How the ICF international classification system may support local education planning in England.

Olympia Palikara, Susana Castro, Carolina Gaona and Vasiliki Eirinaki
School of Education, University of Roehampton, London, United Kingdom

One of the most important aspects of service provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities is the statutory documentation describing in detail their functioning and behaviour – strengths, needs and goals for the long-term and short-term future. These documents exist in many countries with a policy for special education provision and they take a variety of names, illustrating slightly different purposes; we see individualised education plans, for example in the United States of America, which coined the term, but also in New Zealand and in most European countries; according to the European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education, at least Finland, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Sweden, Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, and Malta have IEPs [1,2]; we also see habilitation plans in Sweden [3] and, more recently, we see education, health and care plans in England [4].

The education health and care plan is the current statutory document for children with special needs and disabilities in England, although it co-exists with the individualised education plan. The latter is still used by some schools as a tool to record strategies employed to help children progress if they are under special education needs and disability support services. However, it does not have a statutory nature; children with individualised education plans might not necessarily have an education health and care plan, which has been the statutory document since 2014, with the introduction of the children and families act. Despite subtle differences which might be context- and policyspecific, all these documents have in common the fact that they should provide a clear picture of each child’s functioning; however, there seems to be no consensus on whether their purpose is to provide evidence to inform service provision, or whether they serve the purpose of legal protection and compliance with regulatory processes, with different countries adopting different positions in this respect [1].

In England, it has been pointed out that individualised education plans have been serving the purpose of ensuring accountability within the field of special needs education and the targets that they included were less for the children and professionals than they were for measuring the performance of special education as a system [5]. However, with the recent introduction of education health and care plans, there is a clear shift in policy from producing mere accountability documents towards producing documents that inform service providers. An explicit requirement in the new SEND code of practice (2014) is that children’s targets are SMART: the acronym for specific [6,7], measurable [8], action-oriented [9], relevant [6,7] and time-framed [8]. It is important to highlight that the term “targets” has a few synonyms in the international literature
on special needs and disability, with other terms such as “goals” and “‘outcomes” used just as often, for example [10,11].

In this paper, we will consistently adopt the term “target” to describe the objectives written for children with disabilities, specifying skills and behaviours that are set for them to achieve in a certain period of time and with the support of special education and disability support professionals. Recent research has provided evidence on the various challenges faced by professionals in England regarding the implementation of the education health and care plans, triggering the debate around the quality of those plans [12–14]. Similarly, more general challenges surrounding the new policy for SEND in England have been systematically analysed and all seem to stem from a gap between ideology and implementation; the idea behind the education health and care plans is consensually well accepted, but the way that they have been implemented lacks evidence based guidance [12,14]. The international classification of functioning, disability and health [15,16] has been highlighted as a framework with the potential to help overcome these issues, based on evidence available from research in other countries [12,17].

In this paper, we will argue for a “no policy is an island” approach, by which evidence-based internationally recognised
models should be considered for local policy and provision in special educational needs and rehabilitation, on the condition that evidence is made available that they support higher quality documentation of children’s needs and targets. We argue that local policy makers in England should open horizons beyond the borders of “the island” and welcome international lessons  earned about how to develop higher quality statutory documents for children with disabilities. Building upon the international body of research on the usefulness of the international classification of functioning disability and health for special education and disability provision, to our knowledge, this study is the first to provide evidence that the adoption of the ICF in England would be welcomed by special education and rehabilitation professionals and has the potential to help them develop SMART outcomes in the education health and care plans; This evidence is provided by means of analysing the targets written for children with disabilities in their plans; targets were analysed before and after a training session on the international classification of functioning disability and health, with professionals that are involved in the writing process of the plans.

This research is informed by international research on the usefulness of this classification system for guiding provision and simultaneously it feeds back into this body of knowledge, by bridging the gap between policy ideology and implementation. The main argument is that although the literature on SMART targets is widely known and regarded, professionals still feel they do not have the skills and supporting resources to develop good quality targets.

View the full paper here.

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