By Alice Evans
Children with special educational needs will receive better help at school from an earlier stage under a new national system, the government says.
The Department for Education plans for England include digitising paperwork to help parents receive extra support for their children more quickly.
It is part of a delayed review into the special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) support system.
Critics say too little urgency has been shown to address the "broken system".
Last year, 1.4 million pupils in England were identified as having special educational needs – the proportion has been growing since 2017.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi told BBC News early intervention was a "focus" of the plans – and would be achieved partly by training 5,000 more early-years teachers to be SEN co-ordinators (Sencos), who monitor and assess SEN children's progress.
The plans "will give confidence to families across the country that from very early on in their child's journey through education, whatever their level of need, their local school will be equipped to offer a tailored and high-quality level of support", he said.
New funding of £70m would be used to back the proposals, the Department for Education said.
But for some families, the review – announced in 2019 – comes too late.
Natasha Balashova, from Norwich, says securing extra support for her son has been "an impossible battle that crushes your soul and takes all of your energy".
Boris, seven, is autistic and has not been to his mainstream school for a year because he had too little support, she says.
Children who need more help than is available through SEN support – such as one-to-one teaching or a place in a specialist school – must have an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) in place.
"Because the system is broken, there are delays at every step of the process," Ms Balashova told BBC News.
While his EHCP was being processed, Boris did not receive the support he needed.
And by the time it was ready to be implemented, he had become too anxious to go to school.
Ms Balashova is "sceptical" the government's proposals will improve the EHCP process because "there is no quick fix of this state of shambles – it has to be reorganised from the top to the bottom".
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders trade union, welcomed the government's focus on early intervention but said it was frustrating the review had been delayed "and full implementation of the Green Paper is some way off".
"In the meantime, many thousands of children and young people will continue to pass through a broken system, with schools left to pick up the pieces without sufficient resources," he added.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders' union NAHT, said the Green Paper – the consultation document setting out policy proposals – had some "sensible" ideas, but he was "not convinced" the plans were ambitious enough to tackle waiting lists for specialist services such as speech therapy.
Mr Zahawi told MPs on Tuesday local authorities were "in deficit and overspending on their dedicated schools grant" and the Green Paper would build a more "financially sustainable system".
Families are being asked to share their views on how to shape the new system, in a 13-week public consultation.
Labour's shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, said the proposals were "hollow, because there's no plan" for delivery and criticised the amount of time changes were taking.
"Families have had to wait almost 1,000 days since the SEND review was announced, for the government to launch this consultation," she said.
"Families will wait for another 13 weeks for the consultation to close.
"They'll wait longer for a government response and then again before changes are seen in the front line."
But some children are already benefiting from early-intervention projects.
Lilycroft Primary School, in Bradford, has been part of a trial where experts use data to identify children who might need more support, at a much earlier stage than usual.
Head teacher Nicola Roth told BBC News it could take six years for a child in Bradford to be diagnosed as autistic – which can delay the support for which they are eligible.
"We can just get on with treating the child and getting the best education for the child as soon as possible," she said, adding she hoped every school could benefit from the same model.
Prof Mark Mon-Williams, a director at the Centre of Applied Education Research, based at Bradford Royal Infirmary, who ran the trial, said: "All the evidence is that acting early is good across the board.
"That child can then thrive in the educational setting, which means that we then have less issues to deal with in terms of that child's long-term physical and mental health."
Other proposals in the SEND and alternative provision Green Paper include:
Asked on BBC Radio 4's Today programme why the government does not "get on with it" rather than launching a consultation – especially after three years of delays – children's minister Will Quince said he was "determined to get this right".
He said reforms introduced in 2014 were not implemented properly.
"It pains me, the number of people who have to fight just to get their child the education that they rightly deserve," he added.
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By Alice Evans