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

The rising demand for SEND (Special Educational Needs & Disabilities) services across the country is not widely appreciated, or fully understood. For example, the number of children in Suffolk with an Education, Health & Care Plan (EHCP) has doubled to 6,000 since 2014, and a further 12,000 have special educational needs.

I understand the complexities only too well. As a governor at Suffolk’s largest primary school, on a big council estate in Ipswich for nearly a decade, one of my specific responsibilities was SEND, which accounted for about ten per cent of the 600 plus students as the school virtually doubled in size.

As it grew, the school suffered some leadership issues, with temporary heads, but escaped ‘special measures’ when Ofsted praised all the governors for stepping in to some key management roles when the Conservative Suffolk County Council (SCC) officers repeatedly failed to respond to governors’ concerns. This meant they took the initiative, liaising with the Fire Service on health and safety in a listed building, which highlighted urgent works, commissioning a 10-year maintenance plan to address structural failings, and increasing site security to protect children from the rise in County Lines.

Governors also oversaw the construction of a new classroom block, with the handover delayed because officers initially ignored governors, teachers, and the builders, requesting skylights because the classrooms had little natural light – adding thousands to construction costs when officers finally agreed to install them after the building was completed.

Crucially, despite the size of the SEND cohort, with a highly regarded special unit benefiting children from across the wider community, the council offered no support when governors asked for the service to be reviewed, following a range of problems raised by staff and parents, saying they didn’t have the time and the school would be charged a £6,000 fee. So, through contacts with senior councillors at Essex County Council, we asked for their help. Renowned for its expertise in this sector, within a fortnight, they sent a team, led by their head of service, to examine the operation, producing a full and detailed report, with recommendations for improving delivery, within a further week. And they didn’t charge a fee!

Having clear priorities, the report was shared with key staff – and the temporary heads – at a special meeting, enabling immediate phased implementation. The subsequent appointment of an excellent new Head, with SEND experience and strong leadership abilities, ensured that the school was restored to ‘good’ within his first year – and continues to thrive.

However, four years on, despite having shared the Essex County Council recommendations with SCC, according to a critical recently published detailed review, SEND services across Suffolk as a whole continued to fall below standards for full compliance with the Children & Families Act 2014.

The robust independent report by Lincolnshire County Council, and its Parent Carer Network, was commissioned by Suffolk County Council (SCC), after a significant increase in concerns amongst parents and carers.

The review did not look at whether EHC plans for children are consistent with, and aligned to, young person or family preference for placements and their desired outcome, which is a matter for the independent SEND tribunal process.

Cllr. Rachel Hood, the Education Portfolio Holder, explains:

“It focuses on processes, communication protocols, and family-facing elements.”

She apologised “for the difficulties some families have experienced.”

Nevertheless, 470 parents and carers represented by The Campaign for Change in Suffolk intend to publish their own report, calling for a legal audit of services, noting “a lack of accountability has left needs unassessed, and some children without schooling, affecting their mental and physical health. Families have been broken by the endless battles. The report highlights a number of failures, supporting our call for accountability.”

Key findings from the review include:

  • Failure to involve families in the EHCP (Education & Health Care Plan) assessments;
  • Lack of consistency and timelines for responding to calls and emails;
  • Pupils inappropriately placed in specialist places not suited to their needs;
  • Lack of identified caseworkers for children with EHCPs;
  • Requests for statutory assessments not recorded;
  • Lack of routine tracking on annual reviews;
  • Lack of transparency in the process & decision-making.

Elected in May, and quickly appointed to her Cabinet role, Cllr. Hood has to be admired for grasping what many would call a ‘poisoned chalice’ with such alacrity and positivity, acknowledging, “we must learn from this report, and implement fundamental change quickly.”

Having drafted a nine-point action plan, following the review’s recommendations, key priorities being addressed include:

  • A strategic partnership with Impower, bringing capacity and experience of SEND systems across the country;
  • Staff training;
  • Working with education leaders, parents and carers to understand demand for specialist provision and inform planning;
  • Robust annual review processes;
  • A £45.1 million capital programme already agreed to create an additional 870 specialist education places by 2024 with specialist schools in Bungay, Ipswich and Bury St. Edmunds.

Cllr. Hood says:

“The review has found that we must change, and we recognise that we have let down some children and young people as our services have simply not been good enough.”

She is determined to “implement wide-scale improvements with pace, impact and efficiency.”

It takes guts to confront these major challenges – as she did in a full page Opinion piece for the East Anglian Daily Times. There is no doubt that Cllr. Hood is not only committed to achieving the best outcomes, but will relish the process, and be accountable.