at the same time ensuring that that the best possible service is maintained through transition.

Our ambition, once the legislation comes into force, is to see all new assessments undertaken to be for new education, health and care plans.

To ensure a smooth changeover, we believe a phased approach will be needed to transfer children and young people with existing statements and learning difficulty assessments to education, health and care plans.

These changes will need very careful consideration and we’re gathering views from interested parties to find the best way forward. We’ll set out details of our preferred approach in a draft order which will be subject to formal consultation later this year.

I’d like to reassure those worried that existing statements could lose their legal status during transition. I’m clear that existing statements and learning difficulty assessments will retain current legal rights until they’re replaced by education, health and care plans.


I want to work with you, as we’ve done on the bill, to make sure this transition period runs smoothly for all concerned, so that children and young people with SEN and their families can benefit from our reforms as soon as possible - and when I say our reforms, I hope, very much, that you will also see them as your reforms.

Because you all have a significant role to play in making them a reality on the ground.

Now, I know that change can be daunting, especially when it involves vulnerable children and change to a system that’s gone largely untouched for three decades.

But we have a real opportunity here to make a difference.

By extending support into adulthood, getting services working together and providing better information, these reforms have the potential to transform thousands of young lives and those of their families.

Indeed, given the complex nature of autism, our success in improving support and outcomes for children with the condition can be seen as a test of the reforms.

But to make them a reality, we need you, as trusted groups, individuals and leaders, to help explain these changes and ensure children with SEN and their families fully benefit from them.

We’re keen to support you in this, which is why I’m pleased that we’ll be continuing to support Ambitious about Autism over the next two years through our grants programme.

I know that you are planning to work with the Association of Colleges and some mainstream colleges on innovative ways of helping young people with autism make the transition from school to college. I’ll be very interested to hear about the progress you make.

I’m optimistic that, by working together in this way, we can build a better system that’s truly on the side of those depend on it.

A system that, as one of the parent bloggers put it, “sees my son as the funny, smart little boy I see. The little boy who deserves to have people who are there to help him driven to do their very best so he has as many opportunities as other children.”

That’s what I want to see. And I know it’s what you want. Let’s work together to make it happen.

Thank you.