A report from the watchdog highlights a number of stories from among the complaints it has received and says that many SEN children are having their educational opportunities limited because of long delays in accessing support.
The LGO receives more complaints about education than any other area, with 17 per cent of its 20,186 complaints in 2012/13 being education-related. Almost one in 10 of these were about SEN provision and support.
The office can receive complaints about how SEN support is provided, but does not have the power to consider complaints about the internal actions of schools or the contents of an SEN statement.
The LGO report, SEN: Preparing for the Future, published last week, looks into the role of councils in SEN provision and support and highlights some of the common problems and complaints it receives, including specific examples and case studies.
The document also seeks to spread best practice ahead of the introduction of the Children and Families Bill and wide-ranging changes to SEN provision in September.
Problems highlighted included delays in local authority processes that have led to a loss of education, inadequate assessment and review of SEN statements, and poor planning of SEN support, particularly during transition phases.
The report also reveals incidents of failures to provide specific SEN support such as qualified specialists, unlawful exclusions because of a child’s SEN, and a failure to ensure suitable SEN provision within a local authority’s area.
It particularly highlights the unlawful practice of schools unofficially excluding children by sending them home to “cool off”. For SEN children, it states that this situation often arises when “the child’s SEN is being poorly managed or inadequately provided for” and says that “good monitoring and reporting of developing difficulties” can prevent this. The report urges councils to do more to advise schools of their legal position in relation to exclusions.
A case study in the report details how an autistic child had been repeatedly excluded from his school and was effectively placed on a part-time timetable for years. While the LGO had no powers to investigate the school, it fined the council £3,000 for failing to act.
The report highlights that the separate complaint routes for councils and schools can make it difficult for parents to know where to turn for help.
It therefore welcomes a recent amendment to the Children and Families Bill which commits the government to a review of how well the redress arrangements for parents currently work.
The SEN changes included within the Children and Families Bill will see new Education, Health and Care Plans created through a single assessment process and covering a person from 0 to 25.
However, it will see the end of SEN statements and other SEN categories which has led to fears that students with more mild SEN might slip through the net.
The new system will require closer working between education and health services. A draft SEN Code of Conduct was published last year and is currently going through consultation.
Dr Jane Martin, the local government ombudsman, said: “By publishing this report we aim to inform the way councils approach the new legislation by highlighting some of the problems that have occurred under the current arrangements. By learning the lessons of the past I hope that future mistakes can be avoided.
“Children with SEN, and their families, must be treated fairly by councils so they receive the support to which they are entitled. It is not acceptable when pupils miss out on crucial education, are unlawfully excluded or have their education opportunities adversely affected.
“A common phrase we hear from families when resolving a dispute about SEN is that it feels like a constant battle. It should not be this way. When things go wrong it is vital that councils act quickly to avoid children being disadvantaged.”
In 2013, 19 per cent of pupils in all schools across England were pupils with SEN. Of those, 2.8 per cent had assessed needs within statements of SEN. The percentage of pupils with statements has remained at 2.8 per cent of the overall school population for the last five years.
The report can be downloaded from www.lgo.org.uk/news/2014/mar/ombudsman-calls-fair-treatment-children-sen/
To read SecEd’s last report on the new SEN Code of Practice and forthcoming changes to SEN legislation, visit www.sec-ed.co.uk/best-practice/the-sen-code-of-practice-explained