COLUMINIST: Drastic improvement required for Sheffield’s underperforming special educational needs system

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Children in Sheffield schools are still being failed by an underperforming Special Educational Needs system that requires drastic and accelerated improvement.

An investigation by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsmen has found Sheffield Council delayed agreeing and putting in place SEN provision for one boy sitting his GCSEs.

It also discovered similar delays being experienced by other young people in the city. There are children in Sheffield who are entitled to help and struggling to get it.

All of them will have had their family life negatively affected by prolonged waiting times and a lack of action. It simply should not be the case. Indeed, in some other local authorities it isn’t the case.

The Ombudsmen’s report gives an official and very public slap on the wrist for Sheffield Council’s SEN leaders. But this is nothing new to those of us living in the city, of course.

It’s nice to see the delays in writing EHC plans acknowledged by professionals, along with the ludicrous delays that people have to endure before they get their final care plan put into action.

I have highlighted these delays and their impact on people in this city several times over the last year. Mums and dads have taken to the street to share their frustration and called for change to be swift.

In truth, little has changed. The waiting time for an EHC plan to be written has fallen, but it is still above the 20-week legal requirement. It still does not comply with government guidelines.

Sheffield Council has agreed to review its procedures to try and stop other people in the city being affected. We’ll have to see how much of an impact this review actually has; some people who have seen their children struggle will not be optimistic.

Shouldn’t this review already have been carried out when news of the delays broke in our newspaper and worried parents took the streets?

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsmen correctly pointed out how such appalling delays can have a devastating impact on the young people affected. It can literally affect their life chances, having consequences for their future education options, choice of career and income potential.

The boy at the centre of this investigation had his EHC plan and support in school delayed at a critical time – during his GCSEs. His EHC plan was not completed until six months after the 20-week deadline and then there was an additional 12-month delay in the support being put in place.

That interruption covered a huge chunk of his GCSE courses and limited the number of exams he sat. Sadly, we’ll never know how much better he would have done in his GCSEs if the report was finished on time and the provision put in place as soon as it should have been.

The investigation also highlighted the shortcomings of the EHC writing process in Sheffield, because the problems that need rectifying are not just about the delays in getting the report completed.

An incorrect version of the report was contested by the boy’s mum in this case and needed lengthy mediation sessions to iron out. These issues should not occur, but I have been contacted by several people over the months who have reported similar issues with their own EHC plans.

Another common failure of the system – again picked up by the investigation but also common place when you talk to people fighting for SEN provision – is the ambiguity in the way the EHC plan is written.

The plan is supposed to clearly state what provision should be provided for that student. Anybody reading it should be left in no doubt at all about what the school has to deliver to meet the needs of the student involved.

But far too often the reports are unclear and open to interpretation. This means that the local authority might think it means one thing, while the parents read into it something else and the school believes it indicates a different thing entirely.

Disagreements over funding further delayed matters. And while people under financial pressure argue about money and the nature of the provision, it is once again a young person in this city who has to suffer.

This investigation has highlighted one case, but there have been others in the past and there are still others dealing with the flaws in the system.

It is high time schools and local authority representatives stopped passing the buck and started ensuring the EHC plans are completed effectively and on time. Too often the delays have affected parents trying to select the right secondary school and children about to start GCSEs.

Moving forward to create this ideal scenario, though, is going to be difficult unless more government funding is made available for our city’s schools.