Suffolk SEND team unveils action plan

The results of a development panel to improve special education needs is due next week Picture: THIN

The results of a development panel to improve special education needs is due next week Picture: THINKSTOCK - Credit: Archant

Suffolk’s special education needs provision has come under fire in recent weeks as the extent of pressures were revealed. Local democracy reporter Jason Noble caught up with the county’s SEND chief to find out why 2019 will change that

Judith Mobbs, assistant director of skills
at Suffolk County Council Picture: ARCHANT

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

December 2016 – Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission have just carried out a joint visit of Suffolk’s special education needs (SEND) provision.

The subsequent report made for grim reading – words such as “dissatisfaction”, “frustration” and “confusion” didn’t scream of a service on the up.

Two years on and with the two organisations returning for an inspection on Monday, a host of measures are in the pipeline for the early part of this year.

A report submitted to Suffolk County Council’s cabinet in September highlighted the extent of demand – a whopping 18% increase amid a 4% pupil population rise, and the need for 300-400 new special school places in the next two years. It led some critics to brand the county’s provision as in “crisis”.

Data for Suffolk special education needs provision Picture: ARCHANT/INFOGRAM

Data for Suffolk special education needs provision Picture: ARCHANT/INFOGRAM - Credit: Archant/Infogram

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But while those stark headline figures are a concern, SEND bosses have revealed lots of groundwork has been going on to transform the service.

Judith Mobbs, assistant director for inclusion and skills who took up the role in January 2017 shortly after the Ofsted/CQC report was published, said: “The findings of that inspection were pretty dismal to be honest.

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“We were not in a good place, we didn’t have a clear strategy for how we were going to improve things and take things forward, we weren’t working well enough with families.

“There were too many children and families getting a poor offer.”

Members of the Suffolk Parent Carer Network, l-r, Anne Humphrys, Lucy Buckle, Sue Willgoss and Joann

Members of the Suffolk Parent Carer Network, l-r, Anne Humphrys, Lucy Buckle, Sue Willgoss and Joanna Hammond. Picture: SUFFOLK PARENT CARER NETWORK - Credit: Archant

The findings led to a wholesale review of how Suffolk’s system was being run, and resulted in a thorough priority plan which runs to 2020.

A cross-party policy development panel will publish its findings on developing new school places this week, and SEND is the subject of one of nine transformation programmes across the council aimed at improving services.

That work has already been put into the public domain, but is just one part of a wider systemic overhaul which is set to see some innovative changes in the year ahead.

Outreach services

Under the previous system, only youngsters with more severe needs would get to a point where they had an education, health and care plan (EHCP).

Parents or schools could request an assessment to determine whether they would be eligible for a plan, but county council data showed that around half of those youngsters who had a plan requested for them would be turned down without any support or advice available.

In 2017/18, there were 1,150 requests, meaning hundreds of youngsters were left without support.

Mrs Mobbs said: “Potentially these children are going to be coming back to you when things have got worse.

“So the earlier that we can intervene, the more likely we are to prevent those issues becoming a problem.”

As such, a trial took place last year that was formally rolled out in September which put additional specialist outreach teachers into schools who could work with teachers, learning support assistants and children to put in place strategies to help a child.

Health services have also provided additional funding for family support workers who will begin work in early 2019 to take those specialist services to youngsters who were not attending school.

But from the end of this month a phased launch of a new programme will get underway, which the SEND team said could be “nationally innovative”.

The project, called the SEND assessment centre programme, comprises a group of teachers, education psychologists, health professionals, therapists and social care workers who can attend a school or meet a child in person, and assess all areas of that child’s needs and develops a coherent plan at an early stage.

Easing the move to adulthood

Last week, a new guide was published which will help youngsters with SEND plan for becoming an adult, and give guidance on all areas – be it education options, employment support or transport advice.

“It’s a tough job for any child to grow up through that adolescent period and make a successful transition to adulthood anyway, without the additional barriers of having some kind of SEND need,” Mrs Mobbs said.

“We have been looking at how we can introduce a plan much earlier. You will see we are looking at how we can introduce planning for adulthood from 13, and we have appointed a moving into adulthood lead.”

Other measures

Elsewhere, measures to improve the council’s ‘local offer’ website – a page which outlines all of the education, health and care services available locally – have been made that helps families understand what support is available.

Alongside that, work is ongoing to expand specialist units attached to mainstream schools, where children can feel the benefit of remaining near to home and with their friendship groups while still receiving the support they need.

This week’s development panel is set to unveil more measures to expand places.

The SEND team has said it recognises that for many parents, they may not see the change instantly – not least because an entire strategy, governance arrangement and restructuring to allow more frontline services needed to be put in place before any noticeable progress could be made. That comes amid a backdrop of developing longer term change to get the system right, in a bid to avoid the kind of rating it received last time.

“It’s a massive programme,” Mrs Mobbs said. “We are two years in from the inspection now and some of this is only just beginning to be tangible.

“The reason for that is we are trying to fundamentally change things to make them better.

“For me, I was not interested in putting a veneer of apparent change on the surface – we wanted to change things fundamentally to create a lasting, better progress.

“I think that has been frustrating for some families because that means they haven’t seen immediate improvements.”

The team is hoping the inspectors see the groundwork which has been laid when they visit this week.

“I think inspectors from the CQC and Ofsted will see significant change and development, but we are on a journey longer than a two year programme,” Mrs Mobbs said.

“I hope they will recognise the significant strides we have made, but we are not there yet.”

What Suffolk Parent Carer Network says

Anne Humphrys, co-chair of Suffolk Parent Care Network (SPCN) which works with families, said: “The SPCN annual Parent Carer Satisfaction survey in October 2016 formed the basis of the evidence from children, young people and families which were presented to education, health and care leaders and subsequently the Ofsted/CQC special educational needs and disabilities inspection team.

“It was part of the catalyst which resulted in the planning of fundamental changes needed by education, health and care services to change the lived experience of families across Suffolk where a system was making things much harder than they needed to be.

“Over the last two years SPCN has been involved in all of the work mentioned by Mrs Mobbs and we have been responsible for embedding co-production at a strategic level and supporting services to move to a culture of partnership working.

“We are very grateful to all the families who provide us with feedback on their experiences which enable us to provide current views of where things are and are not working.

“SPCN works to ensure that the voices of families are always central to the significant amount of work across SEND, emotional wellbeing and mental health and transforming care that we are involved in.

“The work around early intervention and particularly the assessment centres, will be vital in ensuring that children and young people who are currently unsupported, will be able to receive the support they desperately need.

“However, whilst a lot of strategic work has taken place, we know that the lived experience of the majority of families has not yet improved and this was shown by our 2018 annual survey.

“We will continue to work across education, health and care to ensure that Suffolk ends up with services which place families at the centre and which meet the needs of our most vulnerable children and young people.”

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