As we inch ever closer to the passing of the Children and Families Bill, it is starting to become clear what the implementation of some of the key legislative changes is going to look like. Whilst we are still at the early stages of the construction of the systems that will be needed to fulfil the ambition of the Bill, what I am seeing currently is profoundly disappointing.
The concept of a Local Offer is one of the key changes within the Bill. Described by the Council for Disabled Children as:
….to enable parents and young people to see more clearly what services are available in their area and how to access them. The offer will include provision from birth to 25, across education, health and social care and should be developed in conjunction with children and young people, parents and carers, and local services, including schools, colleges, health and social care agencies.
However what seems to have been lost in the journey from policy to practice is a clear understanding of the relationship between the Local Authority producing the offer and the parents and young people who make up the audience. There seems to be confusion as to whether this is a Local Offer from the Local Authority or whether it is a Local Offer to parents and young people.
If the philosophical ownership of this fundamentally important resource sits with the Local Authority, then what we are seeing is broadly understandable and predictable. The majority of Local Offers available to view are characterised by a public sector mindset reliant on existing paradigms. They resemble enhanced information directories, an online catalogue of services with poor search capabilities, which work well for those who know what they are looking for.
However if we consider that the ownership of the Local Offer should sit with its audience, with parents and young people, then we have a problem.
For me the most important issue is an apparent lack of understanding regarding how to make information accessible to those who are likely to need it most. In the views of young people captured by the Council for Disabled Children, the challenge is still that:
…..access to information on SEN reform continued to be a significant barrier for disabled young people’s engagement; suggesting an urgent need to produce materials in a range of formats for young people to develop their understanding of the reforms and what the local authority provides.
The failure to achieve this is characterised by two things within many of the Local Offers. Firstly the belief that by making the online landing page icon base rather than text based, somehow makes it accessible.
This may be the case if the use of symbolic forms of communication is embedded throughout the architecture of the site, supplemented with video and auditory information as a minimum. Something similar to the ClickStart websites being used in certain London Boroughs.
However, invariably as soon as you click on the icon you are taken straight into a page of plain text. The carrot of accessibility is dangled only to be snatched away as soon as you go beyond the homepage.
The other common characteristic is the use of symbolic communication to highlight where information is within a page, only to have directly under the symbols paragraph after paragraph of text. This is the equivalent of asking for a book to be translated from a foreign language, only to have it returned with the front cover and the chapter headings having been done and nothing else. You are given a hint of what the text contains, of its importance and significance, but that is all.
What is particularly concerning is that within the context of the reading of the Bill in the House of Lords, this tokenistic approach is being held up as an example of best practice and authorities lauded for having the vision to produce a version of the Local Offer for young people using this approach. It makes me worry that we will see more of it as a result, as Local Authorities lacking an inclusive vision take inspiration from what is being produced by other authorities.
Imagine if we did this with the physical environment, having lift access up to the first floor before depositing you in front of an endless flight of steps. It would not be considered acceptable.
What we need is an acknowledgement that if this much needed universal point of contact is going to have any pragmatic impact on those with a learning disability, then it needs to be created with their needs at its heart. We need the Local Offer to be inherently inclusive, rather than a mainstream tool into which a passing reference to accessibility is integrated. At the moment this does not appear to be the case.