Whitehouse helps clients transform the lives of children with complex needs

Wednesday 9 April 2014, response to news of a policy announcement that a client had been campaigning for:

Chair of Action Cerebral Palsy, Amanda Richardson

Wow! That is absolutely fantastic. I think we should all feel proud that this really important recommendation has been published. It will make a great difference to the progress and outcomes of many children.

In October 2013 The Whitehouse Consultancy announced that its pro bono client for the next 12 months was to be Action Cerebral Palsy (ACP), a consortium incorporating ten of the leading specialist centres working with children with cerebral palsy across the UK. In their first meeting with Whitehouse, ACP mentioned that a significant problem in the progress and outcomes of many children with cerebral palsy (CP) is that once a child has their CP identified in a health setting, parents often do not know where they can go so that their children receive crucial educational advice, guidance and intervention to be put in place before the child starts school. ACP explained that health professionals were able to offer advice on the medical interventions that child may benefit from, but not the educational support that had the capacity to transform children’s lives.

The problem was that when a parent has a child identified with complex developmental and/or sensory needs such as cerebral palsy, usually their only point of contact was with health professionals such as GPs and health visitors. Education and health services for young children are not joined up, so health bodies did not need to be aware of the educational support available to children, and health professionals too often did not advise parents about the non-medical support their child could receive because they were not required to know this information. This problem went all the way to the top, with the Education Secretary himself telling his Opposition counterpart last month that he did not need to answer questions about health professionals because it was not his responsibility (see transcript below).

From that first meeting with ACP, Whitehouse identified an opportunity. The Department for Education (DfE) had introduced reforms earlier that year to transform special educational needs provision for children and young people, which aimed to make health and education services more “joined up”. The DfE was consulting on the guidance for how those reforms would work in practice, the draft SEN Code of Practice, which did not include any obligations for health bodies to let parents of children with complex needs know about the educational support in their area. Whitehouse also worked with several other clients with interests in this area, including The Communication Trust and Communication Matters – which support children and young people with speech and language difficulties, such as children with CP.

In their respective responses to the DfE’s consultation on the draft SEN Code of Practice, Whitehouse recommended to Action Cerebral Palsy, The Communication Trust and Communication Matters, that they ask the Department to introduce a recommendation that health professionals should be obliged to know this information so they can support parents of young children with complex needs. All three organisations included this recommendation in their responses and Whitehouse supported these organisations’ effort to lobby the DfE to make this change. The DfE was naturally wary of the introducing a recommendation over professionals that it does not have responsibility for, while the Department of Health itself has historically been very reluctant to place obligations on health professionals to know certain information as they believe the respective Royal Colleges should set standards for health workers.

This is why an announcement this week by the DfE was so significant. On Tuesday 8th April, the Department for Education published advice on how local authorities and their health partners should implement the special educational needs and disability (SEND) reforms, introduced by the Children and Families Act 2014. This was a directive from the Department for Education setting out that health bodies will now be obliged to do exactly what we were campaigning for. Paragraph 28 of the guidance stated:

Where complex developmental and/or sensory needs are identified at birth or in the very early years through regular health checks, which mean a young child under compulsory school age has or will have SEND, the health body must inform the parent, discuss it with them, and let them know about any voluntary organisations that are likely to be able to provide advice or assistance. This includes the educational advice, guidance and intervention to be put in place early and before the child starts school. The health body must also draw that child to the attention of the appropriate local authority, who must then consider whether the issue is sufficiently complex and long term that an EHC plan assessment is appropriate.

It was a case of a good argument being made through the appropriate channels by a chorus of voices that led to a policy that will transform children lives. Education and voluntary and community service providers now may legitimately approach their local NHS and insist that they let parents know about the services they provide for young children with complex needs. This will mean that parents can ensure that their children receive crucial support that they may not otherwise be aware of.

Below is shows you a transcript of the problem we overcame, showing the Department for Education’s reluctance to take responsibility over the requirements of health bodies only a month ago.

Monday 24 March 2014

House of Commons, Oral Answers to Questions to the Secretary of State for Education, Mr Speaker in the Chair. 

Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt

The Tories might laugh at the impact that health visitors have on early-years education, but the Opposition think that the early years are vital… Will the Government’s commitment to 4,200 new health visitors be matched this Parliament, or is it another broken promise, like Sure Start centres?

Education Secretary Michael Gove

The early years are indeed very important. That is when children often learn to spell. It is important that the Secretary of State can tell the difference between education, e-d-u-c-a-t-i-o-n, and health, h-e-a-l-t-h. Responsibility for health visitors, like responsibility for doctors and nurses, is for the Secretary of State for Health, and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman addresses those questions to my right hon. Friend.

The Education Secretary thought it was so absurd that his Labour Shadow should ask him questions about health professionals that he mocked him for it because it was not his responsibility. This response epitomised an institutional intransience that together we were able to overcome.

Oliver Cardinali