A damning report has laid out the failings in special education needs and disabilities services (SEND) in Suffolk as leaders issue a stark apologies to families let down.

An independent review by Lincolnshire County Council inspected Suffolk County Council's struggling service following a swathe of parent comments over problems in the system.

The report, published this afternoon following 29 virtual meetings with families, children and industry staff, concluded that weaknesses existed in a host of areas and made nine recommendations for future improvement.

In an open letter penned to parents, Suffolk County Council wrote: “The review has found that we must change what we are doing in a number of areas.

“We accept without reservation the findings of the review and are grateful to the Lincolnshire team for their attention to detail, professionalism and advice.

“We are sorry for the difficulties that some families have experienced as a result of how we have been doing things.

“We recognise that we have let down some children and young people as certain aspects of our services have simply not been good enough.”

Measures in the action plan, which will begin this week, include better co-production on developing education health and care plans (EHCPS) – documents with specific measures for SEND youngsters required in their education.

It also includes work to identify gaps in knowledge and skills in the team, collate a review of policies in line with the code of practice, address gaps in sharing of information with health service colleagues and robust annual review processes – particularly as youngsters transition from one phase of education to another.

A new partnership will also be launched with Impower, a specialist organisation which has worked with 15 other local authorities nationwide on improving SEND provision.

Conservative cabinet member for education, Rachel Hood, said: “As we anticipated, the report has shown that SEND services in Suffolk are not good enough, and I want to apologise to those children and young people we have let down.

“I want to be clear that this report does not cover all SEND services and many children or young people who have specialist educational needs in Suffolk are very well served, but significant changes must be made following this hard-hitting report.

“We must learn from this report and implement fundamental change as quickly as we can.”

Key issues from the report include:

A necessity for families to be involved in the EHCP assessments

Timeliness in responding to calls and emails

Lack of specific measures in some EHCPs

The specialist education panel being “overwhelmed” with requests for specialist provision

Pupils inappropriately placed in specialist places not suited to their needs

Lack of identified caseworkers for children once they have an EHCP

Requests for statutory assessments are not recorded

High numbers of mediations over refusal for assessments

Lack of routine tracking on annual reviews of EHCPs

Lack of consistency in how parents are contacted

Lack of transparency about process and decision-making

More details on the action plan are expected to be published ahead of the December education scrutiny committee meeting.

East Anglian Daily Times: Suffolk County Council has aplogised to families following a damning report into the failings in special education needs and disabilities services (SEND) in Suffolk.Suffolk County Council has aplogised to families following a damning report into the failings in special education needs and disabilities services (SEND) in Suffolk. (Image: Jason Noble LDRS)

Parent campaigners in Suffolk have vowed to publish a report of their own exposing problems in the county council’s special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) system, following the report.

The Campaign for Change (Suffolk SEND) group – a collection of 470 parents and carers of youngsters which has been instrumental in fighting for SEND improvements – re-iterated its calls for a legal audit of services to ensure they met statutory duties.

A group spokesman said: “We are united in one thing and that is to demand that Suffolk County Council fully complies with its statutory duties to deliver appropriate education to children and young people with SEND.

“For years we have seen a deliberate policy of ignoring these statutory duties with no accountability. This has left needs unassessed, it has left children without critical provision including in many cases with no schooling at all.

"Children’s mental and physical health and education has suffered catastrophically. Families and parents have been broken by the endless battles to gain an education.

“It is clear that the report does however highlight a number of failures to comply with statutory duties.

"This supports our ongoing call for an independent legal audit to uncover the extent of and accountability for this continued law breaking.

“In the coming weeks we will also be releasing our own report which will begin to expose the true scale of Suffolk County Council’s failures, which are somewhat lost in the jargon of this council report.”

East Anglian Daily Times: Andrew Stringer, leader of the county council’s opposition Green, Liberal Democrat and Independent group.Andrew Stringer, leader of the county council’s opposition Green, Liberal Democrat and Independent group. (Image: Jason Noble LDRS)

Andrew Stringer, leader of the county council’s opposition Green, Liberal Democrat and Independent group, said: “We welcome the report published today – it makes for a hugely sobering read.

"Families have been let down because we have some good people but a poor system, a system that has led to some families waiting for years to get into the right placement.

“The Conservatives should have made sure the right resources were in the right place to avoid our families being served by a system where assessments were not carried out in time, resulting in clear breaches of compliance.

“We accept the system was overwhelmed, but why those workers feel they couldn’t report this to their management is of huge concern.

“Our group are glad that there has been an apology to those we have let down, and a promise to work with others to avoid these same mistakes in the future.”

Both the Campaign for Change group and Cllr Stringer questioned why the media were informed before councillors and families, while Cllr Stringer also questioned why a special meeting of the education scrutiny committee has not been formed to discuss the findings.

Jack Abbott, former Labour group spokesman for education at Suffolk County Council who is now an education campaigner, said: “This is a damning report, but its findings will come as little surprise to the families who have been desperately seeking change for years.

"It is they who have had to endure long, exhausting battles just to get the support they need.

“Let’s not forget either that Suffolk County Council limited the scope of this report – the criticisms highlighted here only reflect part of the systemic problems that exist.

"Yes, communication with families is important, but the quality and accessibility of provision is critical.

"If Suffolk County Council really wants to drive improvements, then they will finally listen to families and conduct a full investigation.”