Increase in SEND tribunals proof that system is not working, admits county council

An almost quadrupling in the number of times Essex County Council (ECC) has been taken to tribunal over its refusal to assess a child’s educational needs is the “canary in the coalmine” that the system is not working, the council has admitted.

The number of special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) appeals registered increased from 85 in 2015 to 315 in 2019.

The increase can also be seen in the SEND tribunal appeal rate. In 2015 the SEND tribunal appeal rate stood at 1.1 per cent – below the national average. That increased to three per cent in 2019 – well above the national average.

It comes after the number of children and young people with special needs eligible for extra support has increased to record levels in Essex.

The council is currently engaged in improving its SEND services after a critical CQC report in 2020 identified three areas of weakness – resolving the reasons for, and accuracy of, the high proportions of children and young people identified with moderate learning difficulties; poor working arrangements between the CCGs and ECC and that too many EHC plans do not include the information needed to secure high-quality outcomes for children and young people.

Ralph Holloway, head of SEND Strategy and Innovation, said ECC is working with a consultant to identify the drivers for tribunals.

Mr Holloway said: “The tribunals are the canary in the coalmine as far as the SEND system is concerned. It is the clearest indication that tells us that the system is not working.

“What is clear from the family forum is that there are far too many parents who need to use the tribunal system to fix things that should be relatively straightforward.”

Mr Holloway said the consultant has been charged with finding how to avoid tribunals in the first place.

He added: “What do we need to do in order to ensure we don’t need a tribunal to resolve parents’ concerns? Earlier intervention before we get to the point where we are locked in combat over a decision that is ultimately settled by a judge.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter