The government is threatening to intervene after a scathing new report found that Devon’s services for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) have failed to improve.
Four areas of ‘significant concern’ were identified by an inspector in December 2018 following a joint visit by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CQC), but a further visit in May revealed that ‘no “progress has been made” in resolving any of them.
Devon County Council and NHS Devon, which works in partnership to run SEND services in the county, have both apologized.
Representatives from the Department of Education (DfE) and NHS England will meet with the council and local health officials later this month to discuss next steps, which could include an intervention by new Education Secretary James Cleverly, who was nominated on Thursday (July 7).
The critical findings put further pressure on the County Council’s underperforming children’s services department, which was deemed ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted during a separate inspection in 2020.
Since then, however, monitoring visits have shown some signs of improvement under a new management team appointed last year.
The initial joint inspection of Devon’s SEND services in 2019 found that staff needed to improve their understanding of the overall strategy, improve communication, improve support for children with autism, and improve the timeliness and quality of education plans, health and care – legal documents that outline a young person’s special educational needs.
Following the findings, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector decided that a “written action statement” was necessary due to “significant areas of weakness in practice in the area”.
However, in a new letter following a further visit by Ofsted and the CQC in May, Chief Inspector Stephen McShane concluded that Devon “has not made sufficient progress in addressing one of the significant weaknesses identified during the initial inspection”.
The document describes at length the current gaps in the service and the impact it is having on young people and their families.
It says a new strategy launched in 2020 “fundamentally fails to address significant weaknesses that were apparent during the previous inspection and are still evident now.”
He continues: “The lack of consistent action significantly affects the lives of children and young people and their families. The plans do not address the particular challenges Devon is currently experiencing, for example, related to recruiting and retaining staff.
The report claims ‘there is a culture of acceptance of the way things are going’ on the part of some staff, while parents are ‘very critical of the level of their involvement in consultations’ and “do not understand how the plans will improve the lives of their families.”
Communication “remains poor” and “in many cases…has deteriorated”, says the inspector.
“Telephone calls are unanswered. Complaints and documents are lost. There is a failure to inform the families. Incorrect information is shared with others. Appointments are missed for no reason. »
In terms of education, health and care (EHC), the report is particularly critical. It says their speed of delivery in 2020 was close to national averages, but “this has dropped significantly over the last year”, with 1,600 delayed annual reviews pending.
Parents describe the process of receiving EHC plans from children as “a battle” and “do not find the process helpful”, he adds.
Completed plans are “of very variable quality…in many cases poor” and “do not sufficiently take into account the needs and aspirations of the child or young person”.
The document adds: “The targets are often vague. EHC plans are not an effective tool to make a difference. It is a bureaucratic exercise that is not done well. Staff who receive the plans say they are “fragile”, “not worth the paper they are written on” and are often “embarrassed”. They do not meet the expectations of the SEND Code of Practice (2015).
He describes how “parents’ battles with the region have a significant impact on the well-being of families and the mental health of parents”.
Some are said to have given up their jobs “to ensure their child or youngster gets the education and care they need”, while others are “so dissatisfied that many are paying for their own private assessments”.
The fourth weakness – supporting people with autism – has also not made enough progress. There has been a reduction in the total number of waits for a specialist assessment, but children and young people are “still waiting too long”.
“Currently, there are almost 2,000 children and young people on the waiting list and almost half of them have been waiting for more than a year. These figures do not reflect the full picture of needs.
New strategies are being developed, while staff have changed working practices and increased communication options, but the report says parents “still do not receive the support they need in a timely manner”.
Some positives are noted, including how some parents, children and young people “talk positively about their experiences”, as well as the recognition that a change in culture is needed.
“The departmental advisers have rightly given the new leaders the mandate to bring about changes”, adds the chief inspector. ‘They reinforced their ambition for Devon to be a place where children and young people with SEND thrive’ and ‘identified new resources’.
Moreover, he says, “Health system leaders have committed to a fundamental shift in approach. There is a will to change and to work in partnership.
However, the report concludes: “As none of the material weaknesses have improved, it is up to the DfE and NHS England to determine the next steps.”
In a letter to County Council and NHS Devon, Fiona Nzegwu, Deputy Director of the Department for Education, said: ‘The issues raised in the Ofsted/CQC report are serious and it is concerning that progress has not been achieved in any of the four weak points previously identified.
“Ministers need to be confident that you have the ability and capacity to make immediate and lasting improvements. As senior local leaders, I ask you to attend a meeting with officials and advisers from the DfE and NHS England. The discussion will inform the minister’s next steps, which could include the use of the intervention powers of the Secretary of State.
Councilor Julian Brazil (Lib Dem, Kingsbridge), Leader of the Opposition in Devon County Council, called the report “damning”.
“Devon has and continues to fail the most vulnerable young people in our county. For me, this is the most important job we do and we are failing,” he said.
“For too long Devon has allowed this depressing situation to continue. No one seems to take responsibility; business has been business as usual – this is unacceptable. We now have a new team of senior officers in place, but when things have been left adrift for so long, it’s going to take time to get it right.
“I hope for the sake of the children of Devon we can get it right and if it requires central government intervention, so be it.”
Councilor Andrew Leadbetter (Conservative), Devon’s, who is the cabinet member responsible for children’s services, apologized, calling it the ‘low point’ of his year in office.
“As a council, we recognize that the experiences of children and their families with SEND fall far short of our aspirations for them, and we are sorry for the impact this has had on so many of our residents.
“This has been a long-standing issue for many years, and our only possible response, as the new management team, is to relentlessly focus on making improvements so that children and young people in the future get the support they need.”
He added: “Having been in office for 12 months, today’s report is a low point for me, but I will use it to drive the changes we need to see, working in partnership across the region, ensuring that children and their families who rely on our support have a better experience.
“I make that promise today. We will improve. We have an improvement plan, we know what needs to be done and we will redouble our efforts to work more closely with our partners and SEND families to help us do the right thing for children and young people.
Darryn Allcorn, NHS Devon’s Chief Nursing Officer, said: ‘We recognize that there has not been sufficient progress in the improvements identified in the last inspection and on behalf of NHS Devon I offer my sincere apologies. for the impact it had on the children. dependent on these services and their parents and guardians.
“We fully accept the findings of the report and are committed to working with our partners to do whatever is necessary to improve special needs education and disability services for local children and their families in Devon.”
The meeting between local leaders, the DfE and NHS England will take place at County Hall on Tuesday July 19.