More than 1.2 million children in England have special educational needs. And only a fraction of these children have special educational needs statements or education health and care plans that provide access to additional support.

Recently, we worked with the children’s services team at Dorset County Council to look at how they could improve the process for children and young people with Special Education Needs (SEN) to apply for and receive education, health and care plans (EHCP). This project is part of the council’s digital strategy, wanting to help the organisation develop the skills to adopt a design-led approach.

It was an exciting challenge: a dynamic team, wanting to build a more user-centred service that faces increasing demand, all to support the families and children most in need of special education support.

My role was to help this ambitious team understand where to start and demonstrate that positive change can happen simply and quickly.

Working as a team

Bringing together a multidisciplinary team was one of the first things we did in Dorset. With different perspectives focused on the challenge, we knew we could unearth new ideas. Working with a data specialist and a communications officer from the SEN team, we found the perfect blend of skills and experience, as well as a genuinely fabulous group of passionate and empathetic individuals.

FGer Lingjing with some of the team from Dorset

We used to meet parents and children in person to write the plan. We had to stop because the demand is too high. I feel that the process became superficial.

SEN planning coordinator

Getting in their shoes

We needed to understand the user experience of the existing service. Most often, parents are faced with the time-consuming task of navigating a confusing network of information. As we found in Dorset, lack clarity causes further confusion in an already stressful time, leaving the needs of many children unmet and trust lost between the council and residents.

Until now, input from parents was only collected through inaccessible forms. We knew we were missing valuable insight from their experience. What is it actually like for parents to apply? How do parents, schools and health professionals develop and deliver these plans together? Speaking to real parents and families, schools and practitioners, we sought to answer these questions and learned a lot from their experiences.

User testing session at the ASDivas group in Dorset

We learned that the ‘SEN jungle’ is difficult to navigate. There are many support options, and for parents, it’s hard to understand which options are relevant. With a general misunderstanding of what an EHCP is, parents apply for plans that don’t fit their needs, only to receive a confusing rejection letter. Finding the forms and letters difficult to understand, parents disengage with council communication.

Parents aren’t alone in the confusion. Healthcare specialists and professionals also find the forms lengthy and confusing. Not knowing exactly what’s required from them, forms are submitted incomplete, with irrelevant information or submitted too late.

It became clear that all everyone finds the service opaque, lengthy and unfair. What really stood out from the user research is that the root cause of the issue was linked to poor communication. It affected everyone involved, from parents to schools to healthcare specialists to the council.

The power of clear content

With our research insight, we co-created a new user journey. We needed to design solutions we could quickly put in place and test with the different people involved in the process. Our aim was to create tools that would simplify information, set realistic expectations and provide better engagement.

The first prototype is a series of curated guides on the council website for families, school and specialists. As we found through research, existing information was difficult to understand with complex language. Running the content through the Hemingway Editor tool, we were able to show how confusing the information was. It was a powerful moment where the council team could see what this looked like to others, and it really set off the review of their content.

Our content designer Linsey has been using Hemingway to show the impact of good content design (left: old content, right: new content)

We also needed to contextualise EHCP and position it as part of wider Special Needs support options. These clear and concise guides will help families and practitioners understand and navigate support options and prompt parents to have constructive conversations with schools and specialists about which options are suitable for them, including applying for an EHCP.

The second prototype is the creation of an SMS update service to inform parents of the progress of their application. Delivering bite-sized, easy to consume pieces of information at the right time meant the council could communicate clear actions and reassure parents of progress. This means peace of mind for the parents and saving the council valuable time.

Our SMS update service prototype

Building momentum for change

The feedback from parents was incredibly positive. They said our work gave them a greater understanding of the EHCP, and that knowing where their application was in the process brought back their trust.

I used to put alarms in my calendar with the countdown of weeks. I was chasing every Monday for updates. This tracker is fantastic, I know where the application is and what I am supposed to do next.

Mother of 2 children with SEN

The return of trust also brought revitalized energy and motivation to the service team. Through the power of good design, the built empathy and understanding for the people using the service and create meaningful new connections.

Overall, this project really showed us the beauty of simplicity, and how talking to people in a language they understand can improve the impact and efficiency of a service.

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