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Give parents direct line to appeal to Department for Education over failure by councils to comply with law on SEND, MPs say

Parents and schools should be given a direct line to appeal to the Department for Education where local authorities appear not to be complying with the law on support for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), MPs have said.

In a report, Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, the Education Select Committee suggested that there should be a more rigorous inspection framework for local authorities, “with clear consequences for failure”. There should be a greater focus on SEND in school inspections, it added.

The MPs meanwhile recommended that the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman be given powers to investigate complaints about schools.

The report called as well for the development of more employment and training opportunities for post-16 young people.

The select committee argued that a generation of children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities was “failing to receive the support it deserves, with poorly implemented legislation leaving families facing a nightmare of bureaucracy, buck-passing and confusion”.

The report follows an 18-month inquiry into Government reforms aimed at placing children and young people at the heart of the SEND system.

The select committee concluded that while the reforms to the support for children and young people contained in the Children and Families Act 2014 were "the right ones", poor implementation had put local authorities under pressure, left schools struggling to cope and, ultimately, thrown families into crisis.

The committee said it had heard “overwhelming evidence that the reforms were letting down young people who need additional support with their education”.

Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the committee, said: "Despite the good intentions of the reforms, many children with special educational needs and disabilities are being let down day after day. Many parents face a titanic struggle just to try and ensure their child gets access to the right support.

“Families are often forced to wade through a treacle of bureaucracy, in a system which breeds conflict and despair as parents try to navigate a postcode lottery of provision. A lack of accountability plagues the system as local authorities, social care and health providers too frequently seek to pass the buck rather than take responsibility for providing support. 

“Children and parents should not have to struggle in this way – they should be supported. There needs to be a radical change to inspection, support for parents, and clear consequences for failure to ensure the 2014 Act delivers as the Government intended."

Halfon added: "We need to end this major social injustice, one which affects children and their families, particularly those who are not as well equipped to navigate this bureaucratic maze. 

“Of course, extra funding for SEND announced in the spending round is welcome but the truth is that more cash will fail to make a difference to children with special education needs unless there is a radical change of approach throughout the system.

“The DfE cannot continue with a piecemeal and reactive approach to supporting children with SEND. Rather than making do with sticking plasters, what is needed is a transformation, a more strategic oversight and fundamental change to ensure a generation of children is no longer let down."

Responding to the 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 the services for children with special education needs have reached a tipping point. Extra funding for SEND services next year is recognition of these pressures and will help councils in meeting demand for support next year, but we agree with the Committee that system reform is necessary alongside additional funding.

“We are pleased that MPs have also echoed our call for Ofsted to assess inclusion by schools – rather than focussing primarily on academic results – during an inspection and hold schools with low numbers of children with SEND to account."

Cllr Blake added: “Councils support the reforms set out in the Children and Families Act in 2014, but we were clear at the time that the cost of implementing them had been underestimated by the Government.

“Since the introduction of the Act, which extended eligibility for SEND support, councils have seen a near 50% rise in children and young people with Education, Health and Care plans (EHCPs) – which state the support a child with SEND can receive. There are currently 354,000 pupils with EHCPs, and is a 11 per cent increase since last year alone, Government funding has simply not kept up with the increased demand.

“Councils want to work with the Government and families and children with SEND to make the system work more effectively for everyone.”

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, Michael King, said: “The Education Committee’s findings of families having to battle a system designed to support them, echoes what we’ve seen in the complaints we investigate. Sadly, we uphold almost nine out every ten investigations from children and families with special educational needs and disabilities. This is unprecedented in our work.”

“As it stands, our ability to investigate all parts of the SEND system stops at the school gate, so I welcome the Committee’s recommendation to extend our powers to look at issues within schools, including free schools and academies. It is something we have long called for, and we stand ready to work with the Government in taking it forward."

King added that widening the Ombudsman's powers would simplify the process for already stressed families to raise concerns, but also increase the accountability for all parties in the system and increase the reach of the learning from the LGO's investigations.

“With this in place, we could investigate holistically all areas of a complaint about a child with an EHC Plan, but just as critically, we could provide accountability for the support given to children and young people that don’t meet the threshold of an EHC Plan – and these make up the vast majority of children with SEND.”