'This is a massive failing' - Vulnerable children in limbo as council misses care plan targets
PUBLISHED: 05:30 13 January 2019 | UPDATED: 09:08 13 January 2019
New figures reveal hundreds of pupils with special needs are waiting too long for appropriate support - with one child forced to wait almost three years for a council care plan.
Nearly half of Suffolk pupils had to wait 20 weeks or more for an education, health and care plan (EHCP) in 2017/18, and more than 200 requests are still outstanding – despite claims from the council that efficiency is improving.
New data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act shows Suffolk County Council (SCC) missed its 20-week target for finalising 401 out of 899 plans last year, while hundreds of vulnerable children are still in limbo.
This number increases to 1,412 out of 3,454 plans in the last four years combined – or 40% of all applications processed by the council.
An EHCP is a care plan 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.
In the most serious case, one child was forced to wait 1,023 days, or almost three years, for their application to be finalised.
This was the longest recorded delay in the whole of England, according to BBC research.
Gordon Jones, leader of SCC, put the increase in delays down to a rise in requests – with 1,150 pupils applying for an EHCP in 2017/18, compared to 586 in 2014/15.
While there has been an “upward trend in the number of requests”, he said, “the timeliness of assessments has seen improvement”.
However, when the number of requests withdrawn or those still in progress are excluded, close analysis of the figures shows the proportion of applicants waiting too long for their EHCPs has barely changed in the past four years.
In 2017/18, 401 plans took 20 weeks or more to finalise – working out as 45% of all requests processed by the council. This is excluding 19 applications that were withdrawn, and 232 that are still in progress.
While in 2014/15, 263 plans took 20 weeks or more to finalise – equating to 47% of applications, excluding 16 that were withdrawn.
The data shows an improvement in proportional waiting times when all applications, including those still in progress (now past the 20-week mark), are taken into account.
But if it is assumed that the 232 applications outstanding from 2017/18 will take longer than 20-weeks to finalise, which is now inevitable unless they are withdrawn, the council will have missed its target in 55% of cases from last year.
When asked to clarify the council’s position, a spokesman confirmed: “Our current timeliness rate is running at 50% in the month for December and has been improving since the Summer – this is higher than our overall rate for 2017/18 which was 42% and at inspection it was 15%.”
Hundreds of children without support
Jack Abbott, Labour spokesman for children’s services, education and skills, criticised the lack of progress made by the council, arguing that their claims of progress “ring pretty hollow” when the figures are broken down.
“The Conservative administration say that this issue is a priority and that there has been in improvement in the system but those claims ring pretty hollow when looking at the reality of the situation,” he said.
“If they were actually being honest with people for a change, they would admit that their inability to turn this situation around has led to hundreds of children being left without the support they desperately need.
“Despite presiding over a consistently failing system, there will be little consequence for those in power and, as usual, the apology to all those children and families who have been affected is conspicuous by its absence.”
Parents ‘forced to fight for care plans’
Speaking on behalf of Suffolk support group Parents and Carers Together (PACT), co-founder and trustee Rebecca Jasper said the long wait for EHCP assessments demonstrated a “lack of care or understanding” from the council, forcing children into damaging situations.
“We are hearing all the time from our parents who are having to fight for EHCPs,” she said.
“Recently we heard from a parent who (despite having an agreement to assess in early 2018) is still waiting for the final plan to be issued – which is around 30+ weeks past the deadline of 20 weeks.
“SCC seem to be giving parents no option but to go to tribunal to get agreement for funding for placements which are appropriate for children. It seems to be that they hope parents will give up or back down rather than spend the time and resource it takes to fight for what is their child’s legal entitlement to an appropriate education.”
She added: “The local authority continues to make children jump through hoops which they know will fail, to prove that they have ticked boxes to say they have tried and failed so can try something else.
“This demonstrates a complete lack of care or understanding of how a child’s mental health can be further damaged by unrealistic expectations and pressure from being pushed into something which is totally unachievable to them.
“We are sure there is a lack of funding behind this issue, but there is also a lack of awareness of their legal requirements and this is leading to a massive failing for too many children in the county.”
What does the council have to say?
Responding to the figures, Mr Jones said the council’s priority is to “ensure every child gets the correct help and support they need to prosper and develop” – but an increase in demand has affected the speed at which assessments can be carried out.
“The increase in demand for Education, Health and Care Needs Assessments for children and young people in Suffolk is a matter that I am taking very seriously,” he said.
“The development of our SEND Strategy is driving improvement across SEND and all agencies involved in Suffolk.
“Whilst we did expect an increase in 2014, the extent of the demand for EHC Needs Assessments alongside the requirement to transfer Statements of SEN to EHC Plans has been high. The increased demand in 2015 and 2016, affected the speed at which EHC Needs Assessments could be carried out within the resources available at that time.
“Although there is still an upward trend in the number of requests for EHC Needs assessments, the timeliness of assessments has seen improvement and services to support children and young people with SEND have been redesigned to provide greater resilience to manage periods of high demand through the school year.”