Most complaints about special educational needs support, says councils watchdog

Children and young people are still being failed when it comes to special educational needs support, a watchdog has said as it revealed it had upheld the majority of complaints it received in this area in the past year.

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman said it had received and upheld more complaints about education and children’s services in England than any other service area in the year to March 2023.

There were 1,263 detailed investigations carried out on this topic and 84% of complaints were upheld, the watchdog said.

While complaints in this area made up 17% of all those received when the ombudsman published its first report in 2014, they now make up almost a quarter (24%) of the organisation’s workload.

Ombudsman Paul Najsarek (pictured) said some councils were “repeating the same mistakes, ploughing ahead and not taking a step back to see the bigger picture”.

He said: “We continue to find the highest proportion of fault in complaints about Education and Children’s Services, and they remain some of our most high-profile cases, featuring in more than half of our public interest reports.

“The themes of these reports are all too familiar – failure to properly provide for Special Educational Needs (SEN) and Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans are common features.

“While we are aware of the challenges authorities face, at the heart of many of these complaints are children and young people going without the support they are entitled to, and we will continue to hold authorities to account for what they are required to provide.”

In the South East of England, 33% of complaints were about children and education, making it the area with the largest proportion of complaints on this theme.

London saw the smallest proportion of complaints on this topic (12%), with housing and homelessness (26%) making up the biggest area of concern in the capital.

Housing and homelessness accounted for 15% of complaints nationwide, while adult care services made up 13% of the total complaints across the country.

Residents in the North of England were most concerned about adult care services, with this issue making up almost a fifth (19%) of complaints.

An EHC plan is for children and young people aged up to 25 who need more support than is available through special educational needs support.

The plans identify educational, health and social needs and set out the additional support to meet those needs.

The watchdog said 92% of SEN provision and EHC plan complaints were upheld in the past year.

One investigation found delays in the EHC plan process at North Yorkshire County Council was caused by difficulty recruiting educational psychologists, which the ombudsman said was a key requirement of the EHC plan statutory process.

The report added: “We know this is a national issue and have seen similar difficulties across large areas of England.”

Mr Najsarek, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said: “We all want decent education services for our children, quality care for our loved ones when they are in need, and the reassurance of a safety net if we fall on hard times but all too often the complaints we receive show this isn’t what people experience.

“We know councils face huge challenges, so it is more important than ever for them to focus on the getting the basics right in services for residents and handling complaints effectively.

“Although local authorities often get things right, we frequently find councils repeating the same mistakes, ploughing ahead and not taking a step back to see the bigger picture.

“Our latest statistics shed light on the harsh realities people across the country face in crucial aspects of their lives. Council leaders now need to focus on learning from common faults and injustices so they can make a significant difference to the people our local authorities serve.”

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