Crucial meeting over future of special needs schooling in Suffolk bars input from parents
PUBLISHED: 18:25 18 March 2019 | UPDATED: 11:58 19 March 2019
SUFFOLK PARENT CARER NETWORK
Parents have reacted angrily after it emerged a special needs forum praised for its "powerful and influential voice" has been refused access to a crisis meeting with government leaders.
Suffolk Parent Carer Network (SPCN), which acts on behalf of families across the county, has been told it will not have a seat at a key meeting to decide the future of Suffolk’s failing special educational needs (SEN) provision.
The decision, made by the Department for Education (DfE), has sparked anger among families who claim SPCN is among the only organisations that fairly represent their needs – arguing parents should have an active role in the debate.
It comes just weeks after parents and carers across the region launched an urgent plea to fix the failing special needs system, with families united by the message: “We must be heard”.
Anne Humphrys and Joanna Hammond, co-chairs of SPCN, said that – despite backing from Suffolk County Council and local clinical commissioning groups – the DfE had declined their request to partake in the crisis meeting.
“The Ofsted/CQC SEND re-visit letter showed that Suffolk Parent Carer Network (SPCN) has continued to be the voice of families across Suffolk and has successfully changed ways of working so that those voices are central to the work across education, health and care services,” they said.
“Given the strength of our working partnership we felt it was a natural next step for us to ask to attend the meeting with the DfE and Department of Health and did so with the support of Suffolk County Council and the clinical commissioning groups.
“SPCN appreciate that we are not the accountable officers and understand with respect, why the DFE feel that it is not our role.
“However, we do feel that we would be able to provide a powerful insight by bringing the parent carer voice and offering reassurance if necessary, that the work being undertaken will indeed bring about the necessary changes to the lived experience of the children, young people and their families in Suffolk.”
‘I would like to see them cope for five minutes in our shoes’
The news has come as a shock to many families, as SPCN received such high praise from Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) in a recent inspection of Suffolk’s SEN services.
In a report dated January 21, the inspectors wrote: “The SPCN provides a powerful and influential voice in the best interests of an ever-increasing group of parents and carers.
“The voice of service users is informing a shared understanding of what is needed to make effective transformation of local services.”
Claire Scarff, whose daughter Mollie lives with autism and has been denied any proper support at school, said the DfE’s decision is “taking away the voice of those they are meant to be helping”.
“SPCN represents us parents fairly and can provide useful insights to areas needing progress,” she said.
“Who better to consult than those who need the help?”
Lyndsay Terry, whose son Bradley also has special needs, added: “It is like they want to hide their failings and hide their discussions.
“SPCN should be allowed in as they are the only people who are going to speak up for all the families and what improvements actually need to happen. How are the council going to know what needs to change if they are refusing people the opportunity to give advice?
“I would like to see these officials cope for five minutes in our shoes. The thing that winds me up is they always have an excuse as to why they cannot answer questions.”
A history of co-operation
In a joint statement, Suffolk County Council and the NHS Ipswich & East Suffolk, NHS West Suffolk and NHS Great Yarmouth & Waveney clinical commissioning groups said, while they respect the DfE’s decision, they believe SPCN’s input is “crucial” when it comes to improving services for vulnerable young people.
“We have been working in partnership with SPCN to improve SEND services for children and young people in Suffolk since Ofsted and the CQC first inspected them in December 2016,” they said.
“In keeping with the true spirit of co-production SPCN members have been present at every SEND meeting since then, including programme board and priority leads meetings.
“As organisations we believe their involvement is crucial if we are to achieve our aim of ensuring SEND services for young people in our county are effective, accessible and fit for purpose.
“Although we supported their involvement in the forthcoming meetings, the DfE felt it was not appropriate at this particular time and we have to respect that decision.
“However, we are confident that the close working relationship we have forged with SPCN over the past two and a half years will enable us to speak on their behalf on this occasion.”
What does the government have to say?
The DfE said, while it is keen to deliver a “high quality service” for vulnerable children across the county, it is “limiting this particular meeting to the accountable bodies who hold ultimate responsibility for improvement to special educational services across Suffolk”.
A spokeswoman said: “We are pleased that Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CCG) have highlighted the positive steps Suffolk has taken to improve its governance, strategic leadership and partnership working – including with parents and young people – which will help with the remaining necessary improvements.
“We are encouraged by the Parent Carer Forum’s willingness to work alongside the local authority and CCG to make the necessary improvements, however we are limiting this particular meeting to the accountable bodies who hold ultimate responsibility for improvement to special educational services across Suffolk.
“Our ambition is for Suffolk to deliver a high quality service for every child or young person with special educational needs or a disability, and will be working with them to achieve this.”