Pupils with mental ill health in Suffolk are ‘falling through the cracks’ in the education system
- Credit: PA
Fears have been raised that pupils in Suffolk are missing out on vital support due to failures to consider the impact of mental ill health on their educational needs.
Parents have criticised the county’s handling of education, health and care (EHC) plans, which they say are leaving children in genuine need without the help they require.
EHC plans were introduced nationally in September 2014 to replace statements of special education needs (SEN) – the scheme previously used to help around 3,000 Suffolk children through their education.
The new system requires local authorities and health services to work together on a plan covering a wider range of issues affecting a young person up until the age of 25 – not just their educational needs. Typical EHC plans may include information of an individual’s mental or physical disabilities as well as their specific needs such as access to specialist teaching staff.
Just over a year after its launch, however, doubts have been expressed about the effectiveness of the scheme and its implementation in Suffolk, where there are growing numbers of children reporting mental ill health.
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Today, county council bosses confirmed they were consulting on the future of special needs provision.
Anne Humphrys, a Suffolk teacher, from Debenham, whose teenage daughter is registered disabled with mental health needs, said the council had failed to consider the impact of mental ill health on pupils’ education when considering applications.
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“Until they understand that young people’s mental health issues often have a major impact on their education, many pupils in Suffolk are going to continue slipping through the cracks,” she added.
Suffolk County Council said requests were assessed by “a skilled team of professionals” and stressed the provision of EHC plans is dependent on a pupil having special education needs, while those whose needs relate only to health have to be managed separately.
Mrs Humphrys’ daughter’s application for an EHC assessment was initially refused and only granted after hiring solicitors to take on her case. She may still be refused a plan on the basis of the assessment.
However, given her daughter’s complex needs, which she says makes it difficult to understand written questions or classroom discussions, Mrs Humphrys felt it clearly demonstrated a special education need, and should have been approved without the need for costly legal action.
She said many other children with mental ill-health in Suffolk may be denied plans they are entitled to as some SEN co-ordinators had “absolutely no knowledge of mental health issues” and did not understand how they can affect young people’s education, calling for better training.
Nationally, charity leaders have also criticised the scope of EHC plans, which they say is too narrow.
Srabani Sen, who was previously chief executive of Contact a Family, said prior to their launch she was concerned plans would only be available to children who need support in education whereas disabled children will miss out.
However, Scope, which runs independent advice and support to help families in Suffolk and Norfolk apply for EHC plans, with council funding, said they were a “hugely welcome replacement to SEN statements”.
Delia Baylie, manager of Scope’s Independent Support Project, said: “The plans take a more personalised, holistic approach, which is vital to support young disabled people to achieve their ambitions.”
She added, however, that some families are finding the system difficult, “with some children’s needs not being met.”
Suffolk County Council confirmed there had been 591 requests for EHC assessments in the 12 months following its launch, of which 313 were undertaken and 278 refused.
Of those approved, 307 resulted in an EHC plan being offered, with 160 having been issued before the end of the 12-month period. 16 appeals were lodged over the year of which one was upheld at a tribunal hearing.
Mrs Humphrys said the proportion of refusals was higher than she would have expected as she felt most people applying would have had good cause to believe their case was valid.
Suffolk County Council said it has launched a consultation on the changes to specialist education provision. Gordon Jones, who is responsible for education at the county council, said: “The welfare and education of every child in Suffolk is the council’s number one priority and this proposal demonstrates our commitment to helping every child get the best start in life.”
A Department for Education spokesman added: “We have introduced the biggest reforms to the special education needs and disability (SEND) system in a generation to make sure support is focused on needs and aspiration and all pupils have the chance to reach their full potential.
“Our new system ensures that, for the first time ever, the needs of children with SEND across education, health and care are addressed together in one coherent plan – and all the relevant agencies must work together to deliver this.”
Click here to read more about the EADT’s Mental Health Watch campaign.