Children who are being accommodated, or who have been taken into care, by a local authority (i.e. under Section 20, or Sections 31 or 38 of the Children Act 1989) are legally defined as being ‘looked after’ by the local authority. Around 70% of looked after children have some form of SEN, and it is likely that a significant proportion of them will have an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan. Children and young people on remand to youth detention accommodation are treated as looked after by their designated local authority under the terms of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (section 104(1)). Local authorities will have particular responsibilities for these children and will act as a ‘corporate parent’. The local authority must safeguard and promote the welfare of all children they are looking after.
All maintained schools and academies and free schools must appoint a Designated Teacher for looked after children. Where that role is carried out by a person other than the SEN Co-ordinator (SENCO), Designated Teachers should work closely with the SENCO to ensure that the implications of a child being both looked after and having SEN are fully understood by relevant school staff.
Local authorities must promote the educational achievement of the children they look after, regardless of where they are placed. The Children and Families Act 2014 requires every local authority to appoint an officer who is an employee of that or another authority to discharge that duty. This officer, often known as a Virtual School Head (VSH), will lead a virtual school team which tracks the progress of children looked after by the authority as if they attended a single school. Special Educational Needs and Disabilities departments should work closely with the VSH as well as social workers to ensure that local authorities have effective and joined-up processes for meeting the SEN of looked after children.
Local authorities are required to act under care planning statutory guidance issued by the Secretary of State when exercising their social services functions with regard to the children they look after. This is set out in volume 2 of the Children Act 1989 guidance.
This means that a considerable amount of planning will be done around the care, health and education needs of looked after children. They will have a Care Plan, which sets out how the local authority will meet the care needs of the child, addressing all important dimensions of a child’s developmental needs. These include health, education, emotional and behavioural development, identity, family and social relationships, social presentation and self-care skills. The Care Plan will specifically include a Personal Education Plan (PEP) and a Health Plan (both are a statutory requirement) which will particularly assess and set out the child’s education and health needs. It may be through making these assessments that a child’s SEN will be identified.
Where a looked after child is being assessed for SEN it is vital to take account of information set out in the Care Plan. SEN professionals must work closely with other relevant professionals involved in the child’s life as a consequence of his/her being looked after. These include the social worker, Designated Doctor or Nurse, Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO), VSH and Designated Teacher in school. This will ensure that the child’s EHC plan works in harmony with his/her Care Plan and adds to, but does not duplicate, information about how education, health and care needs will be met. It is essential to involve the child, their carers and, where appropriate, their parents in the planning process. When referencing information contained within the Care Plan only information relevant to meeting the child’s SEN should be included in the EHC plan. If in any doubt SEN professionals should discuss this with the social worker and, where appropriate, the child and their carers.
A significant proportion of looked after children live with foster carers or in a children’s home and attend schools in a different local authority area to the local authority that looks after them. Local authorities who place looked after children in another authority need to be aware of that authority’s Local Offer if the children have SEN. Where an assessment for an EHC plan has been triggered, the authority that carries out the assessment is determined by Section 24 of the Children and Families Act 2014. This means that the assessment must be carried out by the authority where the child lives (i.e. is ordinarily resident), which may not be the same as the authority that looks after the child. If a disagreement arises, the authority that looks after the child, will act as the ‘corporate parent’ in any disagreement resolution.
It is the looked after child’s social worker (in close consultation with the VSH in the authority that looks after the child) that will ultimately make any educational decision on the child’s behalf. However, the day-to-day responsibility for taking these decisions should be delegated to the carer who will advocate for the looked after child and make appeals to the First-tier Tribunal (SEN and Disability) as necessary.
For a child in a stable, long-term foster placement it may well be appropriate for the carer to take on the responsibility of managing a Personal Budget but this will need careful case-by-case consideration.
The Care Planning Regulations specify the frequency with which Care Plans are reviewed. It is important to ensure the annual review of an EHC plan coincides with one of the child’s Care Plan reviews. This could be done as part of the review of a child’s PEP which feeds into the review of the wider Care Plan. Social workers and SEN teams will need to work closely together to ensure that transitions from being looked after to returning home are managed effectively, to ensure continuing provision.
Some children will cease to be looked after at 16 or 17 and others will continue to be looked after until their 18th birthday. (Some care leavers will remain living with their former foster carers past their 18th birthday in ‘Staying Put’ arrangements, but they are no longer looked after). Local authorities continue to have responsibilities to provide a Personal Adviser and to prepare a Pathway Plan. The Personal Adviser is there to ensure that care leavers are provided with the right kind of personal support, for example by signposting them to services and providing advice. The Pathway Plan plots transition from care to adulthood for care leavers up to the age of 25 if they remain in education and/or training or are not in employment, education or training and plan to return to education and/or training. In reviewing their arrangements for EHC needs assessment and EHC plan development local authorities should ensure good advanced planning involving the young person and Personal Adviser.
Virtual School for Children Looked After
The Virtual School for Children Looked After (CLA) coordinates strategic and operational educational services for children that are in care with Wirral Borough Council and will advise on educational issues for children placed in other local authorities’ schools. In Wirral, the Virtual School for Children Looked After is a small team of 6 people who work with all children in care, foster carers, schools, social and residential workers and other professionals.