Education, health and care (EHC) plans: expert tips to help parents

Girl reading and studying
Statements of special educational needs have recently been replaced by EHC plans. SEN experts Antonia Chitty and Tania Tirraoro explain how the new plans work and share their tips on the application process

If your child has special educational needs (SEN) they may need more support in nursery, school, or college. Every education provider has to make reasonable adjustments to allow your child to access the education on offer. 

For school-age children, the school SEN coordinator (SENCO) is the first person to talk to about your child’s needs. The SENCO is there to help if you think your child needs a special learning programme, extra help from a teacher or assistant, to work in a smaller group, observation in class or at break, help taking part in class activities, extra encouragement in their learning, help communicating with other children and/or support with physical or personal care difficulties. This sort of support is now called SEN Support, replacing School Action and School Action Plus, and is given to children within school.

What are EHC plans?

An education, health and care (EHC) plan is for children and young people who need more support than is available through SEN Support: for example, the involvement of external professionals. EHC plans have replaced statements of special educational needs. If your child already has a statement, they should be transferred to an EHC plan by spring 2018. If you're in the process of getting your child assessed, you'll need to apply for an EHC plan instead. EHC plans take into account your child's health and social care needs as well as the school support that they need, and cover your child up to the age of 25.

Applying for an EHC plan

Any parent can request an EHC assessment for their child, but a doctor, health visitor, school staff member or nursery workers can also request it. Once you've made your request to the Local Authority, they have six weeks to decide whether or not to carry out an EHC assessment. The LA may ask you for school or nursery reports, doctors’ assessments and your own views on your child’s needs in writing. You’ll usually find out within 16 weeks whether or not an EHC plan is going to be made for your child.

If an EHC plan is agreed, your LA will create a draft plan and send you a copy. You have 15 days to comment, including putting in a request for your child to go to a specialist needs school or specialist college. Your local authority has 20 weeks from the date of the assessment to give you the final EHC plan.

You can challenge your LA if they decide not to assess your child, if they decide not to create an EHC plan, if you disagree with the level of support offered, or the school that they suggest for your child. If you can’t resolve things with the LA you can appeal to the special educational needs and disability tribunal.

Applying for an EHC plan can be stressful and time-consuming. You should be convinced that this is the only way your child will get the support they need. Before you start, speak to your child's head teacher or the SENCO. Find out what level of support they already have, what interventions have already been tried, and with what success.

Step 1: Gather your evidence

Once you have decided that you need to apply for an EHC plan, gather your evidence. Dig out any reports or tests your child has ever had done. This means all their school reports and exam results, and any referrals they have had to paediatricians, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, speech and language therapists, educational psychologists, etc. If you haven't done so already, put together a file with the reports in chronological order. You are building up a paper profile of your child because you will need to prove that your child needs the help you say they do.

Step 2: Read the SEN policy

Research your council's SEN policies to support your case. Read the SEN Code of Practice and use it. Make sure the school has tried every available resource to help your child and confirm they haven't improved.

Step 3: Build a support network

Applying for an EHC plan can be an arduous task, and involve a lot of time and emotional energy. Do you have the support of friends and family to help you through the process? Having someone to talk to will help you get through what can be a difficult time. Support from other parents is available on online SEN support boards on sites like TheSchoolRun. Most parents are happy to share their experiences and offer advice and suggestions. You could also find out whether your child's school has an SEN support network, or ask your GP if there are any groups available locally. 

Step 4: Consider professional support

Consider what you might do if you need to hire specialist help such as an independent educational psychologist or an SEN lawyer. You may not need to, but you should go into this process with your eyes open.

Step 5: Get a medical diagnosis

Some people don't like labelling their child, but a proper diagnosis will help to convince the LA to provide your child with the help they need, especially if they have an unseen disability like dyslexia, dyscalculia, ASD or ADHD. You need to be able to prove that this is not just your opinion, so take your child to your GP and ask for a referral to a paediatrician. A firm medical diagnosis is harder to ignore, but even so, you may need to find new levels of persistence and determination. 

Step 6: Prepare your report

Once you have the information you need, you need to know what to do with it. If your LA has a document outlining its policies, read and analyse it. Make it work for you. Use the LA’s own policies to show that your child isn't getting what they should. If you can't prove this, you case will be weakened. When you send in your submission, write as much as you can that is relevant to your case and provide reports to back it up. Refer to the reports in your document. Approach it as if you were writing a report at work or at college. This may take many redrafts and a lot of time! If you need help, don't be afraid to ask. Remember this is not for you; it's for your child. If you're finding it hard to wade through great tracts of text and complex documents, ask a friend for support or consider approaching a charity for help. The Independent Parental Special Education Advice (IPSEA) Advice Line gives free and independent legally based SEN advice, while IAS Services have a duty to provide information, advice and support to disabled children and young people, and those with SEN, and their parents. 

Step 7: Stay strong

There is no doubt that this process is stressful and often demoralising, especially if your child has a hidden or mild to moderate disability, and many parents give up along the way. You must look after your own physical and mental health in order to help your child. That means eating healthily, sleeping enough (not easy if your child is up a lot in the night), and just doing whatever works for you to keep you going. Remember you are your child's greatest asset and best advocate. Don't give up.

Step 8: Trust your instincts

You know your child best. Only you know how they react in certain situations, what their triggers are, or how a bad day at school affects them at home. This is important information for your application as it can be evidence of how an inappropriate educational setting is affecting their entire life, and the rest of the family's life as well.

Tania Tirraoro is an author and former television journalist. Both her sons have been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. She runs a blog to help other parents who are entering the jungle of special needs education, and is the author of Special Educational Needs - Getting Started With Statements.

Antonia Chitty is an author and journalist who has written a number of books about special educational needs and school life.