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| 10 minutes read

In Conversation With Senior Associate and Published Author Katya Harrison

Katya Harrison, Private Credit senior associate and author of “The EHCP Handbook: How to Make an Effective Education, Health and Care Plan," participated in a Q&A about her advocacy for families and carers of children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), her personal journey navigating the SEND system, and ways to navigate challenges that create barriers to proper education for neurodivergent individuals. 

It’s clear that this book strikes a very personal chord with you. Can you talk about your primary objective and inspiration for writing "The EHCP Handbook: How to Make an Effective Education, Health and Care Plan?" 

I am not an education lawyer by training, but I had to become one out of necessity when my children struggled to fit into the mainstream education system and were not receiving the support they needed. I developed my skills through hands-on experience — filing complaints, attending tribunals and even managing a judicial review.

Seeing firsthand how difficult it is to navigate this complex system, I decided to volunteer at the charity SOS!SEN to help families like mine. I was lucky to do this through the pro bono program at Katten, which allowed me to use my time and skills for this important cause. While volunteering, I realized that there was a substantial need for clear and practical information on the subject. 

This inspired me to write “The EHCP Handbook.” I want to share the knowledge I have gained and fill the noticeable gap in available resources. There are not many books that straightforwardly address this topic, and I felt it was important to provide a legal guide. My goal is to help other parents and carers advocate effectively for their children's needs and make the process a little easier and less overwhelming for them.

Given your experience advocating for your three children, what is one key lesson you can share about your journey? 

Navigating through the SEND system is as much about strategy and psychology as it is about knowing the law. Understanding how to communicate effectively, advocate persistently and approach each situation strategically can make a significant difference.

There are major gaps in mainstream education systems and legal frameworks, including budget constraints. What are some of the more significant barriers for neurodivergent children?

One key challenge is the limited understanding of neurodivergence among educators and policymakers. For those unfamiliar with the term, someone who is “neurodivergent” has a brain that operates in ways that differ from what is typically seen as the norm. Within this varied group, some people may be autistic or have conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia or others.

Neurodivergent conditions are often referred to as invisible disabilities and may go unrecognized by those unfamiliar with such profiles. This lack of awareness can lead to people wrongly attributing children’s behaviors to poor parenting or dismissing them as “naughtiness,” resulting in misunderstandings and inadequate support.

The invisibility of these conditions is often linked to the phenomenon known as masking or camouflaging. Masking refers to the process by which neurodivergent individuals consciously or unconsciously suppress or hide their natural behaviors and traits in order to fit in with neurotypical social expectations. It can encompass a wide range of actions, including mimicking socially accepted behaviors, imitating phrases from media and suppressing stimming (repetitive movements or sounds). Autistic people might also avoid discussing their special interests or use scripts to navigate social situations.

Such behaviors enable individuals to “fit in,” making their differences less noticeable to others. As a result, those who engage in masking or camouflaging may appear to function well in social settings or meet academic expectations. But, as a result, others may overlook or underestimate the challenges they face due to their neurodivergence. This can perpetuate the misconception that neurodivergent conditions are not significant or do not require support and can leave neurodivergent children and young people without the help they need.

Proper education is vitally important, but realistically, many neurodivergent children and young people face barriers to access simply because the school environment is not conducive to their learning style. There is a significant population that does not thrive in mainstream school environments and may require different settings, alternative teaching methods and/or a peer group of similar individuals. Education, health and care plans (EHCPs) can serve to bridge this gap, making schools accessible to these children or affording them the opportunity to attend special schools if they better suit the children’s needs. Ultimately, it provides them with a chance to thrive in education and be true to themselves as much as possible.

How are systems beginning to evolve to become more inclusive and what transitional challenges have you observed?

In education, there is a gradual shift toward inclusivity, with a growing awareness and acceptance of neurodivergence. This is important if we are to break down the stigma attached to being different or behaving in ways that are not seen as typical.

It is important to note that historically, most research in psychology and related fields has focused on neurotypical individuals and left out the perspectives and experiences of neurodivergent people. This gap in research means we have a limited understanding of how neurodivergent children and young people experience the world and learn.

As a result, many of the unique challenges, strengths and needs of neurodivergent learners may have been overlooked or misunderstood in educational research and discussions. To make more informed decisions about which approaches are effective and which are not, we need a better understanding of the developmental trajectory of neurodivergent individuals, informed by studies that are focused on them.

What are some examples of common practical and legal challenges that neurodivergent children and their parents/carers face when they navigate education systems and try to ensure that the SEND students’ needs are met?

In my opinion, the most significant problem within the SEND system is the prevalence of unlawful practices. Parents place their trust in local authorities and education professionals to provide accurate guidance on what their child is entitled to. However, they frequently discover that the information they receive is incorrect. This can be attributed to deliberate misrepresentation in some cases, but more commonly, this happens because the professionals involved are themselves misinformed, inadequately trained and struggling with impossible caseloads.

If families disagree with certain decisions made by the local authorities, such as the contents of the EHCP, they can appeal to a tribunal to investigate their concerns. In 2023, the success rate for local authorities in tribunal cases stood at a mere 1.7 percent.1 This means that families won in the overwhelming majority of cases and suggests that local authorities frequently make unlawful decisions. 

In this field, parents or carers who are knowledgeable about the law and can navigate appeal and enforcement procedures effectively hold a significant advantage. This places them far more favorably to have constructive and productive interactions with local authorities and their children’s schools or other placements, ultimately ensuring the best possible outcomes.

Knowledge is power, and I hope that the publication of books like mine can help reshape attitudes toward the law in this area as well as the public’s perception of special educational needs. 

How has your background as a lawyer influenced your approach to addressing these challenges?

In my experience, many people hesitate to challenge decisions, whether or not they think those decisions might be unlawful, because they fear that raising such challenges might depict them as troublemakers and result in their child being treated unfavorably. Handling SEND cases requires careful strategy due to the sensitivity of the situation — sometimes, a formal complaint is necessary, while at other times, diplomacy is more effective.

As a lawyer, I have an advantage because I understand the duties of various participants in the process, and I know how to hold them accountable. Not every battle is worth fighting, and my legal background enables me to evaluate the risks and effectively choose the most viable options. Lawyers are trained to assess situations strategically and ensure that efforts are directed where they will have the most positive impact.

In your book, you discuss vague language traps in legal documents, such as “weasel words.” How can lawyers and other professionals prepare more effective EHCPs?

In England, it is common for local authorities to issue vague, unclear EHCPs. The term “weasel words” has been used to describe the vague language in Section F of the plan, while the unspecific provision is often referred to as “woolly.”

EHCPs do not have a fixed format, but they do have to adhere to statutory requirements concerning their content. There is an ongoing discussion about whether a national EHCP template could be adopted to increase their efficiency. In early 2023, the UK government stated this intention in its SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan. The “EHCP reform team” at the Department of Education is working on this template, and it is currently being tested in areas involved in the SEND Change Programme.

This upcoming template redesign should not just be about improving the EHCP’s visual layout. The primary goal should be to improve the level of detail and specificity in each plan. The template needs to create opportunities for local authorities to engage meaningfully with every aspect of a child or young person’s special educational needs and disability. This includes addressing any health and social care needs they may have.

In practice, the quality of an EHCP significantly depends on the advice and information that is used to write it. In many cases, reports from experts are copied by the local authorities, word for word, into the text of an EHCP. Given the importance of professional reports, it may be worth creating a national template for the evidence presented by individual professionals as part of the statutory assessment of needs. This way, we could ensure that the information and advice that provides the basis for a child’s or young person’s EHCP is as thorough and complete as possible and aligns with the legal requirements. 

Along with seeking a professional’s opinion, what techniques can parents/carers use at home to assess whether their child may have special educational needs?

Parents and carers can play a significant role in uncovering their child’s strengths, challenges and aspirations by actively engaging in observation, communication and reflection. The developmental milestones provided on the National Health Service (NHS)  website might be a good place to begin. You can use these milestones, which are based on a child’s age, to compare an average child’s abilities with those of your child. 

It can be beneficial to organize these observation notes by grouping them according to the “areas of need” specified in the EHCP. In England, children’s special educational needs are usually categorized into four broad categories: (i) communication and interaction, (ii) cognition and learning, (iii) social, emotional and mental health, and (iv) sensory and/or physical needs. 

For each category, parents and carers can look for signs of challenges, such as difficulties in expression or understanding, learning disparities compared with children of the same age, and changes in emotional expression or behavior, as well as sensory integration challenges that may affect daily activities.

What are the key components of EHCPs that parents/carers should understand to ensure that a plan is well-written and fit for purpose?

The key point to remember is that different sections of the EHCP present different opportunities for appeal. In The EHCP Handbook, the EHCP sections are categorized as follows: education (sections B, F, and I of the plan), health and social care (sections C, D, G, H1 and H2), and all other sections (A, E, J and K). 

The education sections are arguably the most important ones. In case of disagreements, their contents can be appealed via the SEND tribunal. For the health and social care sections, the tribunal can currently only make non-binding recommendations. Unfortunately, it is not possible to appeal against the contents of the remaining sections (A, E, J and K).

Understanding these distinctions helps families efficiently prioritize their efforts and resources for each section. They need to recognize the significance and potential impact of the sections to ensure that the EHCP is as effective as possible.

How can parents/carers educate themselves on the information required for each section of the EHCP before it is drafted, and what are some follow-up actions they can take to ensure that the EHCP is effective and fulfills the student’s needs once it’s obtained?

Parents and carers can educate themselves by referring to resources like The EHCP Handbook or the websites of charities, such as Independent Provider of Special Education Advice (IPSEA) and SOS!SEN. These sources provide detailed guidance on the process and requirements of writing an EHCP.

It is important to note that the local authority drafts the EHCP, except for Section A, and is the arbiter of all amendments. However, with knowledge and an understanding of each section’s purpose in the plan, families can review the local authority’s draft critically, identify any missing information, make representations, and refer to specific legal rules when they provide feedback or request amendments. This collaborative process aims to create a comprehensive, tailored EHCP that addresses the unique needs of the neurodivergent child or young person.

1 Matt Keer, “SEND Tribunal 2023: When will councils stop wasting public funds defending SEND appeals when they fail almost all the time?” Special Needs Jungle Ltd (Dec. 15, 2023).

Illustration Credit: Illustrations were created by Katya's 11-year-old son and appear in her book. 


katten cares, kattendei, private credit