Free article: Parental engagement - Changes for parents and schools

Published: Thursday, 20 February 2014

Jenny Townsend gives an overview of the green paper’s potential impact on schools’ relationships with parents.

 This article was first published in Issue 2 of SEN Leader Magazine. Be aware that some information given here may now be out of date.


  • Outline of the proposed changes.
  • Existing problems and challenges that parents of SEN children face.
  • New challenges for schools.
  • The implications of the proposals for parental engagement with schools.
  • Questions and challenges that remain.

The government’s ambitious green paper on special educational needs, published in March 2011, marked the beginning of the governmental process to reform provision for children with SEN. These changes, heralded as being the biggest in 30 years, have been focused on the need to drive up standards and improve the outcomes for children and young people who have SEN or are disabled.

Further details about the government’s plans for the provision of special educational needs were outlined in the Children and Families Bill, published in February 2013. The regulations and new code of practice that will support this bill continue to be informed by the work of the local pathfinders. The bill will become law in 2014.

The SEN pathfinders

In September 2011 20 pathfinders encompassing 31 local authorities across England set about testing the approaches outlined in the green paper. This pathfinder programme has recently been given an 18 month extension, until September 2014, to give more time for the piloting of the new proposals.

The government wants parents to have a much more important role in the future regarding the education and health support of pupils with SEN. Chapter two of the green paper acknowledges that “parents know their child best”. The aim is to extend parents’ influence, increase their confidence, give them better support and more control.

Barriers experienced by SEN parents

The government wants to address a number of problems that parents of SEN children often face, especially when they have to battle to get the support that their child needs. Caring for a child with SEN can place them under huge pressure in their personal and working lives. Such pressures have been exacerbated when their children have had to undergo multiple assessments without the parents having any meaningful involvement in the process.

In addition, SEN parents may experience feelings of isolation from their child’s school when their child is required to travel longer distances to school on specially adapted methods of transport. As a result of this they are likely to have fewer opportunities for face-to-face contact with their child’s teachers than they would like.

They also experience low levels of esteem if they feel the school has low expectations of their child and/or if they are not being listened to. They can feel frustrated when lack of flexibility and decisive action have led to their child falling so far behind that failure has become inevitable.

The new challenges for schools

One of the key platforms of the green paper is about the joining up of services. Home–school links will take on an even greater significance for both schools and parents. There will need to be a definite two-way dialogue – from school to home and from home to school. Parents will want to know the details of exactly what their future roles will entail, as well as the routes for accountability within the decision-making process. Schools will need to be clear about how they will be held to account and how they will deal with any complaints from parents that arise.

In order for parents to be able to take on a greater role in terms of the support they receive, they will need to be clear about their options and to understand how decisions are made that affect their child’s support and education.

The Children and Families Bill announces a raft of measures to overhaul teacher training, which will contribute to a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by parents of SEN children. These include the intention to make funding available to secure initial teacher training placements in special schools and funding to train newly appointed SENCos to Master’s level. Scholarships will also be made available for teachers to undertake mainly postgraduate-level qualifications in SEN and specific impairments.

Schools will need to consider what and how they can learn from their existing parents of SEN and disabled children. Finding out in more detail what parents are already doing at home to support their children’s learning and development will be invaluable to the work being done in school to raise pupil achievement and to consider what else could be done.

The proposals – and their implications

So let’s look at some of the main elements of the proposals and consider what might be some of the implications for schools and parents (while also acknowledging that many other organisations/partners have a role to play here too).

The single action plan

The replacement of the SEN statementing system (School Action and School Action Plus) with a single plan from birth to age 25 is designed to combine all the services into one education, health and care plan (EHCP). The intention behind this multi-agency approach is to eliminate the need for pupils to undergo repeated assessments with different agencies.

Currently families have not always known who is responsible for meeting their child’s special needs. Long delays and a waste of public money have often been the result.

The government wants parents to be very much included in the assessment process. This proposed partnership with parents will challenge schools (and other services) to ensure that parents (and their children) are listened to so that their child will get the support they need to help them succeed.

The Education Select Committee recommends, in the Children and Families Bill, that parents should be kept informed about the timescales for responding to requests for assessments and carrying out assessments. New regulations will be put in place to align assessment timescales between local authorities and health agencies.

The personal budget

From 2014 parents with an EHCP for their child will have a legal right to a personal budget for their child’s support. (This will not be compulsory, but if parents choose to take up this opportunity it will give them control of the funding for the support their child needs).
Parents will be given a choice of whether to take control of the personal budget by agencies managing the funds on their behalf or, where appropriate, by receiving direct payments, if they are suitable, to purchase and manage the provision themselves. For parents who do want to manage their own budgets, questions about who will ultimately be responsible for that support will arise. Perhaps schools might decide to run support sessions to assist parents who have poor numeracy skills or who lack confidence in getting their voices heard.

Joined up services

With parents having a central involvement in the assessment process, local authorities, schools, health services and voluntary groups will be required to come together to link up services for disabled children and young people so that these can be jointly planned and commissioned. The aim is to ensure that the best package of support is available for SEN children and disabled children.

The Education Select Committee, in the Children and Families Bill, has emphasised their commitment to joined up thinking: “The Committee places considerable emphasis on securing strong commitment from the National Health Service for the joined up working needed to ensure the success of our reforms.” Although it is not clear how this will operate in practice, this is something that the pathfinders have been exploring.

Local offer

Requiring local authorities to publish a local offer showing the support available to disabled children and young people and those with SEN, and their families, is another key aim of the green paper. This is intended to simplify, for parents, exactly what is available. For those parents with poor levels of literacy this will be another challenge to be faced. If schools are unable to provide any support in this area they may be able to help signpost those parents to literacy sessions in their local area.

Dispute mediation

Introducing mediation for disputes and trialling, giving children the right to appeal if they are unhappy with their support, is another feature of the new legislation. Some children, as well as their parents, are likely to express high levels of anxiety about how this all could work. Schools will need to consider what their role might be in terms of providing impartial advice, training and support for these children and parents.

School choice and parent voice

Once the new proposals become law, parents whose children have an EHCP will have the legal right to seek a place at any of a wide number and variety of state-funded schools of their choice: maintained, academy, free school or special school. These choices were extended in the Children and Families Bill to include independent specialist colleges and independent schools. The government intends to publish a list of approved institutions in due course.

Obviously the preferred school would have to be suitable for their child. This raises questions about how the process would be managed when SEN children are transferring from, for example, a primary to a secondary school (or from a secondary school to post-16 provision).

Schools are bound to be consulted by parents about the next stage of their child’s education and so it will be essential that parents and children are provided with impartial information about the various options available. The single plan will run from birth to 25 years of age for those with a learning difficulty assessment (otherwise it is from birth to age 19).

Many questions remain

Although there is much to be welcomed in the overall direction of the government’s proposed legislation to reform provision for children with SEN, at this stage the draft legislation lacks significant detail, making it impossible to assess the real impact of the proposals once they become law. Many questions remain, such as what will the assessment process look like, and who will it work for? It is hoped that the new regulations and the new SEN code of practice will provide sufficient clarification. What is clear is that there will be many challenges ahead for both schools and parents. 

About the author

Jenny Townsend is a freelance education advisor to schools across the UK supporting various aspects of school improvement. She has extensive experience of supporting schools in the following areas: continuing professional development; community engagement; inclusion; adult and family learning; and parental engagement.

Jenny, a director of Townsend Consultancy Ltd, can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or on the mobile phone number 07990 570 439. The company's website address is:  

This article was first published in the April 2013 edition of SEN Leader magazine.