An ombudsman has added to increasing concerns about the special educational needs and disability (SEND) system in England after revealing that it has been upholding an “exceptional and unprecedented” number of complaints.
The new report by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman into the education, health and care (EHC) plan process is now the third in a month to raise serious concerns about the support provided to disabled children and young people.
The ombudsman is now upholding nearly nine out of every 10 cases (87 per cent) it investigates, compared with 57 per cent of other cases, and says this suggests a “system in crisis”.
In 2018-19, it received 45 per cent more complaints and carried out 80 per cent more detailed investigations about EHC plans than in 2016-17.
Ombudsman Michael King said he was “particularly concerned” that some local authorities could now be putting extra barriers in place to “ration scarce resources”, rather than basing support on children’s needs.
And he said the report suggested a system “beset with serious problems”, with “severe delays” of up to 90 weeks, some council areas without any specialist provision, and EHC plans often issued without any advice from health or social services.
The ombudsman’s report came days after research by the National Deaf Children’s Society found that more than half of local councils and health authorities in England had failed inspections of their joint services for children with SEND by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission.
According to the charity, 100 of England’s joint services have been inspected since local area SEND inspections began in 2016, and 51 of them failed that inspection.
And just last month, the National Audit Office found that the needs of many disabled pupils in England were not being met, while councils were under growing financial pressure because more children were attending special schools.
That report found there had been a 2.6 per cent real terms reduction in funding for each pupil with high needs in the four years between 2013-14 and 2017-18.
The week before the NAO report was published, education secretary Gavin Williamson had announced a review of support for children with SEND.
Meanwhile, on Monday, three families with disabled children heard that the high court has rejected their claim that the government acted unlawfully by failing to provide enough funding for local authorities to meet their legal obligations to educate children with SEND.
All three of the families – supported by the SEND Action campaign network – have been unable to secure the support their disabled child needs with their education.
The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) has repeatedly called on the government to recognise that it has been breaching its duties under article 24 (on inclusive education) of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
Two years ago, the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities raised concerns about the increasing number of disabled children being educated in segregated settings and said the UK education system was “not equipped to respond to the requirements for high-quality inclusive education”.
Michelle Daley, ALLFIE’s interim director, said: “This year alone we have seen a series of disturbing reports that are screaming out the problems and failings to disabled learners.”
She said the title of the ombudsman’s “shocking review” – Not Going to Plan? – “signifies the sad reality for disabled pupils and students”.
Daley said there was now plenty of evidence of the crisis and the need for urgent action rather than any more reviews.
She said: “What we need is a properly resourced education system that is inclusive for learners.
“We need the education of disabled learners considered as a human rights matter and for that to happen we need the UNCRPD article 24 implemented into our domestic law with no reservations.”
Daley said ALLFIE was “totally devastated” by the court’s decision, which she said showed the weakness of the Equality Act’s public sector equality duty “in producing no meaningful outcomes for disabled people”.
She said: “Even though there was plenty of evidence about the funding crisis, the court still decided to remain with the existing formula that doesn’t improve the situation for disabled learners and keeps them trapped in appalling situations.”
She praised the three families and their children and supporters for taking the case and “helping to raise the profile of the crisis and the inequality in education for disabled learners”.
She said: “This is not the end. The fight must continue. We must end the dual education system and inequality in education for all disabled learners.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “As the ombudsman admits, this report is based on a very small sample size – covering less than 0.3 per cent [of all the new EHC plans that were issued in 2018].
“Over 48,000 children were issued with new education, health and care plans 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 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.”
Picture: Michelle Daley speaking outside the high court in June
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