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Exclusive: Most areas struggle in SEND inspections as reforms falter

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Significant weaknesses in support for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are being identified in an increasing number of areas amid concern funding is insufficient to meet rising demand, LGC research has found.

Since new responsibilities for councils were introduced under Children & Families Act 2014, Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission have conducted 48 local area reviews of SEND provision. This includes access to educational psychologists, specialist teachers and speech therapists, as well as free school transport. 

A government report published in October last year said significant weaknesses had been identified in nine (30%) of the 30 areas inspected between March 2016 and March 2017.

However, LGC analysis has now found that of the 19 areas inspected since March 2017, weaknesses were found in 12 areas (63%).

Councils are in most cases required to provide a written statement of action if significant weaknesses are found.

The reforms, which seek to promote joined-up working between organisations, saw special educational needs statements being replaced by education, health and care plans. Councils are responsible for processing EHC plan applications within 20 weeks and identifying required support and resources. They are also required to transfer all children from the previous statements system to an EHC by March this year.

The latest government figures show 287,290 children were either the subject of a SEND statement or an EHC in January 2017, a 21% rise on a year before.

Councils have received a share of an implementation grant. For the 48 councils that have so far been subject to area reviews this totalled £37.4m over three years, with 2018-19 set to be the final year.

Association of Directors of Children Services’ standards, performance and inspection policy committee chair Steve Crocker said some councils had struggled to meet rising demand for EHC plans.

“You can’t see the relative small amount of ringfenced funding outside of the context of cuts to local authority funding,” said Mr Crocker, Hampshire CC’s director of children’s services.

sixty three per cent

sixty three per cent

“Ringfencing a relatively small amount for SEND doesn’t really solve that problem and the new system has had the effect of increasing demand for those plans, not least [within] the 16-25 age group.”

He added the impact of growing demand for EHC plans on the “high needs block” of school funding is becoming “a major problem” that is “only going to get worse”, with “most” councils overspending in this area.

Mr Crocker added the new funding formula for education was contributing to this as it removed flexibility to shift money between the dedicated schools grant and the high needs block.

“Either schools will have to find ways to reduce their costs or [councils] will have to find ways of reducing the number of children that have access to special schools,” he added.

Mr Crocker said the requirement to transfer children from the old system of statements to EHC plans, while also dealing with rising demand for new plans, was like “riding a bike while doing the knitting”.

“Very few local authorities have been able to do both things very well,” he added.

Mr Crocker said staffing was also a challenge, with a shortage of skilled staff in all parts of the system.

He also said there was an “incongruity” between national education reforms which focus on attainment and special educational needs provision, with increases in children being home-schooled or excluded.

A local area review in Durham in November last year found system leaders “do not have a deep enough understanding of the reforms” and “what it means to put the needs of children and families at the centre of services in education, health and care.”

Durham CC’s director for children Margaret Whellans said these concerns were being addressed.

Following a review in December, inspectors said Medway’s leaders did not share “one vision and strategy”, with EHC plans not deemed of sufficient quality.

Medway Council’s portfolio holder for children services Andrew Mackness (Con) said organisations would work with the government and NHS England to “ensure there is a joined-up approach”.

In Waltham Forest, inspectors said some health professionals were not making a strong enough contribution to EHC plans.

Waltham Forest LBC cabinet member for children’s services Grace Williams (Lab) said as an outer London borough the council received less funding than inner London boroughs, despite having similar needs.

“We have worked collectively with the clinical commissioning group to ensure the right resource goes to this part of the system, despite the funding gap,” she added.

Ombudsman warns delays having ’significant impact’ on children

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has identified “worrying patterns of delay” after upholding 80% of complaints about education and health plans.

Councils are responsible for processing applications, carrying out assessments, identifying services and transferring children and young people from previous special educational needs statements, as part of reforms under the Children and Families Act 2014.

Ombudsman Michael King revealed yesterday that he has upheld 112 of 140 complaints received since the system started.

He said: “In the cases that come to us, we are seeing worrying patterns of delay, inadequate evidence gathering and poor administration and this is having a significant impact on the children and families the new plans were designed to help.”

Mr King added he recognised children’s services are under increasing pressure but said he would continue to make decisions based on “law, guidance and rights”.

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