The Children and Families Act 2014; are we expecting too much of it?
The Children and Families Act 2014 (CFA 2014) was hailed as landmark legislation aimed at improving services for vulnerable children and supporting families no matter what their background. Eight years on the effectiveness of the legislation continues to be debated. Families, professionals and policy makers alike would all agree, but perhaps for different reasons, that things are not working as they should be.
Over the past four years I have been privileged to have worked with a number of families of learning-disabled children as part of my doctoral research; focussing on how the CFA 2014 has impacted for families of learning-disabled children and their quality of life. The study, which was qualitative and phenomenological, worked with 29 individuals including parents, learning-disabled children and siblings. Whilst a comparatively small sample, typical of qualitative study, the data obtained through family narratives and the analysis of EHCPs, provided rich insights.
Family life tends to be about balancing the holistic needs of all members; highlighting the importance of accessing a range of services across health, social care and education. This study explored how services and professional relationships can both support and frustrate families in achieving the best life possible for their learning-disabled family member, and for the family group overall. Whilst some good service provision was identified, parents and siblings reported fault lines in the system; often due to a lack of co-production with families, combined with insufficient professional knowledge about certain types of disability and how children can best be supported.
Given families’ identified needs for holistic provision the most striking finding for me was the way the CFA 2014 has changed the way the support landscape works. The SEND system has become the dominant mechanism for assessing disabled children’s overall needs. It is unclear whether policy makers achieved this by design or by default.
In particular there has been a weakening in the application of the Children Act 1989 which specifically identifies disabled children as eligible for assessment as a ‘child in need’. Recognising their holistic requirements is particularly relevant for children with complex additional support needs. Many families within the study struggled however to access ‘child in need’ assessments.
It is clear both from the experiences of the families and from the literature, that there has been a shift in priorities within children’s social care. Reform of the English welfare system, impacted by high profile child abuse inquiries (Purcell 2020) has affected learning-disabled children. There is a strong emphasis within children’s social work on safeguarding, focusing on the assessment and management of risk. Alongside this, focus on shorter-term interventions to move children through social care systems has had an unhelpful impact for learning-disabled children who tend to have longer term needs. This, combined with a drive to limit resource allocation after years of austerity has created additional pressures.
These focus shifts have apparently led to at least two impacts. Parent blaming was described during this research, similar to experiences described by Clements and Aiello (2021) in their study. Families reported that if perceived as ‘overly’ persistent in seeking social care support, social work agencies threatened to apply Section 47 safeguarding procedures on the basis parents weren’t meeting their children’s needs.
An additional impact is that families often find that when seeking social supports, they are referred to the SEND system instead. In analysing EHCPs for this research, those sections assessing and identifying social care needs, sections D and H were however the least populated. In some cases, they were completely silent. All the children within the study had complex social needs; not all of which could be supported purely within an education environment. Family narratives evidenced non-education based agencies failing to see children as their responsibility, even when legislation mandates it.
This professional emphasis on SEND provisions for learning-disabled children is problematic for families who actually need wider social and health support. It is a notable point of tension for many parents. Two-thirds of them within this study believed that social work practitioners are overly concerned with bureaucratic systems of assessment eligibility and an excessive professional imperative to assess and manage risk. There were fewer concerns about health provision but this was not perfect either.
Families also reported that the SENDIASS systems for understanding what services are available and how to access them is labyrinthine and do not provide sufficient information to help them navigate their entitlements.
There are more than a dozen key pieces of legislation across education, health and social care that can be applied to meet the needs of learning-disabled children. UK children and family legislation, provide the right basis for family support; there are sufficient legislative powers but there is evidence that they are poorly integrated. Whilst there have been many criticisms of the Children and Family Act 2014, perhaps it has been expected to do too much of the heavy lifting.
My own social work background made my doctoral research uncomfortable at times; hearing directly from families how their learning-disabled children feel invisible, particularly within social care systems. I know from experience that there are many dedicated professionals trying to do a good job. But that is clearly not enough. The multiagency system is not working for families.
During this research national reviews of the SEND system and of children’s social care ran concurrently but separately. The social care review concluded the system for children needs to be relentlessly focused on children and families, with a multi-agency transformation in family help, supporting families before stress escalates situations to the detriment of the child, and family life. That disabilty was not considered in this report but referred back to SEND reform is regrettable. A relentless focus on family is equally applicable to achieving better outcomes for learning-disabled children.
Since my research the SEND Improvement Plan has been published; also, a consultation on a Children’s Social Care National Framework. Both contain good principles but continue to reflect a children’s policy agenda where social care is focused on safeguarding, and a SEND system which emphasises education with mostly a nod to health and social outcomes. Whilst both documents talk of partnership, they will not facilitate in their separation co-productive, multi-agency responses which achieve holistic outcomes for learning disabled children.
The take away from my research is that we must stop assuming that the complex support needs of learning-disabled children will largely be met by SEND provision. Focus is required on wider transformational support in meeting families’ needs to enable them to live their best lives. Currently policy makers are not bringing these systems together. So, learning-disabled children and families will continue to struggle. How do we reset the buttons? Perhaps if not yet at policy level, it could start with co-productive practice instead. Aren’t Children’s Services Departments with their social care and education responsibilities ideally positioned to provide the leadership for a new dialogue exploring paths to true integration, should they take up that challenge?
Carol Long is a qualified and registered social worker who has recently completed a doctoral thesis at Durham University researching the experiences of learning disabled children and their families in achieving quality of life.
Carol, in a career spanning over 35 years has worked within local authority children’s social work services as practitioner and senior manager, before moving into the third sector. She latterly worked with families of learning and physically disabled children with complex support needs.
Her decision to pursue academic research was informed by the challenges she received from parents; that the system does not sufficiently meet needs; and that professionals do not truly hear what families tell them and so fail to understand the true impact of disability on family life. She wanted to explore from a family perspective what change should look like thus contributing to current debates about SEND and social care systems.
Clements, L. and Aiello, A.L. (2021) Institutionalising Parent-Carer Blame: The experiences of families with disabled children in their interactions with English local authority children’s services departments. Cerebra, University of Leeds
DfE. (2023) Children’s Social Care National Framework A government consultation on principles for practice, expected outcomes and indicators: statutory guidance Launch date 2 February 2023
H.M Government (2023) Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) and Alternative Provision (AP) Improvement Plan Right Support, Right Place, Right Time.
MacAlister, J. (2022) The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care: Final Report. Department for Education: London.
Purcell, C. (2020) The Politics of Children’s Services Reform: Re-examining Two Decades of Policy Change, Bristol: Policy Press.