Services for children with special needs in Tameside have been heavily criticised by watchdogs after inspectors found 'unacceptable' levels of parent dissatisfaction.
Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) carried out a joint inspection to examine how the council and clinical commissioning group were implementing reforms for youngsters with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
Following their visit, inspectors have ordered the strategic authority to complete a written statement of action to state how it will tackle ‘significant areas of weakness’ in its practice.
Ofsted and the CQC have warned that too many children and young people in Tameside are being let down by poor quality support in the borough, and this is ‘detrimental to their future’.
“The area’s failure to implement the reforms earlier means that children and young people and their families have continued to be let down by services,” their report states.
“For too many children, young people and their families, drift and delay have led to needs escalating and poor outcomes across education, health and care.”
Foremost amongst their findings and criticism was that the the ‘high levels of parental dissatisfaction are unacceptable’.
The watchdogs stated that parents felt there was a ‘postcode lottery’ in terms of the quality of provision being provided in different schools, with some being seen as a ‘golden ticket’.
Additionally some parents say they felt pressured to pay privately for specialist assessments to have their child’s needs recognised, the report states.
“Parents feel very frustrated and let down by the local area,” inspectors said.
“Parents feel worn down by the system and feel that they have to fight to get the support that their children need. The current rate of annual reviews is unacceptably low.
“Too much time is wasted by unnecessary bureaucracy. Parents do not feel that they are treated as the experts on their own children.”
Parents described the process of getting support for their child as feeling like ‘jumping through hoops’, being told paperwork they complete is wrong, and paperwork also being lost.
“Parents and professionals alike are frustrated by the excessive waiting lists for services,” the report states.
“Too often, requests for services are not acknowledged, important paperwork goes missing, assessments have to be repeated and the voice of the parent and child is lost.”
Ofsted and the CQC were also critical of the quality and timeliness of education, health and care (EHC) assessments, which they judged are ‘poor’.
In part due to the impact of the pandemic, many plans are exceeding the 20-week timescale to be drawn up, agreed and implemented.
“These plans often do not accurately reflect the education, health and social care needs of children and young people,” inspectors say.
“Weaknesses in the plans, and the time it takes to implement them has meant that some children have not had support when starting school.”
Inspectors said that consequently a ‘small number’ of children are held back in nursery, or are only able to attend school part time.
And for others this has made the move to college or high school ‘even more daunting’, and has led to placement breakdowns for some young people.
“For some young people in secondary education, the delays in identifying and then meeting their needs has resulted in a high number of school exclusions,” inspectors add.
Ofsted and the CQC accepted that the pandemic had made it difficult to address ‘historical weaknesses’ in the service, but said that leaders had set a ‘clear vision for the future’.
“Since 2018, leaders have established a clear and accurate view of the area’s strengths and weaknesses,” they say.
“They have drawn up suitable plans to resolve endemic issues. It is early days.
“Parents and carers and professionals recognise some improvements, but believe there is still a long way to go.
“Many front-line staff ‘go the extra mile’ to improve the experiences of children, young people and their families.
“Parents are particularly positive about the work of some school staff, such as SEND co-ordinators and educational psychologists.”
Leaders have begun to put in place training for healthcare professionals, including those working with nurseries, to ensure that more children have their needs identified before starting school.
The local authority and clinical commissioning group (CCG) have been asked to formally explain how they will tackle the ‘endemic weaknesses’ in the quality and timeliness of EHC plans, as well as parental dissatisfaction and unreasonable waiting times, among other identified issues.
A Tameside and Glossop Strategic Commission Spokesperson said: “Following a joint visit from Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission to judge the effectiveness of our special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) service in Tameside, we absolutely recognise the challenges ahead of us and accept the areas of development that have been outlined.
“We are unwaveringly committing to improving at pace so that our children and young people are fulfilling their potential and families are guided and supported through a clear process that best meets the needs of their children in a timely and efficient way.
“We would like to thank Ofsted for recognising our hard-working front-line staff and we are proud of achievements to date which provide us with a solid foundation to work from.
“We are also pleased that Ofsted noted that since 2018, improvements have been made and we have the right plans in place to deliver better experiences for SEND children in Tameside.
“The pandemic has slowed recent progress but we are re-doubling our efforts, listening to parents and working closely with partners to ensure that we have a rounded and joined up approach to our local offer through education, health and care.
“We will continue to lobby government for investment into children’s services as they have to be funded properly to support successful delivery at local level.”