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Essex Council rapped over AP oversight failure

A local authority is reviewing how it monitors children not in mainstream schools after an investigation found it “disregarded” oversight responsibilities for a pupil left without education for months.

Essex County Council failed to “get involved with” the 12-year-old’s schooling because she attended a secondary in a separate area – and even told her parents to seek support elsewhere.

The girl had been on a part-time timetable but stop attending school amid a delay in issuing an education, health and care plan (EHCP).

A Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman probe found the council’s “refusal to recognise its responsibility” to oversee the youngster’s education “caused injustice”.

Review set following probe

The child, who has special educational needs, was not given alternative provision for months when she was unable to attend school for medical reasons.

A Schools Week investigation in September revealed children in a third of areas are stuck on 20-strong waiting lists for specialist provision. But some are receiving no education at all as they wait, while others are tutored online.

Council chiefs have vowed to identify a senior officer from the authority to review its service improvements around alternative provision.

It will also produce an action plan to improve decision making on education for children who are out of school and improve monitoring of part-time timetables, the ombudsman said.

Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman Amerdeep Somal said the council’s “lack of action” probably “had a significant effect on this young girl’s academic and personal development”.

“Her mother tells us this has impacted on her anxiety and mental health and has led to her not even wanting to leave the house.”

Delays caused by psychologist shortage

The ombudsman found Essex Council was “at fault” for three-month delays issuing the girl with an EHCP. It should have been issued in the third week of November 2022, but was not completed until the end of February 2023.

This was “primarily caused” by national shortages of educational psychologists.

“As it is to some extent outside the council’s control a big part of the delay was service failure rather than maladministration,” the report said.

National figures show almost half of children waited beyond the legal deadline of 20 weeks for an EHCP to be issued last year.

The authority has devised a “plan of action” to address the issue and “agreed an approach to accept independent [educational psychologist] reports provided by parents” when they fulfil quality requirements.

The report also detailed how during the EHCP needs assessment, the child “had limited school attendance and from October 2022 stopped attending”.

Experts from the Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service sent a letter to her secondary giving reasons for her absence.

Council ‘refused to get involved’

But until a meeting in November, Essex Council “refused to get involved” because the school was in a different authority area. The report said the authority “disregarded its responsibility”.

Essex even advised the child’s mother “to contact the council in the area” the school was located.

It was also accused of failing “to consider whether it should arrange alternative provision” for her “when she was out of school from mid-December 2022 until the end of April 2023”.

The ombudsman noted the girl’s “anxiety and mental health worsened leading to her not wanting to leave the house” during the ordeal.

It also caused her mother “distress and uncertainty” as she “struggled to find and put in place provision” to ensure her child “received some education and support”.

‘Past lessons not learned’

A previous ombudsman investigation issued “several decisions recommending service improvements in the council’s approach to its duties” to arrange suitable education at school or elsewhere for pupils who are out of class.

Somal said she was “disappointed” to report that if the previous recommendations “had been implemented successfully, [they] should have gone a long way to ensuring this did not happen.

“What has happened here, is simply not good enough and the young girl has been failed by the council that was responsible for her.”

An Essex County Council spokesperson said “urgent efforts to improve the timeframes for assessments are ongoing”. The council is also bolstering “the support available while families are waiting”.

They pointed to “several overlapping factors affecting performance”, including the recruitment and retention of educational psychologists and a “significant rise” in EHCP requests since Covid.

“Every child deserves the chance to thrive and improving the current situation as quickly as possible is our priority. We will leave no stone unturned as this work continues.”

The council will apologise to the family and pay them £3,120 for the failure.

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