‘Shameful’ - critics hit out as third of children denied special needs provision
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Suffolk’s special needs provision is reportedly in “crisis” as new data reveals one third of children could not get placements within their own county.
Data obtained by a Freedom of Information request revealed 35% of Suffolk children applying for special school placements this academic year were turned down or sent outside the county.
Of the 291 children referred for specialist placements by schools or other professionals for the 2018/19 year, 104 were either sent away or refused a place altogether.
While the council has acknowledged there is a shortfall in placements, it claims “regional specialist settings with highly trained staff teams” may be the most suitable placements for some children with complex needs.
Some children are currently sent up to 220 miles to schools in Somerset, Rutland and West Sussex, racking up costs of more than £1,000 per day.
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Jack Abbott, the county’s Labour spokesman for Children’s Services, Education and Skills, called the figures “shameful”, adding that the necessity for some children to travel hundreds of miles from home is “utterly heartbreaking”.
“We have a crisis of SEN provision in Suffolk,” he said. “There are countless parents who are desperately trying to get the support they need for their family. The fact that a third of children cannot access the right education in our county is shameful.
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“Referring over 200 children to schools outside Suffolk comes at a huge financial cost to the council, but, even more than that, it is utterly heartbreaking that we are sending children hundreds of miles away from their families because of a lack of appropriate facilities in this county.”
He called for “significant and immediate investment” into SEN provision in Suffolk, an initiative backed by a cross-party working group.
Mr Abbott added: “I believe it is imperative that the recommendations of this group do not simply paper over the cracks, but will instead deliver fundamental reform, new funding and improved infrastructure that will fix the current service which is financially and socially unsustainable.”
The new figures show that one half-termly boarder travels from Bury St Edmunds to Shapwick School in Somerset, a distance of 226 miles, at a cost of £325 per day of travel.
Another weekly boarder travels 170 miles from Great Cornard to Mary Hare School in Newbury, Berkshire, at a cost of £300 per day.
Indeed, the six furthest distances travelled by children to special needs schools outside of Suffolk amount to nearly 800 miles combined, setting the council back £1,325 on each day that the children travel.
This is an increase on spending in 2017/18, when travel expenditure for the six furthest distances came at a cost of £1,249 per day.
Council admits to ‘incomplete’ data sets
Question marks have also been raised about the council’s handling of data as officials have been unable to clarify the extent of the information it holds.
Multiple attempts by this newspaper to clarify the number of referrals to schools outside Suffolk have resulted in the council confirming, while it does hold complete records of youngsters currently sent out of the county, it cannot clarify the number of referrals that have been unsuccessful. This means that it cannot distinguish between the number of children sent outside the county and the number denied places altogether in any given year.
The council added that its records depended on regular updates from schools, as well as internal checks.
A spokeswoman said: “The data is dependent on information being updated both internally and from schools via B2B and, as we are still early in the academic year, information has not yet been fully embedded onto EMS.”
Mr Abbott said he was “hugely concerned” to learn the council lacked this data, asking: “How can we ensure that every child is getting the support that they need if we do not know who they are?”
He added: “This is a fundamental error that critically needs addressing.”
A mother-of-three who feels severely let down by the council has spoken about her ordeal to secure her vulnerable son a place at an out-of-county special school.
Faye Churchill, from Lowestoft, claimed the council repeatedly ignored her calls for Jesse, then seven, to be transferred to a specialist environment as his mental health rapidly deteriorated.
While he is academically able, Jesse, 9, is diagnosed with autism, ADHD and tic disorder – meaning that he often found mainstream school a very frightening place to be.
“My son’s mental health was deteriorating fast from trying to be within a setting who despite all the best efforts in the world couldn’t meet his complex needs,” Mrs Churchill said. “We requested emergency review of his needs – all professionals, our mainstream school staff and us as a family were requesting for a specialist setting – but the time was dragged out by the local authority.”
Meanwhile, Mrs Churchill said her son was suicidal and made attempts to harm himself both at home and school.
After being signed off school for mental health reasons, Mrs Churchill said Jesse received the backing of his GP, the Child Adolescent and Mental Health Service (CAHMS), his mainstream school and his family support worker to secure a place at a special school.
However she claimed the placement offered by the council was “cheap and unsuitable”, and she considered taking the matter to tribunal before Jesse was found a place at Acorn Park School, which specialises in autism, across the border in Banham.
Mrs Churchill later raised a complaint against the council and was offered £150 as compensation, but she said the money was “irrelevant”.
“As a parent I want change for other parents fighting this battle,” she said. “I have three children with additional needs and this had a major impact on my whole family.”
Mrs Churchill said the whole ordeal had also seriously affected her own mental health.
“I still struggle to talk about without being tearful but it needs to change for other parents as this battle is just more stress on our most vulnerable little people and their families,” she said.
“I had to give up my university course at the time and once my son was settled I also had to have Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) due to the effect on myself.”
She added: “Our children need the right support in the correct education setting as early as possible to avoid mental health difficulties.
“I was very lucky to already be involved with the local branch of the National Autistic Society (NAS) in Lowestoft on their committee and also with Suffolk Parent Carer Network (SPCN) so I had all the best advice and knowledgeable people around me.
“Also my son’s headteacher at Elm Tree Primary was so supportive to my whole family. I know many families don’t have that support from their school or even know about our NAS branch or SPCN.”
In addition to community groups and charities, Mrs Churchill said she really benefited from the support of an “amazing” council scheme, called the County Inclusive Resource, dedicated to children diagnosed with autism in mainstream schools. However this has since merged with another service to become the County Inclusive Support Service – which Mrs Churchill claims is far less effective.
“Many autistic children are vulnerable under the new service because they no longer fit the criteria – as it’s so much higher now,” she said.
Jesse is now settled into his school in Banham, but still has to travel over an hour from his home in Lowestoft in order to get the help he needs.
What does the council have to say?
Suffolk County Council has defended its stance on out-of-county SEN placements, claiming that those children who are unsuccessful do not meet the criteria for extra help.
Responding to data showing one third of Suffolk children who applied for special school placements this academic year were turned down or sent outside the county, a council spokesman said: “There will always be children and young people who present with complex additional needs for whom there are relatively low numbers of peers with a similar profile across the country.
“In these circumstances, regional specialist settings with highly trained staff teams may be the most suitable placements for children and young people with a high level of need which its low in frequency. These placements will be the exceptions, not the rule.”
When asked what happens to those children who are denied placements altogether, the spokesman said the majority of children who do not secure a specialist placement “will not be presenting with a level of needs that indicates that a specialist setting is required” – meaning they do not meet the criteria for extra help.
Questioned about how the council plans to tackle the so-called “crisis” in SEN provision, he added: “Proposals for development of specialist settings have been consulted upon and this a priority area of work for the council.”
The council’s education chief said he was taking the matter “very seriously”.
Gordon Jones, Suffolk County Council’s cabinet member for education and skills, said: “The increase in demand for specialist educational places for children and young people in Suffolk is a matter that Suffolk County Council is taking very seriously.
“The challenges we are facing in Suffolk are similar to the national picture – there is a shortage of specialist placements across England.”
The education chief said a taskforce has also been set up to assess what can be done to tackle the issue.
He added: “In the meantime, we have taken all the immediate actions available to us. We have already opened a new special school in September 2017 in Lowestoft and a second new school will open in September 2020 in Ipswich. Several of our existing special schools have expanded and this has included providing a new campus with additional space for Riverwalk School in Bury St Edmunds. We have also established a number additional specialist small groups for specific local needs.”
Five key questions we posed to the council – with responses in full
• Is the council concerned that a third of applicants (referred by schools or other professionals only) are not granted placements in their home county?
Suffolk County Council has identified and acknowledged that there is a shortfall of suitable specialist placements in Suffolk as set out in its SEND Sufficiency Report. Proposals for development of specialist settings have been consulted upon and this a priority area of work for the Council.
• Would the council agree that 100% of eligible applicants should be granted placements in Suffolk?
There will always be children and young people who present with complex additional needs for whom there are relatively low numbers of peers with a similar profile across the country. In these circumstances, regional specialist settings with highly trained staff teams may be the most suitable placements for children and young people with a high level of need which its low in frequency. These placements will be the exceptions, not the rule.
• What would the council say to families who are regularly separated from their children with special needs, as they are forced to travel far away for their education?
Suffolk County Council will always look to place children and young people in specialist settings that are accessible on a day basis. Only once these options are exhausted, do we explore specialist settings that require a residential stay due to the distance from home. It should be noted that some families state a preference for, and on occasions pursue through a SEND Tribunal Appeal, a specialist setting that requires a residential placement.
• What happens to those children who are denied placements altogether?
The needs of the majority of children and young people who do not secure a specialist placement within the cohort of Suffolk’s pupils and students, will not be presenting with a level of needs that indicates that a specialist setting is required. If referred for a specialist placement, they will have an Education, Health and Care Plan which the Council will maintain. As a result, the education setting will be required to report at least annually on progress and suitability of the support available and the placement to deliver this. Education settings have access to specialist outreach services and high needs top up funding to support their pupils and students where they have fully engaged their own resources.
• Will the council endeavour to create more special school places to accommodate more then 2/3 of Suffolk children eligible for extra help?
We refer you to the SEND Sufficiency Plan.