A recent Ofsted report on Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities (SEND), says that the Suffolk Local Area Partnership (LAP) must urgently address widespread and systemic failings. Children and young people face a support system that has not worked well for a long time.
The report comes at a time when the County Council’s latest budget proposes to reduce funding for the Learning Disability and Autism team.
The County Council, the NHS Suffolk and North East Essex Integrated Care Board (ICB), and NHS Norfolk and Waveney ICB are responsible for planning and commissioning local education, social care, and health services to meet the needs of children and young people with SEND in Suffolk, as part of the Suffolk Partnership. This complexity makes coordination difficult and accountability hard to enforce. Constant personnel changes are also part of the issue. No one wants to work long-term in a failing environment.
What is going wrong?
SEND is a broad category of support for children and young people with disabilities or behavioural issues. It starts for families when they ask for an assessment of needs. This may be when a child is found to have hearing problems, reading difficulties, or the signs of autism or social issues. It may be when there is a mental health crisis like an eating disorder and immediate support is required.
When those initial assessments are not timely, needs are identified too late, and things then rapidly go wrong. Unidentified and unmet needs manifest in difficult behaviours which too frequently result in many not accessing mainstream education, because of exclusion or absence. Deaf children can become isolated with speech difficulties, autistic spectrum children can misbehave in an unsupported school environment, or those with mental health issues simply drop out of school entirely.
SEND failures lead to poor outcomes
For any child who can’t read or can’t hear lessons can be simply awful. For those subject to bullying or sexual harassment impacting their mental health, school is not a safe place. Gaps in referrals to adult social care also mean teenagers sometimes become isolated and their mental health degrades.
Suspension is becoming more frequent nationally. Persistent disruptive behaviour was included as a reason in 55% of all suspensions and 49% of all permanent exclusions in the autumn term 2022/23 nationally.
If a child is excluded from school, what are the options? Parents who can’t home-school are often forced to pay for appropriate education if they are able. There are no publicly funded SEND special schools in Suffolk.
These issues lead to poorer educational outcomes and transition into adulthood, resulting in increased numbers of young people who are not in education, employment or training (NEET). There are many people disabled by mental health issues who could have been saved if interventions had come at the right time in their lives.
Addressing SEND issues saves later costs
So, failures of the SEND system drag down schools as well as wrecking the lives of individual and families, reducing the country’s workforce and increasing the benefits bill. Any intervention now is likely to pay for itself in avoided costs elsewhere in the benefits system.
Why is this not addressed, and the failures not been fixed?
The weaknesses in statutory support plans lead to widespread and systemic gaps in service provision. Since before the pandemic, children, and young people with SEND in Suffolk have fared less well in their school results than similar pupils nationally. Suffolk is behind even the poor national standards of the rest of the country. This is made worse because we have large rural areas where there are few resources for young people. This can create social isolation and poor mental health for families without the transport and resources to commute to towns for services. A toxic combination.
Suffolk SEND failures ‘devastating’
Ash Lever, the Green/LibDem/Independent Group spokesperson for Education and Child Protection at East Suffolk District Council describes the Ofsted report as “devastating” for families of SEND children. She says:
“The Conservatives’ proposed budget makes devasting inspections like these all the more likely, as they are planning significant cuts to the education and learning service, early years and skills. This means that families will struggle even more to access the help they need.”
Will anything ever change? The lack of financial resources, after ten years of austerity, and shrinking real budgets, is core to the poor quality of SEND provision in the county and country. We in Suffolk are at the bottom of the dire national heap and there is no faith that things will improve any time soon.
Jack Abbot, Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Ipswich and former opposition spokesperson for SCC’s Education and Children’s Services, describes the current situation as a “crisis”. He told us:
“This is yet another damning report into Suffolk County Council’s SEND provision. How many more are we supposed to read before the lived experiences of families start to improve?
He points to a “systemic failure” that has continued for a decade, and so finds it hard to believe the Conservative-run administration means it when they say that SEND is now a priority.
“I, and the families who have been left exhausted and broken by Suffolk County Council’s negligence, have completely lost faith that they will ever turn this around.”
After years of failing to improve, he is calling on the Government to intervene to provide the resources and expertise Suffolk County Council clearly need.
So, yet more must-do better reports come and go, while children with SEND needs are failed. It is genuinely heart-breaking to hear about their lived experience of this service provision labyrinth, and the personal costs they bear.