SEND system 'in crisis' as complaints to local government ombudsman soar

Children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are being failed by a “system in crisis” as the number of complaints to the local government ombudsmen soars, a new report has found.

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has warned that councils are putting up barriers to services in an effort to ration scarce resources.

The ombudsman revealed in its latest report Not going to plan? that it is upholding 87 per cent of SEND cases it investigates – significantly higher than the uphold rate of 57 per cent across all other cases.

Ombudsman Michael King said the rate at which complaints are being upheld is “exceptional and unprecedented in our work”.

Families in need of an education, health and care (EHC) plan face severe delays of up to more than a year, the report found.

“While sympathetic to the severe financial constraints which councils tell us they are working under, we can never accept this as an excuse for failing to meet the statutory rights of children,” the report states.

It comes just weeks after the government’s own auditor revealed that insufficient funding and severely stretched council budgets have left pupils with SEND without the support they need.

In 2018-19, the ombudsman received 45 per cent more complaints than in 2016-17 (315 cases, up from 217). It also carried out 80 per cent more detailed investigations about EHC plans in the same timeframe (126 up from 70).

The report found that many children are not getting the support they need at the right time, which is “having a significant impact on their education and attainment”.

The ombudsman also witnessed poor planning and anticipation of needs, as well as poor communication and a lack of preparation ahead of meetings, plus insufficient oversight by senior staff.

King said that, while he can “empathise with the difficulties authorities face, there can never be an excuse for failing to meet the statutory rights of children”.

He added: “Two years ago when the system was bedding in, we were concerned we were upholding around 80 per cent of investigations. That we are investigating and upholding significantly more complaints two years later suggests a system in crisis.”

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.”

The Department for Education said that the report focuses on less than 0.3 per cent of all cases in 2018, with more than 48,000 children being issued with new EHC plans last year, mostly within 20 weeks.

A DfE spokesperson added: “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 per cent increase on this year.

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