Damning report finds Suffolk failing some children with special education needs leaving families ‘frustrated and confused’

Suffolk County Council's Gordon Jones said the report was welcome. Picture: JAMES FLETCHER

Suffolk County Council's Gordon Jones said the report was welcome. Picture: JAMES FLETCHER - Credit: Archant

Families have had to 'fight every step of the way' to get help for the children with the greatest needs in Suffolk.

Members of the Suffolk Parent Carer Network, l-r, Anne Humphrys, Lucy Buckle, Sue Willgoss and Joann

Members of the Suffolk Parent Carer Network, l-r, Anne Humphrys, Lucy Buckle, Sue Willgoss and Joanna Hammond. Picture: SUFFOLK PARENT CARER NETWORK - Credit: Archant

A report published on Friday by watchdogs Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission found the special educational needs of many children in Suffolk are 'not effectively met' and highlighted 'dissatisfaction, frustration and confusion' of families trying to access services.

The watchdogs visited Suffolk to inspect whether health, social care and education leaders had met the challenge of the Special Education Needs and Disability (SEND) reforms introduced nationally in 2014.

The reforms were meant to make it easier for children and young people with special education needs, as well as mental and physical disabilities, to get the support they needed.

But the report, the first of its kind in Suffolk, has issued a 'statement of action' requiring authorities to identify how they will tackle areas of 'significant weaknesses', including ineffective leadership and delays in handling cases.

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Inspectors looked at SEND services provided by organisations including Suffolk County Council (SCC), the Ipswich and East Suffolk and West Suffolk and Great Yarmouth and Waveney clinical commissioning groups.

A spokesman for Ofsted said: 'Feedback from parents, in response both to the inspection and to a recent survey undertaken by the Suffolk Parent Carer Network (SPCN), overwhelmingly reflects dissatisfaction, frustration and confusion regarding the local area's provision for children and young people who have SEND.'

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The reforms were supposed to bring teams from across the education, health and social care systems together.

However inspectors found those leading the process 'have not been rigorous or effective' in developing a 'cross-service' approach.

Responses to the SPCN survey, carried out in October, included comments such as 'no one will give you a straight answer', leaving families 'in limbo'.

Sarah Barrett and her mother Cath Pickles. Picture: NICK BUTCHER

Sarah Barrett and her mother Cath Pickles. Picture: NICK BUTCHER - Credit: Nick Butcher

Many families highlighted difficulties receiving education, health and care (EHC) plans for their child – a cornerstone of the reforms.

Without an EHC plan some said they felt cut adrift.

Government figures show 117 families in Suffolk had taken SEN appeals to a tribunal in the two years since the reforms came in.

Last year, Suffolk's appeal rate was 46% higher than the national average.

Despite criticisms, the report said leaders had acknowledged the implementation of reforms had 'not been good enough' and apologised publicly.

The report also highlighted 'strengths' including recent training, which has increased the 'competence and confidence of teams'.

It said there were 'good examples' of special schools providing outreach services and parents felt 'reassured' by courses to support young people to the next stage of their education.

Waiting times for mental health services are said to have started to reduce demonstrating 'necessary progress in an area that still requires significant further improvement'.

Gordon Jones, cabinet member for children's services at SCC, said he welcomed the report 'and its confirmation that the changes we recently made were going in the right direction'. 'But we need to do a lot more,' he added.

Lowestoft mother Clare Kingaby-Lewis with her autistic son Samuel

Lowestoft mother Clare Kingaby-Lewis with her autistic son Samuel - Credit: Archant

Mr Jones said it was 'absolutely right' the reforms put children at the centre of their care plans.

However, he claimed the changes were 'the biggest education reforms in a generation' which posed challenges.

In a joint statement, SCC and the CCGs said: 'We fully accept the findings of the report and apologise that the local area's services and provision have not effectively met the needs of children and young people in our county. Transforming these services is our priority.'

They said 'significant improvements' had been identified before the report and a number of changes had been implemented resulting in a speedier process for EHC plans. The CCGs have recruited new staff to work on SEND reforms.

SCC said it had a 'good track record of turning poorly performing services around'.

Helen Armitage, Labour's spokesman for children's services at SCC, said the findings of the report were down to 'long-term mismanagement' of children's services at SCC and a 'programme of cuts first and care later'.

Have you been affected by the SEND changes? Email our reporter by following this link.

'The process is failing'

Parents and carers of children with special educational needs today told how they had to fight 'tooth and nail' to get help.

The Suffolk Parent Carer Network (SPCN), which produced a survey of parents views, said Friday's inspection report by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission mirrored its results.

'Parents clearly expressed their frustration at a system which is, all too often, confusing, difficult to access and makes things much harder than they need to be', they said. 'The reality is that the lived experience of too many families is one of fighting every step of the way to get their voices heard when trying to get the help and support their child needs.'

Becky Stevens, from Ipswich, said she had struggled for 20 months to get extra support for her 14-year-old son, who has Asperger's and attends Northgate High School.

Although her son has been given an education, health and care plan, she said it did not guarantee support.

'The process is failing,' she said. 'It is far from being joined up and I find the council is full of excuses. The agencies continually change how they are structured, do not work together, and take no accountability at failing to adhere to the timescales.'

Cath Pickles, from Southwold, said she had to battle to get support for her now 19-year-old daughter Sarah Barrett, who suffers from post traumatic stress disorder.

Mrs Pickles said: 'I am having to fight tooth and nail.

If you can find the right person, if you can fight your way through the system, there are glimmers of excellence, but getting there is impossible.'

Clare Kingaby-Lewis, from Lowestoft, said she had to struggle for a year to get support for her son Samuel, who is autistic, and placed out of county, in Acorn Park School in Barnham in Norfolk.

'It was an awful experience,' she said. 'Samuel was signed off school for a year due to the stress of being in the wrong setting.

'Our concerns were ignored, we weren't invited to meetings about our son, we had to wait months for decisions to be made.

'Any excuse they could use they did. This had a huge impact on all the family.'

SPCN thanked SCC and the CCGs for involving it in the review process as well as the families 'who demonstrated great courage in sharing their often heartbreaking experiences'.

Visit here to find out more about SPCN.

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