Children with special educational needs and disabilities protested alongside their parents at County Hall yesterday at what Devon SEND Parents and Carers for Change described as “relentless institutional failings” in Devon children’s services provision.
The campaigning group, which organised the protest, said: “We have all individually raised our concerns, whether that was to a professional, a SEND caseworker or by making a formal complaint to Devon County Council.
“Again and again these concerns go unheeded. Calls and emails are ignored. Complaints disregarded.”
The county council admitted that “there have been significant problems” and that “the experience of many parents has not been good” but said it was “totally committed” to improvement.
However Elaine Davis-Kimble from Devon SEND Parents and Carers for Change said: “It’s absolutely horrendous. You’ve got children and young people out of school for years in some cases, with no placement at all, no SEND provision.”
She blamed “mismanagement” rather than a lack of funding and said comparable counties were doing far better, adding: “There’s no way Devon County Council can begin to address the problems with its services unless it speaks to the very people using those services, which it doesn’t do”.
She said the local authority’s 0-25 Team, which carries out the Education, Health and Care Plan assessments on which children’s SEND provision is based needs a “complete overhaul”, with caseworkers currently assigned more than 500 children each and staff not being trained properly.
She also described Devon Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services as “broken”.
It is now more than four years since Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission first found fault in Devon County Council SEND children’s services following an inspection in December 2018.
Among other failings, they said Devon County Council had been too slow to implement the SEND reforms introduced by the government in 2014, four years earlier.
The county council’s children’s social care services were then judged inadequate in January 2020 and the Department of Education issued a statutory direction ordering the council to make improvements.
Further Ofsted monitoring and a review by the Children’s Commissioner for England followed.
Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission then issued another joint report in June last year which again highlighted significant concerns about Devon SEND children’s services.
The county council acknowledged its failings but in October the Department of Education found that while there had been some improvement the council was “still failing to perform to an adequate standard”.
Then in December the county council was told that its children’s services were considered the “third or fourth worst in the country” and would be taken into special measures and taken over by an independent trust if improvements were not made.
The latest Ofsted monitoring report, issued last week, found that key areas still require significant change and serious issues remain.
Devon County Council appointed Julian Wooster as interim head of its children’s services in December after Melissa Caslake, his predecessor, left only eighteen months into the job.
He had previously performed the same role at Somerset County Council, where the Ofsted children’s services rating improved from “inadequate” to “good”.
He said: “We accept that there have been significant problems across the whole system in Devon and that the experience of many parents has not been good. Too often, our support plans have not been timely or good enough.
“However we are totally committed and focussed on working together with our schools and with health colleagues to make things better.”
He added that a shortage of professional caseworkers meant staff were over-worked and sometimes demoralised, leading to poor case management and communication with parents.
Conservative county councillor Andrew Leadbetter, who has been responsible for children’s services since May 2021, said that the council intends to make the improvements that children with SEND and their families need.
He said: “Extra resources have been identified in the budget to strengthen our SEND casework team and to help us compete with other local authorities to recruit and retain experienced staff. But we know that this won’t be easy and there are no quick fixes.
“We all want to make things better in Devon and we will do everything we possibly can with our partners to meet this challenge.”
However Labour county councillor Rob Hannaford, who chairs the council children’s scrutiny committee which is working with Ofsted and the Department of Education to address the failings, said the service “remains a huge concern for me and many others”.
He added: “This well-supported protest group and demonstration is an accurate reflection of the pain and frustration that many SEND families feel and experience on a daily basis.”
Many of the parents taking part in the protest are desperate for Devon County Council SEND children’s services to change for the better. We asked some to speak about their experiences. The names of their children have been changed to protect their identities.
Willow is nine years old. She is deaf and autistic and has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. She has been out of school for almost three years. Her parents Emma and Chris tried to enrol her in a special education school but the county council suggested she attend her local primary school instead, which is unable to meet her needs.
As a result Willow has had a home tutor since November 2021. This was supposed to be a temporary measure while a suitable school placement was found, but her parents believe that the county council sees it as a permanent solution to her educational needs.
It has taken no further action to place her in full time education, has not replied to emails and phone calls and has removed Willow from the list of students requiring a school placement.
Willow’s parents believe that her Education, Health and Care Plan, which was the result of an assessment completed in Kent several years ago and no longer reflects her needs, has not helped secure the educational support she needs.
They said: “Devon County Council has just taken this document and filed it away. No one has engaged with us about updating it. We don’t get any communication from the county council unless we threaten legal action.”
Willow’s parents say being left out of the education system has made her feel as if she is not wanted.
They added: “She doesn’t have a peer group, she rarely leaves the house or gets dressed, she is depressed and she is only nine years old. The impact has been devastating: she is lonely and we are lonely because we, as a family, are isolated.”
Theodore is eight years old. He is autistic and has Pathological Demand Avoidance and selective mutism. He has never managed a whole week at school and has only attended for eight days since September because his school cannot meet his needs, which it says require reassessment. The county council’s 0-25 Team refuses to perform one.
His family is taking the issue to a tribunal, which can take up to a year. They have paid for a private speech and language assessment and are covering the costs of private tutoring support while he is unable to attend school.
Theodore’s mother Emma said: “He has an Education, Health and Care Plan but it is not fit for purpose and never has been: there are references to nursery and his autism diagnosis is not included. It was created three years ago and there have been annual reviews since then but Devon County Council has not updated it.
“The educational psychologist said he needed small class sizes and one-to-one support so he was funded to be in a private school, but this year that was taken away and as a result he can’t manage.
“Devon County Council is now saying that his Education, Health and Care Plan does not specify that he needs one-to-one support, just that he needs a high level of adult support and his current school has interpreted that as fifteen minutes a day before school.
“He is currently getting no more support than we, the family, can provide, which has been especially difficult as I have just had a baby. My husband has had to leave his job in order to support us all at home. Things are just falling apart because of the lack of external support.
“Theodore is academically bright but it feels as though he has been totally written off by the local authority.
“I’ve been fighting Devon County Council for six years because we had exactly the same situation with my daughter. I’ve just complained to the local council ombudsman. I honestly could have written the same letter I did six years ago for my daughter but changed the name. No lessons have been learned, nothing has changed.”
Archie is nine years old and was diagnosed with autism last August after his family paid for a private assessment. He is in school, but cannot cope there as the school is unable to meet his needs. His family is currently applying for an Education, Health and Care Plan.
The county council was willing to pay for Archie’s assessment but the process of getting a diagnosis had already been going on for two years when they were told last year the assessment would not take place for another eighteen months.
His father Dan said: “During that period of waiting he reached a point of social and sensory anxiety exhaustion”.
He added: “Archie is in mainstream school but he sits on his own in the pottery room. He does have a one-to-one mentor, but there is not much effort being made to try to integrate him. He is socially excluded.”
Devon County Council says Archie should be assessed by an educational psychologist as it is not persuaded by the evidence provided by his private assessment. This could take another year.
Rory is twelve years old and has multiple diagnoses including autism. His current school has been unable to meet his needs and, while the county council agrees that he needs to move to another school, there is no space until September and no other provision is available.
His mother Julia said: “The system has been failing us. Schools are left to process annual reviews but not all schools have the right training and experience to understand the Education, Health and Care Plan system.
“The school blames the 0-25 team and the 0-25 team blames the school, then suddenly another year has passed. Ghost children are falling behind in the system and that becomes most apparent when they move to secondary school.
“I have been very fortune in communications with Devon County Council, the caseworker usually gets back to me within a couple of days. I feel sorry for my caseworker because it is the system that is causing the issue.
“‘I just want to learn’ is the message my child wants to share. He feels he is a prisoner in his school. He is bored, he wants to be challenged.
“I have visited about a hundred primary and secondary schools in my time looking for the right provision for my child. Only one school can meet his needs but it only has three places for children like Rory.”