EHCPs in 2018: where are we now?

Matt Keer discusses the recent annual statistical review of Education, Health and Care Plans, exploring how the new system is progressing. This article originally appeared on Special Needs Jungle

Author: Matt Keer
EHCPs in 2018: are we 'bedded in' yet
At the end of May the Department for Education (DfE) published its annual statistical review of Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs). This data tracks the progress of paperwork - it tells you very little about the quality of the EHCPs themselves and nothing about how well the EHCPs are being implemented.
So what does the data tell us?
EHCP numbers are sharply up and statement numbers are down - there were roughly 286,000 live EHCPs in January 2018, compared to about 175,000 in January 2017. That’s unsurprising. Local authorities (LAs) still had a huge number of statements of special educational needs (SEN) to convert over to the new special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) system - and converted statements accounted for most of the increase in EHCP numbers in 2017. 
Nonetheless, demand for new EHCPs is up – the number of new EHCPs produced in 2017 was 17% higher than in 2016, as was the number of requests for EHC needs assessment.
But the fastest growth in EHCP numbers isn’t from school pupils – in fact, the number of secondary-age school pupils with an EHCP or statement isn’t growing much faster than the wider school population. It’s the post-16 area that’s seeing the sharpest rise in numbers – particularly in further education, which had a 45% rise in the number of students with a statement or EHCP in 2017.
One of the main legislative changes that came in with the 2014 Children & Families Act was the extension of the right to statutory SEND provision up to the age of 25 in particular circumstances. The impact of this change is now starting to make itself felt in a big way. Local authorities now have to meet the needs of many more young people with SEND, and they haven’t had a meaningful uplift in resources to do it.
But the financial pain will be spread far and wide – and it’s the school sector that’s likely to take the brunt of it.
Mainstream vs special schools
Eight years ago, there were tens of thousands more children with a statement of SEN in mainstream education than there were in special schools. That gap has now narrowed to nothing – and depending on how you squint at the data, the gap may have reversed.
There are now more children with an EHCP or SEN statement in special schools than there are in state mainstream schools. My kids are in special schools. They are thriving. They wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, and I wouldn’t want them anywhere else. But we all should be asking serious questions about what lies behind this steady drift away from mainstream. Are parents actively choosing a special school for their children as a first option? I’d like to think that the taboo about special schools is breaking, but the figures don’t necessarily support that.
Alternatively, are families being pushed towards special schools due to failures in mainstream placements – are some even being actively repelled by a minority of less inclusive mainstream schools? That seems more likely to me.
There has also been a sharp drop in the number of children with EHCPs and statements in mainstream SEND units and resource bases– a 9% fall in the last year alone. The drops are apparently not just in maintained mainstream schools, but in the fast-expanding mainstream academies sector too
This is a trend that makes special school provision increasingly important to high-needs SEND – but how sustainable is the growth in special school placements? Talk to leaders in the sector and they’ll tell you special school capacity is already bursting at the seams, and there is nowhere near enough growth to meet expected demand. And they’re right.
Is it becoming harder to get an EHCP?
Not necessarily, according to these figures. LAs refused about 14,600 initial requests for an EHC needs assessment in 2017. That’s almost exactly the same number of refusals as in 2016, even though the number of requests in 2017 was far higher. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s any easier to get an EHCP though– in 2017, LAs were slightly more likely than before to refuse to produce an EHCP after conducting an EHC needs assessment.
And importantly, these broad, statistical brushstrokes tell you nothing about whether LAs have changed their thresholds for assessment, or whether these thresholds are lawful. But you get a better idea by looking at individual LAs, because the rate at which they refuse to conduct EHC needs assessments. Some LAs barely refused any requests, whilst others refused more than half of the requests they received– the latter looks particularly dodgy, given the extremely low threshold in law.
How quickly are the plans being produced?
In the vast majority of situations, LAs should complete the process of producing new EHCPs within 20 weeks. But ever since the SEND reforms became law in 2014, LAs as a whole, have fallen well short of this statutory requirement.
2017 was no exception, although the overall rate of completion within 20 weeks has improved slightly: 
  • 59% in 2016
  • 65% in 2017.
That’s an improvement – but not one to cheer much about – it still leaves at least one in three EHCPs arriving late.
Again, this overall figure masks huge variation in performance between individual LAs– the worst of them managed less than 2% on time, but 23 LAs managed to complete more than 95% of their new EHCPs within 20 weeks.
There is a loophole that allows LAs to wriggle out of issuing plans on time, and yet again some councils appear to have made use of it in 2017. The numbers also don’t tell you how badly delayed some of these EHCPs are – they just tell you how many took longer than 20 weeks, not how many took over 30 weeks, 40 weeks, or even a year. And that’s a real problem – check this article for more detail.
…and what about statement conversions?
There are real concerns about the process of getting children with statements of special educational need transferred over to the new SEND system - there have been many children who used to have statements who now are receiving very low-quality EHCPs.
But what about those who aren’t getting a plan at all? When they rolled out the new system, the DfE said – loudly, and clearly– that no child or young person with SEND should lose provision simply because they are moving over to the new SEND system. 
The reality appears to have been very different. Between September 2014 and January 2018, over 7,600 children who had a statement of special educational need under the old system were refused an EHCP by their local authority. There’s barely any difference in the legal threshold for entitlement to an EHCP compared to a statement – in fact, the entitlement to an EHCP can last for longer. So what happened to these kids, and where did it happen?
At this stage, it’s very hard to say why these thousands of children and young people did not get an EHCP when they were transferred over to the new system. But the DfE data does allow us to take a look at where it happened – and it appears to be concentrated in a minority of LAs who appear to have been unusually unwilling to provide statemented children with an EHCP upon transfer.
The chances are high that there’s worse news to come on this front. The data from the DfE stops in mid-January 2018 – almost exactly 10 weeks before the 31st March deadline to transfer statements over to the new SEND system. At that point in mid-January 2018, LAs still had to transfer 34,000 children with statements to the new system. 3,400 per week, a bureaucratic essay crisis on a stadium-sized scale.
What next?
We’re expecting another turbulent year in SEND. From the perspective of families, EHCPs appear to be in greater demand than ever before as a route to secure special educational provision.
However, resources have never been tighter and EHCPs are being increasingly characterised as an unsustainable cost sink, with some LAs exploring ways of allocating SEND funding without using EHCPs. 
The future of the EHCP is likely to come under more scrutiny as the House of Commons Select Committee is due to investigate SEND over the next few months.
Further information
This article is an edited version of EHCPs: are we 'bedded in' yet? which was published on the Special Needs Jungle website on 25 May 2018.
Date added: 26 June 2018