A town hall has spent nearly five times more than its neighbour on disputes with parents over their children’s special education needs (SEND) since 2016/17, writes Grainne Cuffe, Local Democracy Correspondent.
The number of appeals over SEND children’s school plans has doubled in Southwark since 2016, costing the council more than half a million pounds. Lambeth has spent a fifth of that amount.
Rising numbers of parents are contesting their children’s education health and care plans (EHCP) or statements, in which the schools assess the special educational needs and disabilities of pupils.
According to figures obtained from a Freedom of Information request, Southwark council has spent more than £560,000 battling parents at tribunals who have appealed the schools’ decisions.
Many feel the plans downplay the level of disability, leaving their children without access to the care they need, be that a special needs school, or extra facilities in mainstream schools.
Councils are under severe financial pressure due to central Government cuts, while the number of SEND pupils is increasing year-on-year.
The Times reported last year that since 2015, councils have spent £100 million fighting parents at tribunals, but have lost nine out of 10 of cases.
The national losses for local authorities contrast starkly with Southwark’s, which are the inverse, although the number of wins for the council are decreasing slightly year on year.
In the year 2016/17, Southwark spent £86,300 on 37 tribunals and won nearly nine times out of 10 (86 per cent).
The following year the council spent £137,749 on 54 tribunals, of which it won 85 per cent of the time.
In the year 2018/19, the number of appeals rose to 74 – double the amount two years’ previous – with parents winning 20 per cent of the tribunals. Southwark council spent £235,196.
Between April and September 2019, there were 53 appeals, £102,793 of public money was spent, and two tribunals won by parents.
Councillor Jasmine Ali, cabinet member for children, schools and adult care, said: “Legislative changes to special educational needs and disabilities started in 2014. The huge increase in tribunals began at exactly the same time.
“The most important thing for Southwark council is the wellbeing of our children – we do everything to put the right support in place for every child that needs it.
“Parents have the right to challenge their local authority – that’s what the independent tribunal system is for. The council has a legal duty to respond.
“Yes this does incur cost but it’s essential to ensure every challenge is dealt with fairly.
“I’m proud to say the overwhelming majority of our decisions are found to be fair.”
The sweeping reforms in 2014 sought to give parents more of a say in the welfare of their children and put “young people at the heart of the system”.
But a report from the Commons Education Select Committee last month said the reforms had been poorly implemented, leaving “families facing a nightmare of bureaucracy, buck-passing and confusion”.
Robert Halfon MP, the chairman of the committee, called for “radical changes” following an 18-month investigation.
He said: “Despite the good intentions of the reforms, many children with special educational needs and disabilities are being let down day after day.
“Many parents face a titanic struggle just to try and ensure their child gets access to the right support.
“Families are often forced to wade through a treacle of bureaucracy, in a system which breeds conflict and despair as parents try to navigate a postcode lottery of provision.
“A lack of accountability plagues the system as local authorities, social care and health providers frequently seek to pass the buck rather than take responsibility for providing support.”
The committee recommended a more rigorous inspection framework for local authorities, “with clear consequences for failure”.
It suggested a direct line for parents and schools to appeal to the Department for Education “where local authorities appear not to be complying with the law”.