Who bats for his Devon constituents?

Photo of Richard FoordRichard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)  10:07 am, 22nd March 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Sharma. SEND services in Devon have been in serious crisis for a long time, probably three or four years, with the situation deteriorating lately. Last year, Devon County Council apologised for failing to improve SEND services, and promised that things would improve and that it would redouble its efforts. We are continuing to see a problem around a lack of political leadership and of oversight at the council. My postbag is heavy with correspondence from constituents who are at their wits’ end trying to get the support and educational placements that children need.

The wait times for assessments are far beyond the statutory 20 weeks. The lack of educational psychologists is leaving families uncertain, having to juggle work commitments and looking after their child at the same time. It is definitely leading to people being outside of the workforce who would otherwise be fulfilling an important role in it. The looming threat in Devon of these services being placed in special measures, or removed from the council’s remit, shows that things must change. The promise of more money in the forthcoming council budget is welcome. The Government’s recent announcement of a new SEND school at Cranbrook is again welcome, but we need to ensure that taxpayers’ money is being spent effectively to deliver the SEND placements that our children deserve.

I have had constituents contact me to highlight situations where a child is allocated a placement that is wholly unsuitable for them, and the child cannot take it up but remains on the school roll, with the funding also remaining assigned to that school. We need to ensure that money follows the child and that appropriate frontline services are delivered regardless of where the child then moves. I have seen for myself in East Devon that SEND pupils are being taught in cupboards and storage rooms, and I know that that is not unique to my part of Devon, because I have also seen it reported on the BBC. We should not allow that to continue. I cannot help but admire the parents who are pushing Devon County Council and the Government on this. Devon SEND Parents and Carers for Change staged a protest at county hall in Exeter last month, and they are trying to shine a spotlight on some of these failings.

It is not all gloom; there are some examples of best practice. My constituent, Danielle Punter, has written books and a blog—autability.co.uk—with tips on education and support in understanding neurodivergence. Danielle pointed out last month that when partial school closures happen as a result of lockdown or strikes, it is often special needs school pupils who are most affected, because those schools need to be fully staffed in order for children with a high level of SEND requirements to get the best possible care, otherwise they need to stay at home. In short, we need to get to grips with some of these repeated failures, particularly in Devon, and that will require political leadership and political oversight.