County council ordered to pay £900 over SEND failure

School child drawing on paper with coloured crayons at a wooden desk

As a result of the delay the boy was "not supported as he should have been". - Credit: Pixabay

Hertfordshire County Council has been ordered to pay £900 after failing to issue an updated Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP) quickly enough.

EHCPs are formal legal documents that identify the educational, health and social needs of a specific child or young person up to the age of 25.

They specify the support that is required for that child or young person – and even the school a child should attend. There are statutory guidelines detailing the time the processes should take.

A report just published by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman highlights a 15-month delay in the issuing of an updated EHCP for a Herts schoolboy, who has autism, difficulties in controlling his emotions and experiences severe anxiety.

The report determined that HCC should pay the boy’s mother – referred to in the report as ‘Mrs X’ – £900 in recognition of distress and uncertainty this has caused.

Mrs X had complained that the county council’s failure to issue the amended EHCP – after an annual review in July 2019 – meant that the boy’s school was working on an outdated plan that no longer met his educational needs.

By the start of 2020, she said the boy’s school placement was ‘at a breaking point’ and that he had stopped attending because of his anxiety. When she did receive the draft of the reviewed EHCP in October 2020, she said it was out of date and no longer reflected her son’s needs.

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According to the Ombudsman’s report, in December 2020 an emergency review meeting was held with a draft EHCP resulting from that meeting issued within five days.

The final amended EHCP was issued in March 2021 but had to be reissued in April 2021 because it ‘contained errors’. That amended EHCP determined that the boy – who had been in a mainstream school – should be supported in a ‘social, emotional, mental health’ setting. And that, it said, would include 1:1 literacy sessions, two weekly emotional wellbeing sessions, weekly support around friendship issues and ‘letting go’ sessions at the end of each day.

In the report, the Ombudsman suggests that "it is more likely than not the council would have arrived at this decision earlier if it had acted without delay". The report suggests the delays have caused Mrs X "avoidable distress in the way of uncertainty about what would have happened had the council followed the statutory annual review timeframes".

It also indicates that as a result of the delay the boy was "not supported as he should have been" and that missing out on "essential support means that an already vulnerable young person has been further disadvantaged".

As a result, the Ombudsman has recommended that the county council pay Mrs X £900.

That includes £100 for the time and trouble she was put to by HCC's delay in issuing the final EHCP; £300 for the distress and uncertainty caused by the council’s failure to follow statutory time-frames; and £100 for the distress caused by the council’s lack of response to a request for an early EHCP review.

It also includes £400 in recognition of the educational provision the boy is likely to have missed between September and December 2020, as a result of the delay in reviewing the EHCP.

As part of the investigation, the county council told the Ombudsman that they had already reviewed statutory SEND processes. They said they had created a new ‘annual review’ team, hired more staff to process EHCPs and opened ‘duty lines’ to make it easier for parents to contact them.

They also said they had spoken to the boy’s school to agree on ways the council and school can work together to support SEND pupils.

In his report, the Ombudsman recognised improvements made by the council and said that because of this they did not recommend any further actions.

In response to the report, a spokesperson for Hertfordshire County Council told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “We take the Ombudsman’s findings very seriously and where they find we have been at fault, we work hard to understand why it happened, how we can put it right and how we can prevent it happening again.

“Following this investigation, Hertfordshire County Council recognises and apologises for the difficulties faced by this family. The departments involved take all feedback seriously and have reviewed working practices in response. The demand for SEND support continues to increase, raising challenges both nationally and here in Hertfordshire.

“In common with many local authorities, we are experiencing a high demand for specialist provision, with a 37 per cent increase in pupils with Education and Health Care Plans (EHCPs) over the last three years, as well as the additional challenges due to COVID-19.

“We are making new investments into the SEND system and are fully committed to making sure that all children with SEND and EHCPs in Hertfordshire receive the support they need and deserve.”