Peak in children’s care plan delays was down to ‘restructuring issues’

Judith Mobbs, assistant director for inclusion and skills at Suffolk County Council Picture: ARCHANT

Judith Mobbs, assistant director for inclusion and skills at Suffolk County Council Picture: ARCHANT - Credit: Archant

Education bosses have admitted an effort to merge two services was partly to blame for a huge dip in the number of vital care plans completed on time – leaving hundreds of vulnerable children in limbo.

Earlier this year we revealed three quarters of children issued with a new education, health and care plan (EHCP) in 2018 had to wait too long for appropriate support.

EHCPs are care plans tailored to children and young people with the most complex needs, and should be drawn up by the local authority in 20 weeks or less.

But in 2018, Suffolk County Council (SCC) exceeded the legal time limit for processing 75% of all successful applications, excluding exception cases.

MORE: 'This is a massive failing' - Vulnerable children in limbo as council misses care plan targets

Gordon Jones, SCC cabinet member for children's services, education and skills Picture: SUFFOLK COU

Gordon Jones, SCC cabinet member for children's services, education and skills Picture: SUFFOLK COUNTY COUNTY - Credit: Archant

This was a huge increase on the number of missed targets in 2017, when roughly half of all children had their plans issued on time.

Now the officers in charge of Suffolk's special needs system have revealed the problem was partly down to a complex restructuring effort that saw two separate roles merged into one - meaning the teams were not performing at full capacity for the majority of 2018.

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'We weren't fully staffed until September'

The aim was to streamline the service by creating a new team of officers with responsibility for both EHCPs and children at risk of exclusion.

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But progress was stilted when, on launch of the SEND Family Services Team in April 2018, 30% of posts were vacant and many staff required training in EHCPs, inclusion work, or both.

Speaking at Monday's scrutiny committee meeting, Judith Mobbs, assistant director for inclusion and skills at SCC, said this had a significant impact on efficiency.

"We weren't fully staffed until September," she said.

"We had many new staff who were learning processes. They had to learn each other's work."

The council has since significantly increased the timeliness of its EHCP processes, with 41% of new plans issued within the 20-week time frame in the first and second quarters of 2019.

Ms Mobbs and Tracy Winwood, SEND manager for family services, said this is likely due to the fact the restructuring process is now complete, meaning vacancies have been filled and staff are fully trained.

However two "critical" management positions remain unfilled.

Offering his recommendations at the end of the meeting, committee member John Field, from the Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent Group, asked if more could have been done to "prevent things falling over during the transition period".

Gordon Jones, cabinet member for children's services, education and skills, said: "The restructure was absolutely necessary because the difference between the old statements and the new plans needs a totally different approach."

'Struggling to manage'

The two SEND officers also cited a rising demand in requests for assessments and a lack of sufficient specialist placements as reasons for delays in processing EHCPs.

They added that one of the factors at play has been an increase in demand for educational psychologists.

As the number of EHCP applications have increased, the officers said psychologists have been "struggling to manage" the caseload.

In 2017, educational psychologists in Suffolk were working at an efficiency rate of 100% - completing all reports within the necessary time frame.

However this rate dropped to 52% in 2018, and has only slightly increased to 65% so far this year.

The council has pledged to secure additional capacity through locums (temporary staff) - but only in the short term.

What comes next?

Going forward, the SEND officers said the focus would be on improving early intervention, so fewer families feel forced to apply for EHCPs in the first place.

The council is also working on better anticipating peaks in requests for education, health and care assessments; reducing the number of plans held up by a lack of suitable placements; and regaining a 95% timeliness rate in the completion of educational psychology reports.

The aim is to have 65% of EHCPs completed within the 20-week time frame by December 2019.

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