Education: Are children in the city with special educational needs being let down?

In a Sheffield secondary school this week the special educational needs co-ordinator sat down for a meeting with a parent sick with worry about how their child's complex needs could be addressed.

Thursday, 9th February 2017, 7:30 am
Updated Tuesday, 28th February 2017, 11:29 am

Such meetings, fraught with stress, take place every day at schools across the city as mums, dads and educational providers do their utmost to discuss the situation and put effective plans into place.

There are often tears at the meetings as these emotive issues are addressed. Sometimes there are breakthroughs, but more often than not there is frustration. Providing effective resources is a struggle that can take years. Not weeks. Not months. Years.

Make no mistake – children with special educational needs in this city are being failed by a council department that has been badly run and failed to hit targets for far too long. Factor in strapped-for-cash NHS services and a suffering system pulled over several resource-stretched service providers – the results are shambolic.

Some Sheffield children have been waiting an age to see specialists at the Ryegate Children’s Centre, some are into a lengthy wait for an Education and Health Care plan, with still others are sitting it out for a time to see people at the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS).

You may think that assessing children so they can get the most out of school would be a priority in a developed nation such as ours. You might think children with special education needs would be well looked after and have access to a world class assessment within a week or two. You’d be wrong.

The backlog of children waiting to get their initial assessment at The Ryegate Children’s Centre is quite simply scandalous.

There are youngsters in this city who were referred to Ryegate in Year 5 – plenty of time to prepare a plan for them before the transition to secondary school, you might think. But some of those children are now in Year 7 and are still waiting to be seen.

Despite being on the waiting list for well over a year, despite registering formal complaints, despite letting their MPs know how disorganised the service is, those people are still waiting.

The stories are heart-breaking and it’s high time something drastic was done to sort it out.

There are children visiting their GPs in this city with potentially serious mental health problems, only to be told not to expect an appointment with CAMHS for six months.

For those having an Education, Health and Care plan (EHC) written, the families are in for a whole new level of chaos.

Although the decision to write an EHC plan is often greeted with relief and optimism by parents who see it as a turning point in provision, Sheffield has managed to apply its own brand of incompetence to the process. If the Chuckle Brothers had been in charge of writing care plans in this city, there is no way we would be in the deep, dire muddle in which we find ourselves.

There is a legal requirement that EHC plans should be completed and presented to the parents within 20 weeks.

Sheffield manages to overshoot this generous timescale by such an astronomical amount that it is nothing short of embarrassing.

Children who were assessed in September 2015 are still waiting for their finished reports - 17 months later - meaning transition to secondary schools has been far from easy for some.

Converting the old-style statements to new EHC plans should be almost complete, but Sheffield is way behind in this process.

Things are so bad that the city council has had to draft in a company based in Manchester to write the reports and try to clear the backlog.

Farming the process out to the other side of the Pennines often makes it worse - the parents never get to meet the report writer, somebody who completes this important document based on notes put together by a worker in Sheffield. Stories of sending emails without getting replies and unanswered telephone calls are also commonplace.

This from a council department that has suffered no funding cuts. It would be funny if it were an episode of Yes Minister or The Thick Of It, but I’m afraid this, embedded deep within our city’s SEND provision, is very real.

The children with special educational needs and disabilities in this city are being let down.