Parents’ complaints about support for special needs children surges as ombudsman warns of ‘system in crisis’

Number of cases investigated is 'exceptional and unprecedented', Michael King says

Eleanor Busby
Education Correspondent
Friday 04 October 2019 06:54 BST
Local authorities are failing to find secondary school places for children with special needs
Local authorities are failing to find secondary school places for children with special needs

Parents’ complaints about a lack of educational provision and support for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) has surged, an ombudsman has found.

Vulnerable young people are increasingly being failed by a system “in crisis” that is meant to support them, according to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGO).

The number of complaints about education, health and care (EHC) plans, which set out a child’s needs and the support they are entitled to, rose by 45 per cent between 2017 and 2019.

Some families have faced delays of up to 90 weeks when waiting for a plan for their child, while councils have attempted to “farm out responsibilities to parents”, the report says.

Many children are not getting the right support at the right time and this is having a significant impact on their education and attainment, the ombudsman has warned.

The report said there are concerns that the system is “in crisis” and beset by serious problems – and the ombudsman is now investigating more complaints than it has ever done before.

Last year, nearly nine in ten (87 per cent) of the cases investigated were upheld by the ombudsman, compared with an average upheld rate of 57 per cent for other types of investigation.

Ombudsman Michael King said: “This is exceptional and unprecedented in our work.”

He added: “I am now particularly concerned some authorities may be putting in place extra barriers to ration scarce resources, rather than basing support on children’s needs.

“While I can empathise with the difficulties authorities face, there can never be an excuse for failing to meet the statutory rights of children.”

Mr King said: “With inevitable delays, frustration and distress, we often see parents having to fight the system that was established to support them.

“It is not uncommon to hear the SEND process described as a battleground."

The ombudsman said he hopes to throw more spotlight on the problems with the SEND system before any more “heartbreaking stories of children failing to meet their potential” surface.

Last month, the government announced a review into SEND services. It has also said that an extra £700m will be invested in 2020-21 in supporting pupils with the most complex needs.

Councillor Judith Blake, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said: “This report supports our long-term concerns that councils are in danger of being unable to meet their statutory duties for children with special educational needs.

“While we are pleased the government has announced an additional £700m for children with special educational needs, without certainty over funding for the future the situation will get worse as the number of children who need support continues to increase.”

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Currently there are 354,000 pupils with EHC plans – an 11 per cent rise since last year, she added.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “As the Ombudsman admits, this report is based on a very small sample size – covering less than 0.3 per cent of all cases in 2018.

“Over 48,000 children were issued with new EHC pans in last year, and the majority of these were completed within 20 weeks.

"During the assessment process children continue to attend their school and receive additional support, until their tailored support package is put into place."

They added: "However, we know the system is not working well enough for every family, and have launched a review to introduce further improvements.”

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