The poor performance of Suffolk County Council in delivering its statutory responsibilities to children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) was highlighted yet again last week by another damning Ofsted report.

Rightly, several senior county councillors have done the honourable thing, accepted responsibility, and resigned their Cabinet posts.

However, it is senior council officers – the people in day-to-day operational control of the SEND service – who are equally, if not more responsible for failing our young people. They should also accept responsibility and resign, or be removed from post by the council leadership.

Suffolk has been a national outlier in the quality of its SEND services for over 25 years, under consecutive administrations and under different political parties.

In recent years, serious concerns were raised by both the CQC and Ofsted in 2016 and in 2019, leading to Suffolk County Council finally deciding to take action, and commissioning the independent Lincolnshire Review in 2021.

This review resulted in a clear plan and roadmap for how Suffolk could improve the provision and care for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

But despite assurances that plans were in place to act upon the findings of the Lincolnshire Review, and about the implementation of positive change at pace, nothing has changed.

Time and time again, as a local MP, I receive correspondence from parents who are in crisis and asking for support as they try to navigate the SEND pathway for their children. I visit schools in Central Suffolk and North Ipswich almost every week.

Head Teachers, SENCOs and teaching staff report that the SEND system is not improving, there is no perceivable change since the Lincolnshire Review, and that if anything, the delays and support available appear to be worsening instead of improving.

Key findings made by the Ofsted Inspector included: “Children and young people face a system that has not worked well for a long time… assessments for support take too long. When the right help is put in place, it is often only at the point of crisis.

As a result, children with education, health and care (EHC) plans in Suffolk achieve less well in school than similar pupils elsewhere, and are much more likely to be excluded and to find themselves not in education, employment or training (NEET).”

It continues: “Weaknesses in statutory EHC plan processes lead to widespread and systemic gaps in service provision.

"The quality of Education Health and Care (EHC) plans is variable. Frequently, crucial information is incorrect or missing, such as in relation to health or social care.

"At times, intended outcomes are too vague and brief to be helpful. Many plans lack the voice of the child or young person.

"Likewise, these weaknesses do not get addressed at annual reviews as well as they should. As often as not, annual reviews do not happen. As a result, the information required to support needs successfully is not sufficiently embedded in the process.”

This is simply not good enough and the fact that our children with SEND in Suffolk achieve less well than their counterparts elsewhere is unacceptable.

The Ofsted report goes on to state: “Since Ofsted and The Care Quality Commission (CQC) inspections raised serious concerns in both 2016 and 2019, leaders have not urgently or effectively addressed systemic and significant weaknesses in the SEND provision in Suffolk.

"Many longstanding issues, particularly the quality and timeliness of Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans, parental dissatisfaction, and high proportions of children and young people with SEND being excluded and becoming NEET (not in employment, education or training), have remained unresolved…. Leaders’ work to improve the statutory EHC process has not been effective, leading to unacceptable delays and gaps in support.

"The timeliness of completing EHC plans is getting worse. The average wait is twice the statutory deadline.”

So where does this leave us and more importantly children with SEND in Suffolk?

Firstly, there are questions of accountability. Senior local politicians have resigned. Two of the senior officers responsible for children’s services were “retired” last year, but many of the senior council officers who have played a significant part in over a quarter of a century of SEND failure are still in post.

I am loathe to criticise civil servants and council officers, as they are not able to publicly defend themselves.

However, we do need to see some accountability from Suffolk County Council civil servants. It is senior officers who set the culture of how the SEND service operates, and it is senior council officers who are responsible for day-to-day operation of the SEND system, and in that they have repeatedly failed.

The problem it seems to me, is that Suffolk County Council does not know what ‘good’ SEND services look like.

They need to quickly recruit the right senior staff from outside of Suffolk who have the experience, understanding and skills to deliver the improvements that are required. Basic improvements like ensuring proper governance and IT systems are in place need to happen immediately, and we need to see senior councillors properly hold officers to account for their performance.

I hope recent events have given the county council the wake up call it badly needed. It’s time for change, for accountability and for leadership. Children with SEND deserve better.

Dr Dan Poulter is Conservative MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich