Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.

Those of us who’ve spent our careers in the private sector, in large diverse businesses, are increasingly frustrated by the vast bureaucracies which overwhelm the public sector, where self-interest can all too often block change and improvement.

Whereas multi-faceted businesses minimise bureaucracy in favour of focusing on the customer, a reverse culture makes much of the public sector dysfunctional, failing to join up services, both in terms of efficiency and cost, leaving taxpayers to suffer the consequences of inferior communication and co-operation between different organisations.

Whilst some authorities, whether local health providers or councils, are disciplined in delivering top quality services, listening to and offering best value for consumers, others fail to recognise deficiencies until an external Government report points the finger.

As a governor with specific responsibilities at a primary school, where ten per cent of our 600 pupils fall into the SEND (special educational needs and/or disabilities) category, I was especially interested when a newspaper recently flagged up a Care Quality Commission/Ofsted report on Suffolk’s effectiveness in implementing the Children and Families Act 2014 reforms.

I couldn’t find it on either the authors’ or relevant authorities’ websites (the County Council and Clinical Commissioning Groups) but when I asked the Leader of the County Council for a copy, it was immediately emailed to me.

Suffolk is widely regarded as one of the most efficient councils, as well as being an ‘affluent’ area, so the results make interesting reading for all public bodies with SEND responsibilities, which will also face inspection.

It is very fair and thorough, summarising a 4-day visit in December, when inspectors ‘spoke with children and young people, parents and carers, representatives of the local authority and NHS officers…. visited a range of providers, speaking to leaders, staff and governors about how they were implementing the special educational needs reforms.. as well as leaders from health, social care and education… and looked at the local area’s self-evaluation, reviewing performance data and evidence about the local offer and joint commissioning.’

Whilst noting that a strategy was already under review, inspectors noted significant weaknesses in partnership working:

“The reforms have not been driven effectively, and only in recent months have leaders acknowledged that implementation has not been good enough… although publicly recognised and apologies offered for the poor quality of delivery and slow pace in developing education, health and care (EHC) plans.”

Feedback from parents/carers reflected ‘overwhelming dissatisfaction, frustration and confusion’ regarding provision for children and young people; too often parents feel they are a burden to schools and providers because of the costs incurred in seeking external specialist support. Parents also expressed concern about there being no single point of contact; instead, they had to seek advice and information from too many different places, leaving them confused and distressed.

Consequently, areas highlighted will undoubtedly be relevant to all providers:

  • Governance and leadership across agencies have not established a sufficiently rigorous approach to strategic planning, or a clear expectation of joint commissioning to deliver a co-ordinated, cross-service approach;
  • Leaders have not held staff to account for outcomes, which has led to patchy provision;
  • Poor quality and timeliness of assessment for, and transition to, EHC plans;
  • Lack of timely access to good quality health services, particularly for speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and emotional/mental health support;
  • Lack of advice, support/local provision for children with autism spectrum disorder and mental health difficulties;
  • Poor quality of some post-16 provision and the significant proportion of young people not in education, employment or training;
  • Co-production of EHC plans, where services (including schools and colleges) and families work together to identify, plan and review provision, is too dependent on the variable quality/knowledge of individual practitioners/providers;
  • Poor communication… with many parents feeling that they are driven to crisis point before additional support/advice are identified and put in place (timescales/processes are unclear to many frontline health professionals/parents);
  • Too much time and resources are invested in dispute resolution;
  • Review health assessments for looked after children are not sufficiently robust;
  • The role and contribution of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) are limited, with out of hours provision not sufficiently co-ordinated.

Nevertheless, the report recognises improvements in engaging with Suffolk Parent Carer Network (SPCN), which is a priority for development. It also points to strengths in training frontline staff, increasing confidence and competence, specialist health visitors and a range of initiatives, each with its own title – which will surely add to confusion when inevitably referred to by anagrams!

However, there remain concerns around low educational achievements by pupils with SEND which need to be addressed.

The general lack of engagement was confirmed by a Head Teacher, who eventually took matters into his own hands: ‘we ended up buying independent behaviour support, education psychology and speech and language therapists, because local provision was so poor.’ And at my own primary, where we also host specialist units, we sought a strategic review from another local authority, which was invaluable in developing targeted interventions and resources.

Taken overall, this report will be very beneficial to all parties – not least parents and their children – having identified key areas for improvement and determining that a written statement of action is required (from the local authority and Suffolk’s 3 Clinical Commissioning Groups).

I look forward to seeing the response, how issues will be prioritised and communicated.