Expert opinion carefully crafted to help senior leaders across the public sector to embrace complexity, find new ways of thinking and solve problems.

High Needs roundtable: our guest blogpost in CYP Now

by | Mar 11, 2021 | High Needs and children's education | 0 comments

Co-authored by Dame Christine Lenehan, Director of the Council for Disabled Children at the National Children’s Bureau)

This article was originally published in CYP Now

Rebalancing the High Needs system – what role can the SEND review play?

By Dame Christine Lenehan (Director of the Council for Disabled Children at the National Children’s Bureau) and Leo Jones (Director, IMPOWER)

Last week, we facilitated a hugely inspiring discussion between local system leaders (Directors of Children’s Services and Directors of Education) and the DfE SEND review team – around how best to rebalance the national SEND and High Needs System. This is clearly an urgent task.

Despite an investment of over £1.5billion in High Needs Block funding over the last two years, the number of Education Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) and their associated costs continues to increase, leading to forecast overspends this year of over £600million. This shows is that money alone isn’t the answer; the system needs a reset across a number of areas.

Our roundtable discussion was wide ranging, and the passion amongst those working in the sector to get the very best for children and young people with additional needs was clear. The positive impact that some councils have managed to achieve across one of the most complex policy and delivery areas is inspiring. The good news is that in a number of areas there was significant alignment between what the sector is calling for and what the SEND review is trying to achieve:

  • A greater focus on independence for children and young people with additional needs, and on preparing for adulthood from day one
  • A shift to earlier intervention, changing the cultural belief that an EHCP is a ‘golden ticket’ for support and provision
  • Ensuring the right accountability frameworks are in place with a financially sustainable system
  • A greater focus on inclusion in mainstream settings supported by the right funding and accountability

What also emerged from the discussion is that there are three key themes that need to be considered in any discussion about rebalancing the SEND and High Needs system, and that there is a need to rebuild trust and confidence between parents, partners and local authorities. The challenge will be to establish where these themes need national intervention and where change can be better affected at a local level.

  1. Communication is a central issue
  • There is a need for much earlier dialogue between parents, schools, health and local councils where early need arises; when such dialogue happens effectively, the results can be very positive. The pressure on statutory demand (and cost) has hampered sufficient investment in early intervention – that needs to change in order to reset the system.
  • There needs to be a recognition that sometimes a request for an assessment is a cry for help – and therefore that such dialogue must move away from a ‘yes/no’ response to an assessment or plan, and to a conversation about what level of need exists and how this can best be met.
  • Conversations about children need to shift to focus more on strengths and assets, rather than on seeing ‘need’ as a barrier to aspiration and achievement.
  • A revised dialogue between local councils and the judiciary around the process and decision making at tribunals is needed – mirroring the positive dialogue that takes place in social care.
  1. The challenge of a search for a diagnosis
  • We must recognise that a diagnosis on its own can actually narrow frame the needs of a child – and somehow reduce the focus on their strengths.
  • Understanding the social side to need and disability is crucial – so we must focus on integration and inclusion at every level for children with SEND, to drive high levels of aspiration and opportunity.


  1. A national training and development framework
  • We need to recognise that there are hundreds of professionals interacting with parents of children with SEND and that we don’t sufficiently value the skill set required to ensure that these interactions are positive.
  • ‘Strength-based discussions’ don’t happen on their own but require tools, practice and reflection – this needs to be better developed not just in local areas but nationally.
  • The skills and confidence of SENDCo’s is critical (including in early years) in building the confidence and trust of parents given that most children attend school.

Crucially, we must not lose the core ethos of the 2014 Care Act as it relates to children with additional needs – that integration of support across education, health and care is key to driving the best outcomes. Too often parents end up repeating their stories multiple times, to different people in different organisations – because they are dealing with a system where accountable bodies are not working together in partnership to deliver integrated care.

In keeping this at the core, the review must consider cross departmental working and how new Integrated Care Systems have the right accountability frameworks to put children at their centre, wrapping care and support around universal provision such as schools to support greater aspiration and independence for children with SEND.

It is clear that the SEND review cannot rebalance the complex High Needs system on its own, and that further work is needed to test emerging ideas and crucially ensure often good ideas on paper can be delivered in the field. But the will to improve the outlook for children with additional needs is certainly there if we can better define the way.