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Struggling council gets first SEND ‘improvement adviser’

Ministers have appointed the first SEND “improvement adviser” at a council in negotiations for a multi-million pound government bailout to stave off bankruptcy.

Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council (BCP) was issued with a statutory direction this week after failing to make enough progress since a damning 2021 Ofsted and Care Quality Commission inspection. 

As part of the intervention, John Coughlan has been appointed as “strategic SEND improvement adviser” to report back to ministers on the council’s progress. 

Coughlan was appointed as a non-executive commissioner for Birmingham’s failing SEND services in 2021. Hull and Slough councils have also had their own commissioners.

But the improvement adviser role is new. The Department for Education said it was more of a support role than a commissioner.

Coughlan

BCP is currently in negotiations with the DfE over a safety valve agreement, a scheme set up to provide financial assistance to councils struggling with SEND costs.

The council previously warned that it would effectively have to declare itself bankrupt this year if its dedicated schools grant blackhole – expected to reach £63.4 million by this month – was not cleared. 

Following a parent-led campaign and protest, councillors voted unanimously to hold a full council debate and vote on the agreement. Such decisions are normally made by council officers.

The Ofsted inspection three years ago found that leaders had been “distracted and delayed” from implementing the SEND reforms “by the reorganisation of the council and high staff turnover”.

“Deep cultural issues” locally “continue to hamper leaders’ ability to make progress”, it added.

Cathi Hadley, BCP children’s services director, said it was agreed last year that its 2021 improvement plan, signed off by the DfE, “would not have the desired impact”. A new plan has since been created. 

The council said that 24.7 per cent of new education, health and care plans were issued within the legal limit of 20 weeks in January, compared with 0 per cent in January and August last year. 

But Hadley added that the “real litmus test” would be when families say they feel a difference. 

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