Children with special needs are being let down by a system that is meant to support them, an ombudsman has warned.
Families with youngsters that have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are facing lengthy delays and being forced to fight to get what their child is entitled to, according to a stark report by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman.
Council chiefs said the findings support their concerns that local authorities are at risk of not being able to meet their legal duties to SEND children.
Under the current system, children with SEND may be assessed for an education, health and care (EHC) plan, which is used to ensure that a youngster’s needs are met in each of these areas as they grow up.
But the ombudsman’s report said there are concerns that the system is in crisis and beset by serious problems.
It said complaints about the EHC plan process rose by 45% between 2016/17 and 2018/19, and that 80% more detailed investigations were carried out by the ombudsman.
Last year alone, almost nine in 10 (87%) investigations were upheld, the report said, compared with an average upheld rate of 57% for other types of investigation.
This is “exceptional and unprecedented”, it said.
Serious problems include severe delays of up to 90 weeks, and regularly of more than a year, in issuing plans; poor communication and preparation for meetings and a lack of working together – for example, EHC plans issued without advice from health or social care services.
In addition, there was evidence of cases “drifting needlessly” and “attempts to farm out responsibilities to parents”, the report said.
Ombudsman Michael King said: “One particularly concerning development over the last two years has been examples we’ve seen of councils putting up additional barriers to services in efforts to ration scarce resources.
“While sympathetic to the severe financial constraints which councils tell us they are working under, we can never accept this as an excuse for failing to meet the statutory rights of children.
“Always on the receiving end of these problems are children missing out on the support to which they are entitled, and families left to pick up the pieces.
“With inevitable delays, frustration and distress, we often see parents having to fight the system that was established to support them.
“It is not uncommon to hear the SEND process described as a battleground.”
He added: “I hope this report helps to throw more of a spotlight on the problems with the SEND system, and places more urgency on the need to improve, before we hear more heartbreaking stories of children failing to meet their potential.”
Councillor Judith Blake, chairwoman of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “This report supports our long-term concerns that councils are in danger of being unable to meet their statutory duties for children with special educational needs.
“While we are pleased the Government has announced an additional £700 million for children with special educational needs, without certainty over funding for the future, the situation will get worse as the number of children who need support continues to increase.”
Currently there are 354,000 pupils with EHC plans – an 11% rise since last year, she said.
“This is why we are also pleased the Government plans to review the system, and will work with them to get a clear picture of what more can be done to make sure vulnerable children can get the best support possible.”
Last month, the Government announced a review into SEND services.
It has also said that an extra £700 million will be invested in 2020/21 in supporting pupils with the most complex needs.
A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “As the ombudsman admits, this report is based on a very small sample size – covering less than 0.3% of all cases in 2018.
“Over 48,000 children were issued with new Education and Health Care Plans in last year, and the majority of these were completed within 20 weeks.
“During the assessment process, children continue to attend their school and receive additional support, until their tailored support package is put into place.”
She added: “However, we know the system is not working well enough for every family, and have launched a review to introduce further improvements.”