Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Are Pathfinder families happier than ever before?

I've just read the press release the Government issued just after Christmas. I'm in a Pathfinder and families I know aren't that happy with the new process. What does IPSEA think?

IPSEA's answer: We read this too. For those that didn’t, on the day after Boxing Day 2013, the Government’s Department for Education (the DfE) issued a press release about the special educational needs (SEN) Pathfinder programme. It said that:

‘Parents trialling the government’s new special educational needs (SEN) reforms are happier than ever with the support available’
Parents within the Pathfinder areas reacted on Twitter with incredulity, some even suggesting that the DfE/their local authorities must have cherry picked parents to arrive at this conclusion.

We immediately asked three questions :

  • What’s the evidence for this ‘happier than ever’ claim?
  • If it’s true, is it sustainable and generalisable after and beyond the Pathfinder areas?
  • Why is the press release talking about feelings, what about real outcomes for children, integration of health and social care with education, or the quality of the Plans versus statements?
Our answers are:
  • The evidence is not there for such a bald assertion.
  • Any positive impacts are probably not sustainable and generalisable.
  • It’s probable that the press release is concentrating on feelings because the evidence for the Pathfinders fulfilling the other Green Paper aspirations just isn’t there.
Please see below for why we came to these conclusions and where we go from here.

What’s the evidence?

The conclusion that families are happier than ever is apparently based on a key finding in the latest evaluation of the Pathfinders, published in October.

There is no finding about ‘happiness’ as such. The evaluation did find a weak positive impact on families’ feelings: ‘between 8 and 17 per cent more Pathfinder families “strongly agreed” with positive statements about the process than comparison families’. To be clear what this means: the researchers questioned two groups of families, the Pathfinder group and a group called the comparison families. There were 237 families in the first group and 226 in the second. It is not clear how the families in these groups were selected and why the survey was not carried out across all the families selected for Pathfinder piloting, over 2,000 across 31 local authorities.

The evidence of positive impact relies on an even smaller number of families. The highest increase in strong agreement with positive statements, 17 per cent, represents 40 families. (To put this in context, in January 2013, there were 229,390 pupils across all schools in England with statements of SEN.) The lowest, 7 per cent, represents 17 families. But families overall still aren’t very happy. For instance, the 17 per cent rise brings families saying they strongly agreed that their views were considered up from 32 per cent in the comparison group to 49 per cent in the Pathfinder group (still a minority then).

The researchers themselves say, ‘While positive, the overall level of change appears modest at this relatively early stage.’

Further, as the comparison is with other families at one point in time, not families over time, we do not think the claim that families are happier ‘than ever’ can be made out unless the DfE has other data it has not disclosed.

The evidence, then, is not there for such a bald assertion.


Is it sustainable and generalisable?

Many charities (including IPSEA) are worried that any positives for families in Pathfinder areas will not be sustainable when the Pathfinder funding ceases, or generalisable to the 121 local authorities outside the programme. The LAs that were selected as Pathfinders all volunteered to be part of the pilot scheme. They have been given substantial resources in the form of additional funding (on average £350,000 each) and specialist support from Mott McDonald and the DfE to develop practices over the past two years. This level of support and time will not be available to other LAs who are being expected to put the new practices into effect from September 2014.

One example of how difficult they are going to be to sustain comes in the evaluation’s data on the length of time professionals spent just in formal meetings per case: the figure the researchers came up with is 14 hours of professional time. In Table 46 the time taken per month on a Pathfinder case versus a comparison case (statementing) is nearly double: 9 hours versus 5. Even though the Pathfinder process is meant to take about 4.6 months versus the 6 months for statements, the overall hours per case is 42 for Pathfinders versus 30 for statements.

Non-Pathfinder LAs will not have the time or resources to put this intensive support into practice.

The evaluation also points out that Pathfinder families’ happiness and involvement also depends heavily on the new role of the ‘key worker’. Key workers offered, for example, home visits – the importance of this sort of action to families’ experiences cannot be overestimated, yet may not be possible in actual implementation. The report states:

The average estimated delivery cost per family for the key working role was £924, or put another way the pathfinder approach used with the initial cohort of families required on average, 39 per cent more front-line delivery time than the SEN Statementing process.
(page 111)
Both resource for the new processes and trained and knowledgeable key workers may be unavailable for the legislation’s implementation in the longer term. Children and young people’s needs aren’t usually susceptible to quick political fixes.

We think the answer to this question is, then, ‘Probably not.’


What about improvement in real outcomes, integration of services, and the quality of Plans?

It’s probable that the press release is concentrating on feelings because the evidence for the Pathfinders fulfilling the other Green Paper aspirations just isn’t there.

Real outcomes

There aren’t any. Or, as the report says in a more convoluted way, ‘the survey found no consistent evidence to illustrate an improvement in outcomes had occurred’.

Integration of services

There has been some improvement (not quantified), but ‘substantial workforce development and cultural change were still reported to be required’. Integrated working was reported in July to be suffering from lack of health engagement. Given the stresses and changes within the NHS, this is hardly surprising. This area, however, was the main initial thrust of the reforms.

Quality of plans versus statements

The evaluation has not looked at this, as it concentrated on how families felt and so on. IPSEA has looked at a lot of Pathfinder plans and think current ones aren’t fit for purpose and are likely to confuse rather than help with the relative responsibilities of the three different services for the child/young person. We hope the legislation and guidance will put this right but it is worrying that the evaluation is not looking at this central feature of the new system.


The feedback IPSEA is getting at this stage is that parents and advisers are not ‘happy’ about the reforms but are anxious, increasingly so after the universal thumbs down for the Government’s consultation drafts of the SEN Code of Practice and Regulations. There is a considerable way to go to realise the Green Paper’s aim of producing a streamlined, joined-up and simplified process for all services to support children and young people with SEN across the full range of their needs. IPSEA has highlighted problems to the DfE and will continue to do so, and is committed to working with the Government to find ways to address them.

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