Additional Learning Needs Code: the next step in a “complete overhaul” of a system “no longer fit for purpose”

Published 19/03/2021   |   Last Updated 22/03/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

The long-awaited Additional Learning Needs (ALN) reforms, which will affect one in five children, have featured throughout this Senedd. The Welsh Government has described the changes as a “complete overhaul” of a system “no longer fit for purpose”.

The ALN Code (PDF 2.95MB) has been laid before the Senedd. It sets out how reforms to the way children and young people receive support with their learning difficulties will be delivered. The Code is an important next step in implementing the Additional Learning Needs and Education Tribunal (Wales) 2018 Act.

It’s perhaps fitting that the Code and associated regulations are among the last things Members will consider in this Senedd. The Fifth Senedd has seen the scrutiny and passing of the 2018 Act and the Welsh Government’s consultation on a draft version of the Code in 2019. In fact, review and reform of the system has been on the agenda for much of the devolution era.

While the Welsh Government and the Senedd’s attention over the past year has been predominantly on the COVID-19 pandemic, proceeding with the ALN reforms has remained an education priority (PDF 461KB). The Welsh Government plans for the new system to be implemented from this September.

What are ALN and what’s changing?

Firstly, there’s a change to terminology: “Special Educational Needs” (SEN) is changing to “Additional Learning Needs” (ALN). The current SEN framework,  in place for around 25 years, is being replaced by the ALN system, which was established by the 2018 Act.

The definition for ALN will essentially be the same as for SEN. This is:

  • the learner has a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of others of the same age (that can’t be addressed solely through differentiated teaching); or
  • the learner has a disability (for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010) which prevents or hinders them accessing education or training that’s generally provided for others of the same age; and
  • the learning difficulty or disability calls for Additional Learning Provision (ALP).

Currently, around 100,000 (21%) of school-age children are recognised as having SEN. The Welsh Government expects a similar number (PDF 357KB) of school pupils to be supported with their ALN under the new system as currently with SEN. But it won’t only be children of school age that are covered – the new ALN system is from age 0-25. This means ALN can be identified and supported from early years through to further education.

The new ALN system has three main aims:

  • Universal, statutory “Individual Development Plans” for all children and young people with ALN. This will end the current distinction between school led interventions and local authority issued statements, and integrate the separate arrangements for pupils in schools and post-16 students in colleges.
  • Better collaboration between local authorities and health boards, including a designated officer within each health board to liaise with local authorities and schools.
  • A fairer and more transparent system with greater emphasis on avoiding disagreement and resolving disputes.

Our summary of the 2018 Act explains the legislation in more detail and the new system it creates.

Why are we writing about this now?

Members of the Senedd will debate and vote on the ALN Code and three sets of regulations in Plenary on 23 March. As is usual for subordinate legislation, the Code and the regulations can’t be amended so there’ll be a straightforward yes/no vote on whether to approve them.

The Code provides the detail on how various organisations (e.g. local authorities, health boards, schools and colleges) will meet their duties under the 2018 Act. The Welsh Government describes it as an “operational handbook” and includes guidance on actions that “must”, “should” or “may” be taken.

Almost 650 people and organisations responded to the Welsh Government’s consultation on a draft Code in Winter 2018/2019. Issues raised included defining and identifying ALN, timescales for meeting duties, the roles of various professionals and arrangements for resolving disagreement, advocacy services and appeals.

The Senedd’s Children, Young People and Education (CYPE) Committee submitted a detailed response following work it undertook with stakeholders. More recently, the CYPE Committee drew the Minister for Education, Kirsty Williams’, attention (PDF 338KB) to concerns which stakeholders still have about the Code and wider issues of implementation. These concerns include:

  • potential for disparate and unequal experiences of learners due to the Code not being a “code of practice” and therefore not being detailed enough about implementation;
  • a perceived lack of quality assured, impartial information and advice about career and post-16 options;
  • transition between school and post-16 education or training, and arrangements for deciding between specialist and mainstream provision;
  • training for the workforce to deliver the new system; and
  • a possible ‘raising of the bar’ in how schools apply the criteria for identifying ALN due to insufficient resources.

When will all this be implemented?

This is a picture of a teacher helping a child with their work.

From September 2021, all learners newly identified as having ALN will be supported through the new system of Individual Development Plans.

Pupils already in the SEN system will transition over to the new ALN system during a three-year period, starting with those who have low to moderate needs. Those with more severe or complex needs (who currently have “statements” of SEN) will move to the new system later in the three-year period. And the timing will also depend on which year group a pupil is in.

The Welsh Government has said it will issue an implementation guide setting out more details. It has also allocated £20 million for its ALN Transformation Programme.

How can I follow the debate?

The ALN Code is an important step in the process of putting the 2018 Act into practice and delivering these much awaited reforms. The future of around a fifth of our children and young people depends on getting it right.

Watch the debate on Senedd TV (Tuesday 23 March, approximately 5.15pm) or check the Record of Proceedings a day or so after the event.


Article by Michael Dauncey, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament