'Unprecedented' level of special needs complaints upheld

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Breaches of children’s legal right to have special educational needs support have reached unprecedented levels, says an official complaints body.

England’s local government ombudsman said not only had there been a spike in complaints, but nine out of 10 of them were upheld in 2018-19.

Michael King warned that parents were having to fight the system that was established to support them.

Councils say they do not have enough resources to keep up with demand.

The Local Government Association points to an 11% increase in education, health and care (EHC) plans – detailed documents that set out the support children are legally entitled to – last year alone.

The ombudsman report focuses on applications for, and provision of, support within these plans.

‘Severe delays’

Mr King described the situation as “alarming” and “startling” and suggestive of a “system in crisis”.

The new report, Not Going to Plan, looked at the common problems the ombudsman found when investigating parents’ concerns.

Serious issues include delays of up to 90 weeks in issuing EHC plans, not anticipating local needs, communication and preparation for meetings, and a lack of oversight by senior staff.

The knock-on effect is that many children, often the most vulnerable in society, are not getting the right support at the right time.

This is having a significant impact on their education and attainment, Mr 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,” he added.

‘Rationing’ resources

Mr King said: “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.”

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.”

The report comes as families who took the government to the High Court over the non-provision of special-needs support by different local authorities await a ruling.

“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 (special needs and disabilities) system improving.”

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: “Over 48,000 children were issued with new education, health and care plans in the 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.

“We’ve also announced an extra £700 million for pupils with complex needs in 2020-21 – an 11% increase on this year.”

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