Southend children’s services chief departs on eve of inquiry

THE director of Southend’s children’s services left his post suddenly just a week before an inquiry into special educational needs provision in the borough.

John O’Loughlin, who headed the children with disabilities team, left with immediate effect without serving a notice period.

The council has refused to say whether Mr O’Loughlin left his £92,000 a year post on his own volition or whether he was sacked.

Mr O’Loughlin’s rapid departure comes at a time when children’s services will come under major scrutiny by a panel appointed from other local authorities.

The department is set to undergo a four-day peer review, with people from other local authorities with high performing special educational needs services coming in to investigate the service following a barrage of complaints from parents with special needs children.

The peer review follows on from a revisit by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission after an earlier report judged the service as in need of improvement.

The revisit found improvements had been made but parents, whose children suffer from a range of difficulties, including autism say they are still struggling, in some cases for years, to get Educational Healthcare Plans (EHPs) for their youngsters.

Parents claim the council’s delays and often refusals to provide the plans has meant some children being unable to attend schools. Some parents say they have also felt unable to call for help for fear of being branded bad parents.

The review, ordered by councillors, will take place between November 23 and 26.

Staff were not told why Mr O’Loughlin left so suddenly but the department is said to have suffered a number of resignations recently.

The council would not give a reason for the departure, however.

A source has confirmed that Mr O’Loughlin’s departure is due to changes being made with the children’s services department.

A council spokesperson said: “There have been changes to the senior leadership of children’s services and an interim director will be recruited until a permanent appointment can be made.

“In the meantime, the service will be managed by the executive director for children and public health.”

The impending investigation gained cross-party backing after the Conservative group called for the probe following a review of SEND services by Ofsted.

Cllr Tony Cox, Tory leader, said: “It was quite sudden, I understand. I wish him well in his future endeavours.”

James Courtenay, Tory councillor for Chalkwell, said: “I know the council has been on an improvement path since Ofsted required improvement. There is a drive to improve for when we get inspected again.

“For the years John was there he was a very good and competent officer and I appreciate his service to the children of Southend. It is a very challenging role dealing with people at their most vulnerable times.”

Mr O’Loughlin was contacted for comment over his departure.

Christine Sexton

Local Democracy Reporter