‘Improvement notice’ for Devon’s special education

Devon’s underperforming services for children with special educational needs (SEND) are to be closely monitored by the government following a damning report earlier this year.

Ollie Heptinstall, local democracy reporter www.radioexe.co.uk 

Four areas of “significant concern” were identified by an inspector in December 2018 following a joint visit by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission, but a revisit this May found “progress has not been made” in fixing any of them.

Communication remains poor and staff do not sufficiently understand strategy, the report said. As well as that, improvements need to be made in supporting children with autism as well as to education, health and care plans (EHCPs) – legal documents that outline a young person’s special educational needs.

Devon County Council and NHS Devon, which works in partnership to run SEND services in the county, both apologised, while the council chief responsible admitted it had “let down the children of Devon over the past four years.”

Following a subsequent meeting with representatives from the Department for Education (DfE) and NHS England in July, the council has now agreed to an improvement notice suggested by the minister for school standards, Will Quince.

In his letter, Mr Quince says the issues raised in the revisit report are “serious” and that “the pace of change in Devon over the past three years has been too slow and is significantly affecting the lives of children and young people and their families.”

Mr Quince added: “In taking the swift and decisive action required to address the areas for improvement identified by Ofsted and CQC, it will be vital that the local area accepts collective responsibility and accountability for delivering the agreed actions.

“This will require a relentless focus on improvement across all service providers so that children, young people and families are able to access the support that they need.”

As part of the notice an improvement plan will be overseen by an improvement board, which will meet monthly to monitor progress and report in writing to the DfE and NHS England every two months.

In an update provided to the council’s children’s scrutiny committee this week, Jackie Ross, interim deputy and SEND strategic director, said there have so far been two informal meetings to discuss the development of the plan to improve the service.

This includes reducing bureaucracy and simplifying paperwork, increasing recruitment, more training for staff and schools, and to develop clear performance monitoring and targets.

Ms Ross’ report concluded: “Whilst no council wants to be subject to intervention, this is an opportunity for the council to support the leadership team in every way possible to ensure that all children, young people, and families in Devon receive the best possible service from a council that cares and truly wants very child to reach their full potential and live fulfilled lives.”

Last month the county council’s leader John Hart (Conservative, Bickleigh and Wembury) admitted the government will “run out of patience” with the authority if improvements aren’t made over the next year.

A separate report, published in July, also revealed progress remains ‘slow’ in improving the council’s children’s services department, which was rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted in January 2020.

“I’m very sorry for the children that have been failed by the Devon system,” Cllr Hart said. “I do think we are reshaping, reorganising, redoing things, and we’ve got to improve the service.”

Opposition leader Councillor Julian Brazil (Lib Dem, Kingsbridge) said in July that possible government intervention was a “sad reflection on Devon County Council.”

He acknowledged that the new leadership team, appointed last year, should be given time, but said the problem was “nothing new.”

“It’s been going on for over 10 years. We failed to address the problems, we’ve allowed drift and I think that’s a terrible state of affairs.”

Speaking to BBC Radio Devon on Wednesday [7 September], cabinet member for children’s services, Cllr Andrew Leadbetter (Conservative, Wearside and Topsham) said: “We are doing everything in our power to sort this issue out and I’m confident that we will.”

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