Support for children with special educational needs 'in crisis'

Ombudsman finds families face delays of up to 90 weeks and complaints are at record levels

Services for children with special educational needs and disabilities (Send) are in crisis, with families experiencing delays of up to 90 weeks and complaints at record levels, according to the local government and social care ombudsman.

Ombudsman Michael King said the number of complaints from frustrated parents had gone up by 45% over a two-year period to 2019. Most concerning, he said, was that nine out of 10 complaints (87%) were upheld in the families’ favour, with councils criticised for failing to meet their statutory duties to support children with Send.

King’s report focuses on the experiences of families who have made complaints to the ombudsman about securing an education, health, and care plan (EHCP) for their child and the delivery of services promised in it. An EHCP is a legal document which outlines a child’s special needs and provision required.

He warns that councils – struggling after years of austerity cuts – are putting up barriers to services in an effort to ration resources. As a result, children with special needs are missing out on their education and parents are left to pick up the pieces.

“We are now upholding almost nine in 10 investigations we carry out about EHCPs. This is exceptional and unprecedented in our work,” said King. “Two years ago when the new system of support for children and young people with Send was still bedding in after sweeping changes under the Children and Families Act 2014, the ombudsman upheld around 80% of investigations.

“That we are investigating and upholding significantly more complaints two years later suggests a system in crisis.”

He continued: “I am now particularly concerned some authorities may be putting in place extra barriers to ration scarce resources, rather than basing support on children’s needs.

“While I can empathise with the difficulties authorities face, there can never be an excuse for failing to meet the statutory rights of children.”

Though the number of complaints investigated by the ombudsman is still relatively small, up from 217 two years ago to 315, he said the stories were a barometer of how the system is working. In other areas of the ombudsman’s work, like adult social care for example, fewer than six out of 10 complaints are upheld.

The Local Government Association (LGA) acknowledged that the councils it represents are in danger of being unable to meet their statutory duties for children with Send. In recent months the government agreed an additional £700m in funding for Send services and announced a review of the system.

Judith Blake, the chair of the LGA’s children and young people board, said: “While we are pleased the government has announced an additional £700m for children with special educational needs, without certainty over funding for the future the situation will get worse as the number of children who need support continues to increase.”

Blake said there were currently 354,000 pupils with EHCPs – an 11% increase since last year. “This is why we are also pleased the government plans to review the system, and will work with them to get a clear picture of what more can be done to make sure vulnerable children can get the best support possible.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said the ombudsman’s report was based on a small sample size covering less than 0.3% of all cases in 2018.

“However, we know the system is not working well enough for every family, and have launched a review to introduce further improvements.”


Sally Weale Education correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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