Additional Learning Needs – Senedd to debate a need for more reform

Published 03/05/2024   |   Reading Time minutes

The way that learners with special educational or additional learning needs are supported is in the process of change. Although reforms have long been called for, some have expressed concern about the way in which they are being implemented.

On 8 May, the Senedd will debate a petition calling for the reform of the Additional Learning Needs Code of Wales 2021. The petition states that despite being only a couple of years into changes to the Additional Learning Needs (ALN) system, which promises earlier and better support for children and young people with ALN, more and more ALN pupils are being missed in Wales. Our briefing for the petitions Committee gives a background to the reforms, and informed the Committee’s consideration of the petitions in March. This article looks at the reforms and how Committees are scrutinising them.

How is the ALN system changing?

The new ALN system is replacing the Special Educational Needs (SEN) system, and is being introduced over four years from September 2021 to August 2025. The Additional Learning Needs Code 2021 is a statutory document that explains what organisations are required to do by law to meet the ALN of children and young people. It also imposes requirements on governing bodies of maintained schools and further education institutions, local authorities, local health boards and NHS trusts.

The reforms to SEN/ALN were described by the Welsh Government at the time as a “complete overhaul” of a system “no longer fit for purpose”. Reviews of the SEN system found that there was insufficient joint working between local government and health; inconsistencies in how different learners’ needs are met; and that parents felt that they had to fight to access provision.

The ALN reforms have three overarching aims, as set out in the Additional Learning Needs and Education Tribunal (Wales) Act 2018

  • A single system for children from birth, pupils in schools and students in colleges, regardless of level of need. Each learner with ALN will be given a statutory ‘Individual Development Plan’ (IDP);
  • Closer collaboration between the NHS and local government; and
  • A more transparent system to avoid disagreement and resolve disputes.

The Additional Learning Needs and Education Tribunal (Wales) Act 2018 which established the new system, keeps the same definition for ALN as for SEN. All learners with ALN who have moved to the new system are entitled to a statutory IDP. This is different from the SEN system where only learners with the most severe/complex needs have legally enforceable ‘statements’ setting out the support they are entitled to. The remaining majority of those learners who were identified as having SEN have more limited non-statutory plans.

The SEN system and new ALN system are operating side by side until August 2025. All learners newly identified with ALN come under the new system, while those already supported with SEN are transferring over in a phased manner, depending on their year group and whether or not they have a statement of SEN.

Checking-in on the reforms

The Senedd’s Children, Young People and Education Committee is regularly checking-in on the implementation of the major curriculum and ALN reforms in Wales. The Committee is undertaking its third check-in with the focus on ALN reforms. As well as visiting schools, the Committee has heard oral evidence from Estyn, Judge Jane McConnell, President of the Education Tribunal Walesand the Committee’s Online Advisory Group of parents whose children had experience of ALN.

In their evidence, Estyn discussed the report it published in September 2023 on the implementation of the new ALN system to date. They suggested that there is some lack of clarity about statutory duties, and found that the current legal definition of ALN is not being applied consistently.

The report also noted that overall, the number of learners identified with SEN or ALN has reduced by a third since the new system began being implemented – from 93,000 in 2020/21 (20% of all pupils) to 63,000 (13% of all pupils) in 2022/23. Jeremy Miles MS, then Minister for Education and Welsh Language, stated that SEN had been over-reported or inappropriately categorised in the past and the Additional Learning Needs Co-ordinators (ALNCos) were using their judgement to bring about a correction. Our article, Identifying Additional Learning Needs: Has the bar been raised or was it previously too low? explores this further.

Judge Jane McConnell, President of the Education Tribunal for Wales gave evidence based on the cases that the Tribunal had been considering. She recognised that the system is in a period of transition but told the Committee that there were “some very basic concepts that are not being understood uniformly across Wales”. She said that the definition of ALN as set out in the 2018 Act is not being interpreted consistently or correctly across local authorities and schools.

Strength of feeling

The petition calling for the reform of the ALN Code attracted over 15,000 signatures. It’s one of a number of petitions relating to ALN which may also be referred to in the debate. These are:

You can read Senedd Research briefings on each of these petitions.

Further information on the ALN reforms can be found in our articles of May 2021, February 2022, September 2022, and April 2023.

Follow the debate

The Senedd will debate the petition on 8 May 2024. On the same day, the Children, Education and Young People Committee will be continuing its third check-in on the ALN reforms by scrutinising the Cabinet Secretary for Education. Both can be viewed on Senedd tv, with transcripts published shortly afterwards.

Article by Sian Hughes, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament