An increase in the number of under 5’s with Education, health and care plans

Recent data shows that since EHCPs were implemented, the amount issued has risen every year. In this article, I look at why this is and what could be done to lower the number, through universal provision.
An increase in the number of under 5’s with Education, health and care plans
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Historically, children in education with SEND had statements of special educational needs. However, due to SEND reforms, in 2014 these statements were replaced by Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans. This was to recognise that many children with special educational needs also have health and care needs. As part of a national strategy for multi-agencies to work more effectively together, the aim of the new EHC plans were to bring together professionals working across different sectors/agencies, who work with a child.

It covers children and young people from 0-25 years old and provides details of a child or young person’s SEND, in addition to any health and social care needs. Together with the child, their parents/carers and professionals working with the child establish and agree upon outcomes, with clear instructions on how education, health and care services will work together to meet the child’s needs. EHC plans are produced by local authorities and reviewed annually (in some areas this can be every 6 months).

Latest data

Every year since the introduction of EHC plans, the number of plans requested and subsequently issued by local authorities has increased. Latest statistics published by the ONS showed that:

  • The total number of EHC plans in January 2024 stood at 575,963 (an 11.5% increase from the previous year.
  • Of this 575,963, 26,500 were issued to children aged under 5 years old.

Benefits

There are some very clear benefits for young children to have an EHC plan, namely to provide a clear outline of a child’s education, health and care needs and support multi-agencies in working together to achieve the best possible outcomes. It can also be a strong foundation for establishing what early intervention a child needs and would benefit from the most.

 As a legal document, an EHC plan also provides a clear line of responsibility and accountability for everyone involved in a child’s education, health and care to ensure that everything is being done to support them. Other benefits of having an EHC plan are associated with sources of funding, which can be used to secure an additional support person to work directly within a mainstream educational setting or enable a child to access specialist/alternative provision.

Concerns

However, there are concerns that the increasing number of requested and issued EHC plans are putting further pressure on an already struggling system. Between 2022 and 2023, the number of requests for an EHC plan assessment increased by 20.8%. Translated into figures, this meant that the total number of initial requests made for an EHC plan in 2023 was 138,242.

One of the biggest concerns is associated with costs. Although a child’s needs should never be assessed in terms of financial expenditures, if EHC plans continue they must remain sustainable for local authorities. In addition to the cost required for local authorities to process EHC plans, for those that are issued, a band of funding must be allocated to each plan. Typically, funding is between £4,500 and £6,000 per year, per plan. If the number of EHC plans continues to increase, availability of funding could vary from one locality to the next, depending on their local demand. This could then quickly turn into a ‘postcode lottery’ situation, if one locality comes under more pressure than another.

In a recent report commissioned by the Disabled Children’s partnership, it was highlighted that councils wasted £60m in SEND tribunals disputing EHC plans. 96% of the cases taken to a tribunal hearing were lost by the councils. With a critically underfunded SEND system already struggling, this money could arguably have been better used to fund specialist provision and more direct support for young children in mainstream settings.

The role of early years’ practitioners

In early years education and care, it is often the setting SENDCo who initiates an EHC plan request, with parental/carer support. The SENDCo draws on observations and reports from children’s key workers (and any other agencies professionals involved).

In recent years, the rise in the number of EHC plans is mirroring an increase in the number of young children being identified with SEND. This could be attributed to an increasing awareness and understanding of SEND, however, it could also be attributed to the continuing rippling effect of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is widely reported that children born during the pandemic are more delayed in their emotional, social, and communication development. Pair that delay with ‘typical’ child development of a 2/3-year-old in terms of engaging in schematic play (repeated actions/behaviours), you could quite easily, and mistakenly, build a profile that is reflective of a child with SEND. Therefore, practitioners need to draw upon all their experience, knowledge and take into consideration wider influences which can impact on a child’s development to make informed professional judgements. Although it can be frustrating for both practitioners and parents/carers, sometimes a watch and wait approach is the best course of action. This is not to say young children should not have EHC plans initiated, but practitioners need to have clear observations and reasoning to evidence why it is the best next step for a child.

It could be argued that if there were an increase in reasonable adjustments and more flexibility in education, then the amount of EHC plans may decrease. From my own personal experience, I requested EHC plans for my own children as it was a legal document that held educational settings accountable for meeting their needs. I felt that without an EHC plan in place, my children’s needs would not have been effectively met.

A further concern of mine was that my children were at risk of suspension or exclusion due to some of their behaviours which are associated with their SEND. I felt that an EHC plan provided a safety net. Although the purpose of EHC plans is not intended as ‘safety nets’, parents/carers find reassurance in them and can contribute to a reason for requesting them.

Instead of spending money on unsuccessful tribunals, local authorities should invest money back into early years settings and provide more support and training to practitioners. If practitioners increase their knowledge and understanding of SEND and how to provide and implement suitable provision and strategies to support young children, it could prove to be more effective than an EHC plan. This is not only limited to early years education but can be applied to all stages of education.

Conclusion

As with the case of most issues relating to SEND, there is no easy fix or ready to hand answer to find a resolution to the many problems. There are cases where it is necessary for young children to have an EHC plan in place, but for others it is much more of a grey area. With an increase in demand for EHC plans, children who would most benefit from having one in place within the early years may experience longer delays in receiving one. Funding may be re-directed into places where it is not beneficial to anyone, such as during tribunals. There may be children who may not necessarily gain any further benefit/support from having an EHC plan in place, however it does provide parents/carers with a sense of security around knowing their child’s needs have to be met. This brings the debate back to issues around high quality, effective practice, and if inclusive provision was universal, would a child still require an EHC plan?

The role of an early years’ practitioner continues to be challenging, faced with daily challenges, barriers to practice and increasing accountability. It is not the role of an early years’ practitioner to decide who should or should not have an EHC plan, but to gather high quality observations to evidence to support why a child would significantly benefit from having an EHC plan in place. Having a strong knowledge base of child development and a good understanding of external factors which can impact upon it can support early years practitioners observational and professional judgments.

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