Number of parents referring children on for extra support in Norfolk soars
- Credit: PA
Education, health and care plans (EHCP) are generally one of two things - an unfamiliar acronym, or a pivotal part of family life.
The plans are a formal acknowledgment of a child's special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), a document which, up to the age of 25, lays out their difficulties - and what support they need.
For families of children with complex needs, they have become the holy grail - a mark of confidence that, in an education system in which every penny counts, a child will be given the support they need.
And demand is fast rising. Norfolk County Council says they are likely to near, or reach, 1,000 new referrals for assessments for plans by the end of the year - a peak.
Last year, the figure hovered around the 820s, and sat at a steady 650 for several before that.
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It's not an easy rise to explain. In 2014, EHCPs replaced statements of need, and expanded the age range from statutory school years to include early years and those up to 25.
Michael Bateman, head of education inclusion service in the council's children's services team, said: 'We expected there would be growth from the change, but we do feel there's quite a bit of work to do to understand it fully.'
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The referral divide for statements had sat at - roughly - 95pc for schools and 5pc for parents. For EHCPs, he said, it's nearer 65pc schools and 35pc parents.
He said the local authority had taken strides to make the process easier, but that it was not proportionate to the increase.
Media coverage of the school funding crisis, the pressure on mainstream schools - and their SEND provision - and the lack of special school places has ramped up in recent years, and stories of parents struggling to find support are not uncommon.
The plans have, for many parents, become the only route which they feel provides a guarantee of better support - something Chris Snudden, assistant director of children's services, said was not the case.
'There is potentially a lack of confidence from families that schools are going to be able to meet a child's needs without a plan,' she said.
'The work we need to keep doing is to encourage people that we have confident schools who can still say 'don't worry, we are still able to meet children's needs'.'
There are often two main EHCP complaint threads - that parents feel they have been wrongly refused one, or that the process drags on for months.
In May, government figure showed that just 5.6pc of EHCPs were completed within the 20-week target.
Mr Bateman said the council was, generally, approving the same amount of EHCP applications, with many for which the council did not feel plans were the best option.
But Ms Snudden said they fully understood parents' frustration and had trebled their team - which are not only dealing with new referrals, but converting old statements into EHCPs.
'We try to take a conscientious approach with the child at the heart of plan,' she said. 'We want to make sure parents and carers are very involved and we don't want to be mechanistic about it.
'We know some have taken longer than we would like, but we have also had some fantastic comments from families.'
Generally, there was roughly 4,500 plans at any given time - but as of January, that figure had risen to just above 4,800, and is expected to increase again.
But they accepted the frustration of parents desperate to have answers.
Many parents say difficulties mean their child is unable to attend school, misses out on education and, in some cases, is now home educated.
'From our point of view, we don't underestimate the frustration and pressure families feel,' Ms Snudden said.
'We are really aware that they will anxious on a daily basis. Every day is one in that child's life and their educational life. If I had a special needs child I would want a plan by the end of the week.'
She said, going forward, the council hoped to point both parents and schools to alternatives to EHCPs - many of which can be found at www.norfolk.gov.uk/children-and-families/send-local-offer - and be more accessible to families in the EHCP process.
Everything seemed to take such a long time
Kayleigh Gray spent a little over 12 months waiting for her son Lewis' EHCP to be completed - more than double the 20-week limit.
Lewis, 13, has ADHD and was excluded from his mainstream school in 2016.
He spent 18 months out of school while the family sought an alternative, and an EHCP, and has only recently started at a specialist school.
Mrs Gray said things had improved now Lewis had his EHCP, but that he still had 'a long road ahead' as he caught up on the last year and a half of schooling.
She has previously criticised communication while waiting for the EHCP and said at times it felt like 'a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing'.
'It did take quite a lot longer than we were hoping for,' she said.
'Everything just seemed to take such a long time, but we did get there in the end.'
She has since tried to raise awareness of issues with the system for other parents.