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

What is SEND? It is an over-used acronym for children with ‘special educational needs and disabilities’ which fails to encapsulate the complexity and variety of issues having an impact on everyday lives, from childhood through to adulthood.

Last autumn, the Government announced an extra £250 million in funding for local authorities over the next two years; it also committed to a long-overdue review of SEND support. I can only hope it commissions research into the growth in the number of children affected, clarity on the various diagnoses, and how to ensure they lead fulfilling lives into maturity.

Having made this one of its top ten priorities, Suffolk County Council has established a new board to ‘hold officers to account’, following two damning reports on SEND services in the county by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) in 2017 and January 2019. Although the board comprises councillors, members of the Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), volunteers, and officers, it doesn’t appear to have anyone with first-hand knowledge of the day-to-day issues and how care is delivered.

I admit to having some sympathy with opposition councillors’ concerns that it is insufficiently independent, lacking ‘impartiality and transparency’; overseen by the Cabinet member and his deputy, whilst meeting only three times a year, will not be sufficient to make progress.

I recommended that they invite the Head of Suffolk’s largest primary, which also hosts specialist units, where I was the SEND governor, to join the task force because he has relevant experience managing one of the biggest cohorts, with ten per cent of the 660 pupils having special needs. Prior to his arrival, the only advice we could get, when governors were concerned about delivering relevant care, was from Essex County Council. So, his knowledge and positivity would be invaluable in addressing the essential improvements.

Immediately prior to its publication, Suffolk’s Cabinet responded to the latest report’s criticisms by announcing a £45 million package for new special schools in Ipswich, Lowestoft and Bury St. Edmunds, and 36 new specialist units at mainstream schools. Some external funding has been negotiated, but the implementation must be prioritised according to local need.

In continuing frustration at what they perceive to be a lack of progress, a group of cross-party councillors want a ‘fresh set of eyes’ on the problem, and have now just written to the county’s Chief Executive, calling for an independent ‘objective, transparent evaluation’ to improve services for children. Although that could inevitably delay implementing further improvements, greater engagement and openness would be a wise move, given that the council is the country’s first authority to fail inspection on two occasions, and loses 90 per cent of SEND cases taken to tribunal.

Concerns are clearly justified, when the latest report by officials who returned to assess progress in addressing ‘the areas of significant weakness detailed in the written statement of action issued in January 2017’ identified some improvements to just one of the four issues, tempered by insufficient progress.

  • Ineffective Governance and Leadership: has made some progress, developing strong partnerships with services and the Suffolk Parent Carer Network to design, plan and deliver services. But, communication and joint working have not yet improved enough.
  • Poor timeliness, integration, and quality of SEND statutory assessment and plans, and delivery of individual packages of support: improved but insufficiently, inconsistent, and poor integration of multiple provision. Must look ahead to plans catering for future needs, aspirations, and independence, and to develop confidence and expertise to address current dissatisfaction amongst parents and carers.
  • Lack of understanding of the support available leading to high levels of parental complaint and anxiety: pace of improvement too slow, although a programme of transformational work on speech, language, and communication is ready for implementation and a review of high needs funding complete. More focus on mental health needs in crisis and mapping care pathways required.
  • Lack of joint working to monitor, quality assure, and maximise effectiveness of work undertaken to improve outcomes: a comprehensive review of mental health services has started to rectify weaknesses, and the specialist outreach service is highly valued by schools.

SEND is undoubtedly a very complex sector, and most authorities with responsibility are probably only a whisker away from similar criticisms, but it is essential to focus on Suffolk’ achievements in the last couple of years. Whilst there is more to be done, I hope the council will find a way to share their experience with other authorities and organisations, enabling ‘lessons to be learnt’.

However, it is especially ironic that Suffolk County Council should face such criticism when only a few weeks later, in April 2019, Ofsted couldn’t praise the Council enough for its Children’s Social Care Services.

In three of the four categories, it received Outstanding:

  • The impact on social work practice with children and families;
  • The experience and progress of children who need help and protection;
  • Overall effectiveness.

And Good for:

  • The experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers.

The Council was praised for its ‘stable and aspirational leadership, and strong political and financial support for development of sustainable, high quality services which are of an exceptionally high standard’.

Services are child-focused, with workers building positive and purposeful working relationships with children and families, ensuring children are safeguarded.

Management is strong and staff feel highly valued.

I have no doubt that the next SEND report will reflect similar dynamism and commitment, but do urge the Council to adopt a more open approach to resolving the issues highlighted. There is nothing to be feared by sharing information and ideas, allowing a wider group to fully understand the complexities, and how taxpayers’ money is being spent.

Instead of an independent review, one solution would be to hold a special conference event, starting with presentations on the issues, perhaps inviting the report’s leading author to take questions. Delegates, including the media, could then form themselves into working groups to discuss specific aspects and present their own suggestions.

Such an initiative would defuse negative comments, provided all parties were subsequently kept up to date with progress, and those with the best ideas could even participate in developing fresh engagement. Further support (and even funding) could potentially be achieved if the council developed a partnership with a university research project to follow individual cases, analysing progress over a number of years. The information would be hugely beneficial in maximising resources now and into the future.

It is evident that a joined-up approach, with good communication between all relevant parties, is key to greater understanding and success. Suffolk should be commended for its commitment.