Birmingham SEND caseloads hit over 500 children per worker

Commissioner's damning report shows 'dire' state of SEND provision, but also points the finger at government

Commissioner's damning report shows 'dire' state of SEND provision, but also points the finger at government

19 May 2022, 18:44

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A government commissioner parachuted in to run special educational needs and disabilities services in Birmingham found caseloads hit more than 500 children per worker, concluding the place of vulnerable youngsters has become “unclear if not lost”.

Ex-Hampshire County Council chief executive John Coughlan’s appointment was mandated last year, the first time the government has taken such drastic intervention in a council’s SEND services.

In his first report today, he issued not only a damning report on the “dire” state of SEND provision locally, but also pointed the finger at government – including over its 2014 reforms.

Report describes ‘dire predicament’ in Birmingham

Following a local area SEND inspection in 2018, the government ordered Birmingham to produce a written statement of action (WSOA) due to 13 “significant areas of weakness”.

But when inspectors revisited in May last year, they found sufficient progress had not been made – prompting the commissioner’s appointment.

Coughlan’s 34-page report this week states services are not only in “the dire predicament as described”, but likely to have deteriorated further.

The place of children and particularly vulnerable ones in Birmingham is “unclear if not lost”, with the director of children’s services role “gradually eroded” and formal partnerships “all but defunct”.

He highlighted a restructure in the Special Educational Needs Assessment and Review team in 2020-21, and a linked backlog of cases and complaints. Over 18 months, “no case officers were holding cases and case accountability was at best obscure”.

At one point, case loads had “theoretically reached 500–600 children per worker”.

The 20-week timescale is not being met in most new education health and care plans, while annual reviews are “infrequent” and there are around 300 tribunal appeals pending.

There is also “little coordination” over complaints and queries, and “deteriorating functionality” in the IT case management system, to the point some staff have reportedly stopped using it.

School relations with the council-led SEND system have been “severely strained” – with the commissioner highlighting “understandable but nevertheless unhelpful comments by some heads in their discontent with their LA colleagues”.

But he said schools were represented in and engaged in improvement efforts now, however.

At least three years of failings have not only had a “severe effect” on schools themselves, but also a “destructive effect” on council parental engagement.

Recommendations for council – and DfE

The commissioner considered recommending wide-ranging potential structural reforms such as handing over services to a newly formed trust. But he concluded that “the known costs and risks of such a step cannot be confidently assessed as outweighed by the potential benefits.”

Support for services remaining in-house is dependent on council support for other change, including the “continuing roles of the Improvement Board, a DfE funded improvement partnership, the retained Statutory Direction and the Commissioner.”

Proposed reforms also include re-creating a “children’s department”, promoting a children’s partnership with a “clearly stated vision” and a drive to “reset the wider relationship” with schools.

A better communication strategy with parents, new SEND data systems and a review of Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Information Advice and Support Services locally, was also advised.

There are also demands of the DfE, however, with the commissioner highlighting the “national context to this local crisis”. He noted all SEND services “appear to be struggling to varying degrees”.

“It must be acknowledged how hard progress can be in such a dispersed school system in which individual schools are measured on virtually everything in support of their vitally important gradings.”

The DfE should not only “look to establish ways to assess schools on their duty of inclusion”, but also review its own 2014 SEND reforms “with regard to more stable funding”.

Birmingham council leader Ian Ward thanked the commissioner, acknowledging the “uncomfortable reading” – but said the council was “heading in the right direction” and accepted all recommendations.

“For too long families have not felt listened to and that has been a key area for improvement.”

Children and families minister Will Quince backed the recommendations, saying he would monitor progress to ensure “high-quality support” – and threatened to “intervene further” if the council did not deliver.

Officials said an accelerated progress plan would be published within weeks, and highlighted wider reforms in the recent SEND review – published after Coughlan first drafted his report.

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