County council admits SEND performance ‘unacceptable’

Essex County Council has admitted its performance in assessing children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) is “unacceptable” after it was found its assessment backlog was the worst in England.

Its performance has improved “slightly” from the 99 per cent of assessments taking longer than the 20-week deadline.

As of May 1, there are 2,237 open cases. Of these, 26 cases have been open longer than 52 weeks.

Essex County Council’s acceptance of failure came as the Tory group agreed to adopt a motion from the Lib Dem group that accepts concerns over scrutiny.

The motion included a reference to a recent meeting where several questions were submitted by members of the public but all were rejected on the grounds that they did not relate to items on the agenda.

At the same meeting, several public questions were submitted but all were rejected. The committee asked for a copy of the questions and the rejection reason for each one. At the time of submitting this motion, nearly a month after the meeting, that had not happened.

The motion adds: “Rejection of questions from the public without good cause can erode trust between this council and the residents it serves.

“This council’s failure to issue education, health and care plans (EHCPs) within the 20-week statutory timeframe in 99 per cent of cases is having a detrimental impact on children and families.”

Councillor Tony Ball, cabinet member for education excellence, lifelong learning and employability said: “I make no secret that within Essex our performance is unacceptable and has let down the children and young people of Essex to which we are here to represent.

“I have before and do again apologise to the families that are affected.

“That is why we have agreed and not amended in what is in the Lib Dem motion because it is a fact.”

County councillor Jude Deakin (Lib Dem, Chelmsford West) said: “The issue is that many parents want answers relating to their child’s future and they are beyond frustrated when trying to find answers that they have a right to.

“This council is denying the right of parents to ask sensible and important questions regarding SEND assessments in a public meeting and getting a full reply.

“This council continues to find excuses and tries to deflect the appalling situation by blaming the pandemic and a shortage of educational psychologists.

“This has been known since 2020 and we are four years down the line.”

Essex County Council is due to spend more than £1 million on paying for extra special needs assessment specialists in a bid to reduce its backlog – recognised as the worst in England. Currently, only one per cent of SEND assessments are completed within the 20-week deadline. There are more than 1,000 currently in the education and health care (EHC) needs assessment process.

It has led to what Essex County Council concedes is leading to “parental anxiety and low levels of confidence in the process”. The council adds the most significant contributing factor is the national shortage of educational psychologists (EP) which means it is frequently unable to allocate an EP at the point of request.

It adds that in addition to the 1,000 outstanding cases, its 20-week process is already running approximately five to six months behind schedule largely due to the impact of the pandemic and the ability of EPs to see children in schools during this period.


Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter