The Secret School: A house of cards that needs to be put in order for our children’s sake

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Parents of Sheffield schoolchildren are forking out hundreds of pounds in advocacy and legal fees as they take the city council to task over their insufficient care plan procedures.

The Education and Health Care plans that are being handed back to parents about their children’s needs are at times so ineffective and ambiguous, parents say they have no choice but to seek professional advice.

This is a process for vulnerable young people that should be supportive and offer hope as well as encouragement

So they are turning to advocates in a desperate bid to have the EHC checked, challenged and hopefully updated.

The problem with EHC plans prepared by Sheffield Council is that they are vague, unclear and do not meet legal requirements in many cases. Parents tell me the council refuse to make any concession, forcing cases to tribunals and sometimes conceding at the last minute.

None of this has the best interests of children at heart and it can take years to resolve, wasting crucial time in education.

Legislation regarding EHC plans makes it clear that recommended provision should be detailed, specific and normally quantified. That means they should contain comprehensive information about the type of support needed, the level of expertise involved, the frequency of the support and the number of hours it is needed.

Parents have told me that this information just isn’t included in their child’s EHC plan. They’re ambiguous and contain many words that could be interpreted in different ways. For example, if the report says the child needs ‘access to’ a mentor, that could mean anything. Schools could interpret that as meaning there is one on hand in a different room throughout the day. The parents’ interpretation may be that a Teaching Assistant helping their child in every class is needed.

A cynic may read into this that Sheffield Council is being ambiguous about SEND, one of its policies, because an EHC plan that doesn’t commit one way or the other could save money in already stretched resources.

But it’s unethical.

The EHC plan needs to be specific and quantifiable, and that’s why plans are being successfully challenged by advocates in what is a downward spiral of poor investment leading to poor services, ineffective plans and a financial cost to some parents they should not have to shoulder.

There are advocates specialising in contesting EHC plans advertising their services on the Internet.

One of the SEND consultants I checked out online offered to help people across the country. But guess where the people were from who had left a reference on the testimonial page – that’s right, they were all from Sheffield.

One customer mentions how the advocate was far more knowledgeable than the people supporting them in Sheffield Council and mentions how the local authority were dragging their heels as the EHC process - which should take only 20 weeks - trundled on.

The services offered by this EHC advocate start with a simple ‘EHC Checker’ costing £150.

If you’re wanting a case prepared at tribunal, a supporting bundle of documents and representation at court, you’re looking at least £1,600. These are services to keep the council’s poor provision in check.

It’s a service that shouldn’t be needed. But if you were in a position to help your child and had the money, there’s little doubt that you’d stretch to it.

Anything to get more help in a desperate situation. I know I would.

Of course, this service being used to challenge an ineffective council department raises an important issue. A service which is already in a critical state is now at risk of becoming a ‘two-tier’ service.

Those who have the money to challenge the council are more likely to get changes to the EHC plan, more likely to be successful at tribunal and more likely to get concessions for their children.

Those who do not have the spare money to throw at advocates are in a less fortunate position.

They have to carry out the battle themselves, against a city council seemingly unlikely to recommend specific support packages because of the money it would take to fund them.

Those people, who in no way should be expected to hand over hundreds of pounds to get a thorough and full plan, are in many cases just putting up with the poor service they are offered.

It’s an absolute tragedy, and as at all times when talking about education, we should think of the children.

A kid from a poor background will not get advocates fighting their case – this battle for effective SEND provision that the council have instigated and are stubbornly stumbling through is going to have a severe impact on a whole generation of children in our city.

The scale of the problem and the number of people affected by Sheffield’s long waiting times for SEND services is evident by the number of people contacting me after last week’s column.

People spoke of the ‘battle’ they had to have with the council, how ‘soul-destroying’ the process has been and that they were ‘frustrated’ by how long things were taking.

This is a process for vulnerable young people, a process that should be supportive and offer hope as well as encouragement.

That it does none of these things is a damning indictment of the council’s achievement and further evidence that this SEND house of cards needs to get itself in order.

n You can get involved by following our Twitter account @Sheff_Schools and sharing your stories. If you want to remain anonymous, send a direct message. You can also write to Telegraph Education, Sheffield Telegraph, York Street, Sheffield, S1 1PU, or on telegraph@jpress.co.uk on email.