Councils are not doing enough to ensure special needs learners get the help they need, a report from the local government ombudsman has found.

The new Education Health and Care Plans (EHCP) were introduced in 2014 as a way of providing more holistic and efficient SEND support for learners up to the age of 25.

However, the first 100 investigations carried out by the ombudsman show that, far from making the system easier for learners and their families to negotiate, it has left some facing a “disproportionate burden” to get the help they are entitled to.

The ombudsman warned some students are missing out on places in colleges and schools and “ultimately failing to reach their potential” due to the long delays involved in the process, which is not supposed to take longer than 20 weeks.

The report highlights poor planning from councils resulting in extra meetings being hastily arranged, a lack of communication with learners, and failures to share information.

The EHCP code of practice stresses that learners and their families should be involved in decision making throughout the process, and offered a face-to-face meeting.

However, the report shows councils struggling to arrange meetings in a proper or timely manner, causing delays to the entire process.

EHCPs hit the headlines in September when City College Norwich allowed autistic learner James Parker to begin his studies, and then five days later asked his mother Emma not to let him return, saying the 16-year-old had been “enrolled in error”.

A consultation held by Norfolk County Council had decided the college could not support James’ needs, but the family had not been informed or helped to find an alternative.

As James’ application was made directly to the college it bypassed the council’s EHCP process, and the college did not find out about the result of the consultation until it had already made James an offer. 

The report warns: “The frustration, stress and sense of injustice for the families involved is understandable. When councils then fail to recognise and acknowledge fault, further damage is caused to relationships and trust.”

It also highlighted concerns that officers do not always have the necessary financial information to make informed judgements on preferred placements and that the use of panels to make decisions can leave learners feeling excluded from the decision making process. Delays on councils seeking professional advice was also raised, with some seemingly unaware that they bear the responsibility for gathering evidence for the EHCP and even trying to delegate the role to family members. 

 The ombudsman added a “lack of strategic planning” was not leaving learners enough time to appeal decisions, and that some councils were issuing inadequate or incomplete final plans simply to try and meet government deadlines, leading to preventable appeals and causing “unnecessary distress and confusion”.

Complaints about the system have doubled in the last two years, from 109 in 2015/16 to 217 2016/17, with the number expected to rise further. Investigators have upheld nearly 80 per cent of complaints received compared to the ombudsman’s average of 53 per cent.

Local government and social care ombudsman Michael King said: “When councils get things wrong, it places a disproportionate burden on families already struggling with caring and support.

“Some families have to go well beyond the call of duty to confirm the type of support their children should receive. 

“The system is not failing universally. But for those people who come to use, we are finding significant problems – sometimes suffering long delays in getting the right support and children ultimately failing to reach their potential.”

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