Furious parents are calling for an independent review of the way Sutton Council assesses children with special needs.

It comes as a external report, seen by the Local Democracy Reporting Service, blasts the provision as “not fit for purpose” with families treated as “consumers” in a marketplace.

It also shows that despite having sufficient funding there continue to be overspends in the department.

This week more than 200 have backed a petition that claims young people in need have been “rejected” and are “missing out on their right to education”.

They want to see full independent reviews of the EHCP process in Sutton and for all cases rejected between November 2017-March 2019 to be reviewed.

The plight of parents struggling to get education health care plans for their children was made public earlier this year thanks to a campaign, Sutton EHCP Crisis.

The EHCP is a legal document that describes the special educational needs of a child and any extra help that is required.

External review

In March 2018, a joint letter from the CQC (Care Quality Commission) and Ofsted raised ‘significant concerns’ about special needs services in the borough.

And according to an external review commissioned by Sutton Council this year some problems still persist.

Some parents and councillors have raised concerns that the council does not have enough control of Cognus, an external company which runs all school support services and is almost wholly council owned.

The report shows that despite Sutton having a high level of funding there continues to be budget pressures.

Sutton has the highest high needs budget of any outer London borough at £853 per resident compared to a £643 average.

The report was written by senior consultant at Strategic Services for Children and Young People (SSCYP) Peter Grey.

He states that a relatively high amount is spent by the council on higher cost placements for children in independent schools.

The report does show that Sutton does have more children than average with EHCPs, 3.3% in 2018 compared to 3% nationally.

But it concludes that increasing spend and overspends have been reactive and have not taken into account issues in the system.

Provision not consistent

The report states that each year the council spends about £2.9m on extra provision in mainstream schools for children with high needs – this is about 400 pupils from Sutton.

But decisions about how additional funding is allocated is not consistent.

It is decided by the SEN (special educational needs) panel made up of school representatives, council officers and health representatives.

The report states that the panel aims to be fair but there is evidence that the demand from parents or schools can impact on decisions.

It adds: “[There is] no clear common understanding across the borough about the range of needs that mainstream should be expected to meet, and the provisions they have in place.”

Mr Gray concluded that the mainstream offer was not consistently strong which means the council ends up relying more on specialist providers.

Provision not fit for purpose

Damningly, the current culture in the department is described as a ‘market’ rather than a system, where parents are the consumers feeling they have to battle to get what their child needs.

Mr Gray says there are too many gaps that children can fall through, he states: “The provision system is not coherent/ fit for current needs.”

And overall too much money is spent on places for children to go rather than on intervention and support.

What does the report recommend?

The first recommendation in the report is that Sutton needs to work towards a more professionally-led system which involves the council, schools and parents.

Mr Gray advises that Sutton Council should call a meeting with heads of mainstream and special schools in the borough.

He also proposes a new funding model for mainstream education is developed for 2020/21.

‘It needs stronger direction’

In April Sutton’s people committee chair was forced to publicly apologise to parents of children with special needs.

Councillor Marian James admitted that incorrect and out of date information was provided on the council website.

Since then Councillor Tom Drummond has thrown his weight behind the EHCP Crisis campaign.

He said: “It is definitely a problem which can be solved it needs stronger direction and it needs somebody to take the bull by the horns.

“There was clearly the wrong decisions with the wrong guidance out there. We have to make sure that is no longer being used in any way shape or form.

“We need a stronger strategy about what should be used and the criteria for that.”

The Worcester Park ward councillor said he was surprised how many parents were facing problems with getting an EHCP for their children.

He added: “I was shocked. The amount of stories that came forward and the amount of emails I’ve received. Some of these stories were heartbreaking.

“At the moment I think the council of course is working to find a solution to the problem but they have such an enormous task on their hands.

“I don’t think anything is malicious I think everybody has the children of Sutton at the heart. I think it comes down to mismanagement.

“I know people want to see change we need to demonstrate that we are moving forward and not burying our heads in the sand and pretending that everything is okay.

“I think we have to look at the accountability of Cognus and the local authority. At the end of the say it is the statutory responsibility of the council to have to look after education for SEND children.”

The EHCP campaign

The campaign was started earlier this year by mum Hayley Harding after Sutton Council refused an application for an education, health and care plan (EHCP) for her son Matthew.

Since than many other parents have joined the campaign.

The group’s petition can be found here: moderngov.sutton.gov.uk/mgEPetitionDisplay.aspx?id=39

And now the group has written to the leader of the council Ruth Dombey threatening a judicial review if no action is taken.

What did Sutton Council have to say?

A spokesman for the council said that the external review was commissioned as part of its ‘regular process’ to ensure value for money when spending on children with high need is under ‘severe pressure’. 

He added: “Local authorities also have a duty to keep all spending under review, including high needs, to ensure that it children with significant and complex special educational needs receive support in a cost-efficient and equitable way, working in partnership with education providers, parents/carers and other agencies.

“The review will be published and will be available online too.  The council is working in partnership with local schools and that partnership will take forward the recommendations.”

In response to concerns about spending in Sutton being over budget despite being well funded the council spokesman said that the Local Government Association, on behalf of all councils, is calling for additional government funding to tackle a growing “national special needs emergency”.

He adds: “Sutton, on behalf of all London councils, has also written to the Government urging them to address the SEND services funding gap in its upcoming spending review.”

And to concerns about whether the council has enough say over what Cognus does?

“The Council is a major shareholder in Cognus and its performance is monitored and overseen by the Council.  It is therefore subject to the same level of scrutiny as all other council services.”