Inspection into West Sussex County Council’s special educational needs service will lead to 'damning report', says councillor

A councillor has predicted that an ongoing inspection of West Sussex County Council’s special educational needs service will lead to ‘a bloody damning report’.
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Andrew Baldwin (Con, Holbrook) was one of several councillors to voice concerns during a scrutiny meeting on Wednesday (November 15).

Ofsted has just started its Local Area SEND Inspection and service leaders at County Hall appear resigned to facing a long haul of work to bring things up to scratch.

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Jacquie Russell, cabinet member for children & young people, learning & skills, told the meeting that the leadership team had carried out a review and found a need for improvements similar to those which started in children’s care four years ago.

Lucy Butler. Picture by peter langdownLucy Butler. Picture by peter langdown
Lucy Butler. Picture by peter langdown

Presenting a report on the new SEND improvement plan, Mrs Russell said it could take two years to complete.

She added: “Wherever we land in terms of the outcome of this inspection, we will remain as committed and as resolute as ever in our determination to deliver significantly improved services and support for our children with special educational needs and disabilities as we remain for our children within children’s social care.”

The meeting made for uncomfortable listening at times as councillors and visitors shared their own stories about failings in the system – especially when it came to securing an education, health and care plan (EHCP) for their children.

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The plans, which are needed to ensure children get the correct help and support, are supposed to be completed within 20 weeks.

Jacquie RussellJacquie Russell
Jacquie Russell

A report from Lucy Butler, director of children, young people & learning, said that only 16.5 per cent of assessments were completed within the 20-week deadline in 2022, compared to 50.7 per cent nationally.

In 2018, the completion rate was 41.7 per cent.

The situation has not been helped by a nationwide increase in requests for an assessment.

In 2022, there was a 26 per cent increase in West Sussex, with a 22 per cent increase predicted by the end of this year.

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There id currently a backlog of 650 children in West Sussex waiting for an EHCP while another 7,270 already have them.

One of the groups consulted on the preparation of the improvement plan was the West Sussex Parent Carer Forum.

CEO Rowan Westwood said that, while her people felt they had been listened to and their contribution valued, she questioned whether views they shared on behalf of families had really been heard.

While acknowledging the commitment of the council’s team in putting together the improvement plan, Ms Westwood did not feel it would do enough.

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She said: “As much as the system is struggling, families and their children and young people are struggling more.”

Describing a recent survey carried out to get the views of parent carers, she spoke about 534 people ‘sharing their pain about how their children and young people had been failed’.

Only five of the 1,500 comments received were positive.

Ms Westwood read a ‘heartbreaking’ email from the parents of a little girl with Down Syndrome.

The youngster attends mainstream school and has to have an EHCP to be able to access all the help she needs.

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Her parents started the process in February and it should have been finished in June. They’re still waiting.

Criticising the entire system, the parent said: “Our children and us deserve to be treated with respect and dignity but instead we are treated like pests.”

Dawn Smith (Lab, Broadwater), herself a parent carer, described her experience with the assessment process in three words – ‘lost, overwhelmed and sad’.

And Elizabeth Sparkes (Con, Cissbury) said the news from Ms Westwood that parents’ emails were going unanswered was ‘unacceptable’.

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Looking to the future, Steve Nyakatawa, assistant director for education & skills, said the council hoped to have cleared the 650-strong backlog within 12 months.

An extra three educational psychologists are expected to be brought in by September 2024 – though there are currently 11.2 full-time equivalent vacancies within the team.

And Ms Butler now chairs a monthly performance clinic, focussing on recovery.

The director has form for dragging the county council back from the abyss.

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She was brought in following a disastrous Ofsted report in 2019 which almost saw children’s services taken out of the authority’s control.

Since then, the ‘substantial improvements’ made have been praised and the service is heading in the right direction.

Following the meeting, a council spokesman said: “The demand for SEND support for our children and young people and the complexity of their needs has increased significantly.

“This demand, complexity, and the challenges in recruiting educational psychologists and other key staff, all of which are national issues, have resulted in a decline in performance which we acknowledge is not acceptable.

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“A SEND improvement plan has been implemented and we are confident that the measures we are putting in place will significantly improve our performance.

“We have already seen some positive impacts of the plan and we expect our timeliness in undertaking education, health, and care plans to continue to improve in the coming weeks and months.

“The council remains fully committed to supporting those children and young people who are in greatest need of our help and enabling them to achieve their potential through education.”