Supporting mainstream schools and settings: A “front door” to SEND services

Recent announcements from the Department for Education have been very much in the public eye of late. Among these has been a consultation on a new national funding formula for schools. This move shifts significantly the link between funding for mainstream schools and funding specifically for pupils with high-needs special educational needs (SEN). In our research on SEN funding, we emphasised the importance of there being an equitable offer of SEN and disability (SEND) support in mainstream institutions. As we know from our research, as well as our work with individual local authorities and schools, achieving this requires, among other things, it to be as easy as possible for mainstream schools and settings to have swift, straightforward access to advice, capacity-building and expert SEN support. In this blog, we describe briefly how East Sussex sought to achieve this by developing a “front door” to inclusion and SEND services when we worked with them in the summer of 2014.

What was the challenge East Sussex were trying to solve?

When we started working with colleagues in East Sussex Inclusion & SEND (ISEND) services in 2014, they were trying to address three inter-related challenges:

  1. inconsistent approaches to, and variable capacity for, inclusion within mainstream settings, and a lack of clarity among mainstream institutions about the offer of support that was available locally;

  2. as a result, a pattern of “scattergun” requests for support (schools sending out requests to multiple services in parallel in the hope of receiving some support) and not only a high but also rising proportion of children and young people with statements of SEN, since this was seen as the main way of accessing additional support; and

  3. no mechanism for the local authority’s ISEND services to co-ordinate and allocate support for more complex cases where a child’s needs did not neatly fit the criteria for any one service.

What was the solution East Sussex developed?

East Sussex colleagues wanted to test whether a “front door” approach could help to address some of the challenges facing ISEND services. We worked with leaders and professionals within East Sussex’s ISEND services to explore ways of tackling this problem by adapting the idea of a “front door” from the world of social care. The aim of this approach was twofold:

  1. to develop a mechanism that would make it as straightforward as possible for mainstream schools and settings to access the support that they required; and

  2. to enable East Sussex’s ISEND services to have a systematic and swift way of filtering requests for support in order to direct schools and settings to the appropriate service or, for complex cases, to enable decisions to be taken about bespoke packages of support.

We did this by taking the following steps:

  • identifying a set of key questions that we needed to resolve (e.g. what was the criteria for accessing support, who would staff the front door, how many requests might we expect to receive) and a logical sequence for working through them;

  • establishing a task-and-finish group with representatives of key services to work through these questions;

  • developing a series of options with the group in order to arrive at a proposed approach; and

  • testing the group’s proposal with a wider group of colleagues from ISEND services.

The model we developed comprised three key steps, which are summarised in the graphic below.

It works in the following way.

  1. Contact – mainstream schools and settings have a single point-of-contact (a phone number and an online form) to go to when they need support. The emphasis is on this being as simple and swift as possible.

  2. Information gathering – the front door is staffed on a rota system, with expert professionals (e.g. qualified teachers or educational psychologists) on hand to provide advice, supported by administrative staff who assist in gathering any necessary information. Schools and settings can then be directed quickly to the appropriate service, or further information can be gathered for more complex cases. Crucially, there is a set response time, so that schools and settings can be confident in getting a quick reply.

  3. Panel decision-making – for complex cases, where the support a school or setting needs does not fit the criteria for any single ISEND service, information is passed to a panel of ISEND service managers who can decide the appropriate bespoke package of support for the child and their school or setting. The number of panel meetings required has actually reduced over time, as more and more cases are being screened out and addressed earlier in the process.

Crucially, the front door does not lower the thresholds for accessing support, but rather to make it as straightforward as possible for schools and settings to get access the form of advice or support appropriate to the needs of an individual pupil.

What difference did this approach make?

The front door was launched in April 2015, and has since handled over 1,200 requests for support. ISEND leaders feel that the approach has been hugely successful. It has:

  1. addressed the issue of schools and settings saying they did not know how to access support – the very simple message now is “If you are not sure what support you need, go to the front door”;

  2. enabled schools and settings to engage in professional dialogue with specialists, such as educational psychologists;

  3. enabled ISEND services to work together to put in place bespoke packages of early support for pupils whose complex needs require a multi-service response; and

  4. provided a rich source of information about demands for support and the types of needs that schools and settings are finding most challenging, and where the offer of support is not meeting schools’ needs, which in turn informs local strategic planning and the development of an improved offer for schools and settings.

The process of developing the front door has required both work to get the process and the online information-gathering forms right, and an investment of time from professionals and senior managers to engage in professional dialogue with schools and settings and take part in panel discussions.

Ultimately, however, the local authority feel that this is time that is well spent, not least because it is precisely this professional dialogue that schools and settings want and because it enables ISEND services to support children and young people with complex needs more effectively.

Perhaps the most significant implication of this approach is that it shifts the onus from the school or setting having to find the service whose criteria their pupil’s needs fit to the local authority services to work together to provide a swift and practical solution.

What does the local authority say?

‘The front door was implemented in April 2015, and has been working remarkably well. Schools said that they wanted a straightforward, single point-of-contact for accessing support and services, and this is what we have put in place. Isos’ support in this process was instrumental, not least the way that they provided real clarity about the questions we needed to address and facilitated the discussions to help us develop a workable model.’
Nathan Caine, Head of ISEND, East Sussex County Council

Ben Bryant