Somerset Council has been given a further fine by regulators after allowing another child with special needs to miss months of school.
The current council and its predecessor Somerset County Council have been reprimanded on numerous recent occasions by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) over delays in ensuring that children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) have access to quality schooling.
Over the last 12 months, the ombudsman has served up several hefty fines on the councils to reflect their poor performance – including £2,000 in both October 2022 and March 2023, and £3,300 in August 2023.
The latest judgement against the council has seen them fined £1,600 for failing to ensure a girl (known only as Y) was left without suitable school provision for months as her care needs were assessed by officers.
The council has apologised to the child’s mother, known as Mrs X, and has said it is working hard to speed up reviews of education provision.
The ombudsman exists to investigate allegations of “maladministration” and “service failure” in the public sector – in other words, instances in which it is claimed councils have not fully carried out their legal duties to taxpayers.
Under UK law, it is not mandatory that any child with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) must be provided with an education, health and care plan (EHCP).
However, any child which does have an EHCP must have this plan reviewed on at least an annual basis by the council, the parents and the school where the child is receiving education.
An EHCP was finalised for Y in June 2021, including the selection of a secondary school (School A) which she would begin attending in September 2022.
Y’s EHCP was reviewed in mid-February, at which time Mrs X asked for Y to go to a different school, arguing that School A would not give her the support she required.
In early-May, the council told Mrs X it intended to amend Y’s plans – but no replacement school was identified.
School A informed Mrs X in June that they could not meet her daughter’s needs – and claimed they had told the council that this was the case after the EHCP had been agreed.
Mrs X contacted the council multiple times over the summer, but was “not able to get a satisfactory response”, forcing her to lodge a formal complaint in early-August.
She also spoke to School A directly in September and asked the council to fund provision for her daughter while she was not in school.
Mrs X lodged a second complaint in early-October after no alternative education was provided, forcing Y to remain off school.
The council apologised for the delay in finalising Y’s new EHCP, stating that the preferred school (School B) did not have enough space and that Y should attend School A until the matter was resolved.
School A agreed to provide a tutor for Y in October, but the provision she was receiving up to Christmas only amounted to the equivalent of two days a week.
The council further apologised in December 2022 and finally issued the new ECHP for Y in early-January 2023 – though it was not able to confirm a date when Y could start attending School B.
The ombudsman found the council was “at fault” for taking three months to update Mrs X after the annual review, rather than the required four weeks.
It ruled the council had issued its intended amendments to Y’s plan “very late” and said the council had “a responsibility to act within certain time-scales.”
By taking so long to resolve the schooling issue, Mrs X had been denied her right to appeal the changes to the plan.
The ombudsman concluded: “The fault in the council delaying Y’s final EHCP has caused an injustice which caused Mrs X distress and uncertainty.”
The council has been ordered to pay £1,600 to Mrs X to “recognise the injustice to Y”, as well as reviewing Y’s current provision until they can start at School B.
A Somerset Council spokesman said: “In this case we have accepted the findings and apologised to the families for any distress caused to them.
“The ombudsman have contacted us to confirm that they are satisfied all the activities requested of us in the agreed time-scales have been completed.