Hundreds of children with special needs wait a year for support in England


In some areas young people have been waiting more than two years for plan detailing help they require, FoI reveals

Hundreds of children with special educational needs have been waiting for a year or longer to access support, as local authorities across England buckle under the strain of the demands placed on them, the Guardian has learned.

Freedom of information requests found that in some local authorities, children and young people have been waiting more than two years to be issued with an education, health and care plan (EHCP) that details the support they require.

The FoI results suggest that across England more than 20,000 cases were waiting longer than the 20-week limit, and as many as 3,000 for a year or more.

Council leaders say that requests for EHCPs have surged in recent years while funding to meet the children’s needs has not kept pace. Since 2019 the number of plans issued has risen by 72%, so that in 2023 more than 500,000 children and young people had EHCPs, but dedicated funding from central government for special education needs and disabilities (Send) has only risen by 42%.

Alex Dale, the cabinet member for education at Derbyshire county council, said: “It’s clearly a massive issue, and no local authority wants to be in a position where it is going over the statutory timeframe or making families wait any longer than they should.”

Dale, who also chairs the f40 group of local authorities campaigning for fairer education funding, said one of the main reasons behind the delays was the sheer increase in demand.

He said: “In my local authority, we’ve calculated that the number of EHCPs we have on our books, if you like, has doubled in the past seven years. And that’s pretty much replicated across the country.”

Derbyshire is investing a further £1m to improve its processing of EHCPs, but Dale said: “That £1m has got to come from the council’s own resources, which are very much under pressure anyway, and there’s huge competing demands … It’s a real challenge. No one wants to be in the position that we’re in at the moment, but I think it’s an inevitable consequence of that rise in demand.”

Even after EHCPs have been issued, parents who spoke to the Guardian described a nightmarish system of appeals and tribunals to obtain support, including a case in York of identical twins whose parents were offered only one place in a special school.

Shauna Leven, the chief executive of the Twins Trust charity, said: “Unfortunately this case is common and similar to others we’ve seen. Families with multiples already face significant economic, social and health disadvantage. Issues with school admissions just cause extra stress and anxiety, for both the parents and the children.”

Another case involving twins in Guildford highlights the difficulties that parents are facing. David and Louise May have twin sons, one without special needs who is in a mainstream secondary school preparing to take his GCSEs. But his twin brother, Jack, diagnosed with autism and ADHD, has been out of full-time education since summer 2022 despite having an EHCP through Surrey council.

Jack was placed in a mainstream school in year 7 but his struggles made it unsustainable. An initial rejection of a special school place was overturned after Jack’s parents appealed. This was followed by the offer of a special school place for children with severe disabilities that was unsuitable. Jack’s parents then found him a place at a private school, which the school abruptly ended after the Covid crisis, saying it could not meet his needs.

Now they are waiting for the local authority to redraw Jack’s EHCP and are hoping that a place in an appropriate school can be found, while Jack receives 12 hours a week of home tuition funded by the council.

The couple have had a continuing struggle with Surrey council over Jack’s education, with David May describing “months and months” passing without getting responses from the administration.

He said: “The problem is, in my opinion, that [Send] staff are overworked, underpaid, stressed out, and they can’t get enough places, and so there’s a massive turnover of staff. How can they place children without enough places?”

Munira Wilson, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on education, who raised Jack’s case during a parliamentary debate on special needs funding last month, said: “Imagine how devastating it is for the parents to see one child thrive while their twin suffers.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said the government was committed to improving support. They said: “High-needs funding for children and young people with complex needs will be increasing to a total of over £10.5bn in 2024-25 – an increase of over 60% since 2019-20.

“We are also investing £2.6bn in high-needs capital over this spending review and doubling the number of special free school places to 19,000 once those in the pipeline are complete.”

Surrey has been one of the councils worst affected by EHCP backlogs. An FoI request revealed that at the end of October, 1,124 cases had been waiting longer than the government’s 20-week deadline for EHCPs, with 148 waiting for more than a year.

Tim Oliver, the leader of Surrey county council, said: “While we recognise the significant issues that confront the Send system nationally, we regret all delays in responding to requests for education, health and care needs assessments and issuing education, health and care plans, and apologise for any distress caused to those affected.”

Oliver said Surrey had made it a priority to significantly reduce its EHCP waiting list, so that by the end of January the number of people waiting more than 20 weeks had fallen by 22%.

He said: “This progress is the result of several actions taken in recent months, including securing an additional £15m of funding over three years to increase the capacity of key teams [such as educational psychologists].”

By Richard Adams and Morgan Ofori The Guardian

SEN News
Author: SEN News

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