Devon fails to address long-standing weaknesses in SEND support

Joe Lepper
Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Inspectors have raised concerns over a lack of progress to tackle failures in support for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in Devon, which were first raised almost four years ago.

Children with SEND in Devon face a string of failures in council support, inspectors have said. Picture: Adobe Stock
Children with SEND in Devon face a string of failures in council support, inspectors have said. Picture: Adobe Stock

A joint inspection team found significant weaknesses in SEND support in December 2018, including widespread concerns around delays and lack of quality in education, health and care plans for children.

Poor communication with parents was also highlighted as a problem as were challenges around the recruitment and retention of SEND staff.

But following their most recent visit, in May this year, inspectors found that services in Devon have “not made sufficient progress in addressing any of the significant weaknesses” outlined four years ago.

Concerns persist around failures by local leaders to develop a strategy to effectively tackle problems in support.

The Ofsted and Care Quality Commission inspection team is particularly critical of a fresh strategy launched in 2020 with “laudable” aims such as “hoping” that children and young people with SEND “dream, believe and achieve and fulfil their potential”.

This strategy “fails to address the significant weaknesses that were apparent at the previous inspection and are still evident now”, according to inspectors.

“The lack of coherent action is significantly affecting the lives of children and young people and their families,” states the inspection team in a letter to Devon County Council and the county’s clinical commissioning group.

It warns health and council chiefs in Devon that their current plans are failing to address recruitment and retention problems among the county’s SEND workforces.

“The current strategy is not based on a shared, honest and transparent self-evaluation process across the area,” inspectors also warn.

“This means that leaders do not fully understand the weaknesses so that they can tackle them. Leaders have not pulled together robust information to evaluate the impact of actions of the previous strategy.

“The new strategy does not have agreed, clear goals that can be monitored successfully," the letter states.

Inspectors also raise concerns about ongoing failures to communicate with parents and families.

“Communication remains poor. In fact, in many cases communication has got worse,” say inspectors.

This includes failing to answer telephone calls, not keeping families informed, losing documents and complaints as well as sharing incorrect information.

“Poor communication contributes to the anger many parents feel about provision in the area,” warn inspectors.

“Parents feel that poor communication is symptomatic of a lack of understanding by staff of their lives and the challenges they face. It is contributing to an atmosphere where many parents now view the area with suspicion and hostility.

“They do not trust the very agencies that should be supporting them. Many now believe that services are actually working against them,” they add.

Other concerns raised include a failure to tackle lengthy waits children face for an autism assessment. There are almost 2,000 children on the waiting list in the county, with almost half waiting for more than a year.

Andrew Leadbetter, Devon County Council's cabinet member with responsibility for SEND support, said: “As a council, we recognise that the experiences of children and their families with SEND is falling far short of our aspiration for them, and we are sorry for the impact this has had on so many of our residents. 

“This has been a longstanding issue over many years, and our only possible response to it, as a new leadership team, is to relentlessly focus on making the improvements so that children and young people in the future get the support that they need.”

Darryn Allcorn, NHS Devon’s chief nurse, added: “We recognise that there has been insufficient progress in making the improvements identified in the last inspection and, on behalf of NHS Devon, I offer my sincere apologies for the impact this has had on the children who depend on these services and their parents and carers.

“We fully accept the findings of the report and are committed to working with our partners to do whatever is needed to improve SEND services for local children and their families in Devon.”

Meanwhile, Cambridgeshire County Council is to invest £60m into improving support for children with SEND. This includes expanding support in five schools and creating a further 500 special school places.

“There is an urgent need in Cambridgeshire to address the increasing demand for places for children with special educational needs and/or disabilities,” said Cambridgeshire children and young people’s committee chair Bryony Goodliffe.

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