The number of complaints from parents about special needs education has risen by three-quarters in the past four years – with more than one complaint a day filed last year, according to figures from the local government ombudsman.
The increase reflects the crisis in the special educational needs and disabilities (Send) system, with rising demand, chronic underfunding, lengthy delays and enduring gaps in provision.
Complaints upheld by the local government and social care ombudsman (LGSCO) last year include cases where children missed out on therapy and schooling for a year or more, and severe delays by councils in assessing children’s needs.
Figures from the ombudsman – which looks at complaints about councils and adult care providers – show that 430 complaints were filed regarding Send education in 2021-22, up from 305 in each of the previous two years and 244 in 2018-19.
The ombudsman doesn’t investigate every complaint it receives, but it consistently upholds about 90% of the Send complaints it does investigate – much higher than in other areas covered by the ombudsman.
The Send system has long suffered from underfunding and lack of provision, with councils racking up huge deficits on their Send budgets while children regularly struggle to get the support they need.
A spokesperson for the LGSCO said: “We fully understand the massive difficulties faced by lots of families of children with special educational needs and disabilities. Most tell us it’s a constant battle just to secure the support to which they are entitled.”
Steve Wright has filed multiple complaints with the ombudsman in recent years due to problems with Suffolk council’s handling of provision for his two adopted children – Jack, 14, and Olivia, 12. Seven of his complaints have been upheld, including three in 2021-22.
Jack has moderate learning disabilities stemming from foetal alcohol spectrum disorder that affects his working memory, verbal reasoning, comprehension, executive functioning and managing his emotions. He has significant social anxiety.
He started high school in 2018 with an education, health and care plan (EHCP) specifying that he should receive speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, and help with the social and emotional aspects of attending school.
“I somewhat naively thought, well, you know, we’ve got a support package in place – that’s kind of protected him, he’ll get what he needs,” said Wright. “And you know, we can relax. But the problem is since that day, his EHCP provision has never been provided.”
Jack has ended up attending five schools in five years. They repeatedly failed to provide him with the dedicated one-to-one support he needs to successfully transition to a new environment – provision the council is legally required to secure.
“Because he’s had so many failed placements there’s a cumulative effect, which means that the next placement is also much more difficult for him because he’s had this history of difficulty.”
At one school he was beaten up on his first day, leading him to run away screaming and crying. He has had no sustained speech and language therapy for two years.
“In the last four years or so I’ve just been in this constant stream of complaints to the council, who every time just completely dismiss my complaints,” said Wright. “They just want parents to go away. They genuinely don’t seem to understand their responsibilities. They genuinely do not understand that the EHCP is their responsibility.”
Suffolk council had 18 Send complaints upheld by the ombudsman in 2021-22 alone – more than one in 20 of all upheld Send complaints, despite being one of about 150 English councils responsible for Send provision.
Allan Cadzow, corporate director for children and young people at Suffolk council, said: “Send complaints have been unacceptably high and we accept this is not good enough for the families affected.” He added that the council was reforming its Send services.
Wright reserves some criticism for the ombudsman, which often orders councils to make symbolic payments of just a few hundred pounds – far less than the council saves through delaying or denying the provision of services.
Using a subject access request, Wright obtained an analysis report on one of his complaints in which the LGSCO investigator wrote “many of us here [at the ombudsman] – including parents of children with EHCPs experiencing exactly the same issues – were equally frustrated by the limitations of the system in which we worked”.
An LGSCO spokesperson said: “We don’t have the power to offer compensation (that’s for the courts), or fine local authorities. Where we find fault, our remedies aim as best as possible to put families back in the position they would have been in had the fault not occurred. This is often through, for example, a reassessment, provision of missed services or a payment for those missed services.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Councils are responsible for providing the right support for children in their areas, but we know there is variation in how the system works across the country, with too many families still facing an adversarial, complicated process. Our proposals in our Send and alternative provision green paper will create a fairer, more inclusive system that drives accountability and value for money. We are putting unprecedented investment into the high needs budget and helping councils target this funding more effectively so that young people in their area get support promptly.”