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Requests to Help SEND Children Soar, But Most Are Refused

Published on: 12 May, 2021
Updated on: 14 May, 2021

SEND cuts protest in Guildford May 2019

By Julie Armstrong

local democracy reporter

Requests for help for children and young people with special educational needs or a disability (SEND) are soaring, but most are being refused.

Applications for assessments from Surrey parents have rocketed 171 per cent in the past five years, from 152 in 2015 to 412 in 2020.

But 70 per cent of those in the last calendar year were refused, a Freedom of Information (FoI) request has revealed. In the five previous years, between 46% and 55% of parent requests were refused.

SCC webpage

Surrey’s SEND strategy does “not include a target for reducing the demand for assessment”, according to the FoI officer in the Children’s Information Governance Team.

Last year, as part of council’s transformation of SEND services, a new Learners’ Single Point of Access (L-SPA) was introduced to advise parents and professionals on how to access a range of support without a statutory assessment.

A council spokesperson said this “helps to navigate services, support and specialist advice quickly so children and young people can be supported faster and earlier”.

Parents can ask the authority for assessment if they want their child to get an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP), which sets out a plan of care for children and young people who have additional needs and require extra support in school.

SCC webpage

Taking all requests for this into consideration, be they from parents, schools, education psychologists or elsewhere, 1,750 were made last year, a 26% increase on all requests made in 2015. Back then, 27% were refused, which fell to almost one in five refused last year, although not all have been processed yet.

There remains a lot of frustration among parents with almost half of these EHCPs not issued on time in the last academic year. About a third of plans were overdue for their annual review.

But officials from the Department for Education (DfE) and NHS England met the council in December 2020 to review progress in SEND and said timeliness issuing EHCPs had increased to 79%, although this may be at the expense of quality.

Benedicte Symcox, operations lead at the parent-carer forum Family Voice Surrey, said: “One thing we get a lot of is parents who say ‘I don’t care about it being timely, I want the quality of the plan’ and there is so much pressure on the council to improve timeliness, and that’s gone down.

“It is the most traumatic process. Parents and carers are trying to navigate a system they don’t understand and that brings huge frustration. It’s tremendously complicated, the language is jargonistic.

“The experience of parents is never going to be good, because they’re realising their child has difficulties.”

The council received 238 complaints regarding practice in the SEND area teams overall in 2019-20, up 125 per cent on the previous year.

Council data suggests an improving picture for 2020-21 with 183 complaints, though these are as yet unvalidated.

Ms Symcox said a common gripe she hears about caseworkers was: “The attitude towards parents is not always helpful because they have huge caseloads, and are on the receiving end of very distressed families. They can become defensive.”

The number of EHCPs continue to grow year-on-year so it will remain a challenge for the council to produce quality plans in good time.

The FoI request showed at the end of 2016, 7,351 children had an EHCP (4.53% of Surrey pupils aged four to 16). By the end of 2020 this had risen to nearly half as much again, 10,941 children (6.38% of pupils).

At the same time, the county council will need to address a historic and ongoing multimillion pound overspend in the area of SEND.

Rates of absence and exclusions among SEND pupils have fallen

An increasing rate of absence and exclusions of pupils in Surrey’s mainstream schools who have SEND was among five areas of significant weakness in 2016, and was still flagged as a weakness by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission in 2019.

But in December 2020, the DfE and NHS England were satisfied they no longer needed to continue any formal monitoring. They found mainstream school attendance had improved over time, and fixed-term and permanent exclusions had fallen since March 2019.

Julie Iles, former Surrey cabinet member for all-age learning, said: “We are the only local authority in the South East to receive this sign-off during the pandemic.”

Data she provided to the cabinet shows that during the academic year 2018-19 there were 386 special education needs pupils without a registered school place at some point. In 2019-20, this had fallen by 16.6% to 322 pupils.

Cost and outcomes of tribunals not revealed

The 2016 Ofsted visit also found there were high rates of appeals against a Surrey County Council decision going to tribunal, and a high proportion finding in favour of the parent. They noted a reduced number of requests for tribunals in 2018.

An FoI question on how many tribunals had found in favour of the parent more recently was not answered, apparently because “this would require manual searches of all individual pupil files”.

On the cost of tribunals, the council stated: “Attempts have been made to identify this through finance records. This has not been possible because these costs have not been separately identified against a cost heading, and to identify them would mean looking into all payment transactions for the financial year.

“Discussions have been started to enable the identification of legal costs for the future.”

Local area SEND inspections were paused nationally due to coronavirus, but are expected to resume from June.

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