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Complaints about support for special educational needs “at exceptional and unprecedented level”: Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman

Complaints about support for children with special educational needs are being upheld in nearly nine out of ten cases investigated (87%), the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has revealed.

The LGO said this compared to an uphold rate of 57% across all cases it looks at, discounting SEND cases.

In its latest report about the Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan process, ‘Not going to plan?’, the Ombudsman said it was now investigating more complaints than it had ever done before.

In 2018-19 it received 45% more complaints and carried out 80% more detailed investigations about EHC plans than in 2016-17.

The LGO said serious issues included:

  • Severe delays when issuing a plan – "of up to 90 weeks but regularly more than a year"
  • Poor planning and anticipation of needs – "such as council areas simply without any specialist provision available to them"
  • Poor communication and preparation for meetings – "including regular stories of nonattendance and no, or insufficient, paperwork submitted"
  • Inadequate partnership working – "with EHC plans regularly issued without advice from health or social care services"
  • Lack of oversight from senior managers – "cases ‘drifting’ needlessly and attempts to farm out responsibilities to parents"

“The knock-on effect is that many children, often the most vulnerable in society, are not getting the right support at the right time, and this is having a significant impact on their education and attainment,” the LGO said.

The report highlights a number of case studies from investigations the Ombudsman has carried out in the past two years since the EHC plan system came into force.

It also offers councillors and senior council staff guidance and suggested ways they can scrutinise the services they offer families and the complaints they receive about those services.

Ombudsman Michael King said: “We are now upholding almost nine in 10 investigations we carry out about Education, Health and Care plans. This is exceptional and unprecedented in our work. Two years ago when the system was bedding in, we were concerned we were upholding around 80% of investigations. That we are investigating and upholding significantly more complaints two years later suggests a system in crisis.

“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.

“I hope this report puts the children and their families’ experiences in the spotlight and the battles they face, and ultimately more urgency on the whole SEND system improving.”

Responding to the LGO’s report, Cllr 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.”

Cllr Blake added: “There are currently 354,000 pupils with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) – which state the support a child with SEND can receive, and is a 11% increase since last year.

“This is why we are also pleased the Government plans to review the system, and will work with them to get a clear picture of what more can be done to make sure vulnerable children can get the best support possible.”