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SEND waiting list backlogs at risk of being ‘normalised’

Long waits for SEND and mental health support risk being “normalised”, experts have said, as areas where pupils reach “crisis point before their needs are met” escape government intervention.

Several areas inspected by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission were given the middle rating of “inconsistent” – and some the top “positive” rating – for special needs services, despite evidence of substantial delays for services.

Areas rated “inconsistent” are re-inspected quicker than those with positive ratings, but do not trigger formal action. This is saved for those found to have “widespread and/or systemic failings leading to significant concerns”.

In Gloucestershire, inspectors found “systems that are too reactive, and, in some cases, this results in children, young people and families reaching crisis point before their needs are met”.

They warned that young people were not meeting the criteria for mental health assessment, even when health services backed their applications. For some, “hospital admission was the trigger for support”.

‘Clear risk delays are being normalised’

A “significant number” of parents described feeling “desperate and many practitioners say they are battling to be heard by local area leaders”.

However, inspectors only said the area’s work led to “inconsistent experiences” – rather than the worst rating under the new Ofsted framework, which began in January 2023.

Matt Keer

Matt Keer, SEND specialist at the Special Needs Jungle website, warned there was a “clear risk that the delays and lack of support that are currently endemic to the SEND system end up being normalised”.

Parents involved in the new SEND inspections “like the focus on outcomes for children and young people”. But they “also cannot understand why inspectors aren’t treating serious service failures as significant concerns that trigger priority action”.

In Gloucestershire, inspectors did find an “improving picture” in children’s early help and social care, and support measures for children waiting for child and adolescent mental health services.

Philip Robinson, the council’s education lead, said he was “pleased inspectors have seen the improvements” but recognise that not everybody’s experience “has been as they would have wished”.

‘Too many’ youngsters wait too long

In Surrey, the latest government data for 2022 shows that just one in four new education, health and care plans (EHCPs) were completed on time. The national average is about half.

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman found Surrey had a 1,000-strong backlog of EHCP needs assessments awaiting an educational psychologist (EP) appointment. Its core EP staffing was at 50 per cent.

Ofsted inspectors pointed out the “poor” timeliness of assessments for secondary school pupils, with “too many” youngsters waiting too long.

But Surrey was again only rated “inconsistent” in September. Clare Curran, Surrey’s children lead, said they considered Ofsted’s findings to be a “fair reflection” and that they are on-track to clear the backlog by June.

There was a similar picture in West Sussex, where “too many” EHCP needs assessments “are not completed within the statutory timescales”. It was rated as “inconsistent” in November.

But schools forum papers from January revealed that only 3.1 per cent of new plans were completed within the 20-week statutory timeframe last year. Plans were taking 42.6 weeks on average to finalise.

A council spokesperson said teams “work hard” to ensure children get support “at the right time”.

Areas with problems get top grade

Some areas with the top grade – meaning services “typically lead to positive experiences” – also had systemic issues.

Richmond was given this grade, with inspectors praising the speech and language therapy (SALT) team for offering training and advice to both education settings and parent and carers.

But two months later, a council report on its high-needs deficit said the growth in EHCPs “has led to a 50 per cent reduction” in support for children without a plan for SALT from September. “There is no capacity for existing commissioned therapy services to absorb any new specialist provision going forward within the current contract.”

Keer said it was “concerning” that SEND partnerships could score “a top grade in these inspections without providing an outstanding service”.

“It’s doubly concerning when inspectors haven’t demanded priority action in cases where young people have been avoidably hospitalised because their needs haven’t been met, where assessment backlogs are huge and where EHCP processes have almost entirely broken down.”

Under the new framework, nine areas have received the worst rating, 11 have been judged “inconsistent” and seven were “typically positive”.

Ofsted added that inspections “consider a wide range of evidence and outcomes are not based on any single issue. We know there are longstanding issues across the SEND system, including delays to EHCP assessment, and this is frequently cited in our inspection reports.

“However, we also look at how local areas are working to minimise the impact of these delays and provide support to children and young people while they wait for assessment.”

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