SOMERSET Council has been ordered to urgently improve the services it provides to vulnerable school pupils following multiple rulings by the government’s regulator.

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) carried out an investigation in late-2023 into the council’s work on education, health and care plans (EHCPs), which lay out support vulnerable children receive within their school and home setting.

The investigation found “systemic faults” in the council’s approach, with “repeated delays” in light of staff shortages and rising demand for services following the coronavirus pandemic.

Following a series of rulings and fines levied against it, the council has laid out how it intends to turn its performance around and improve children’s lives.

EHCPs are agreed between the council and the child’s school to ensure they can receive as much education and support as possible, tailored to their specific needs.

Since 2018, the number of pupils learning in a specialist school (such as Selworthy School in Taunton) has risen by 78 per cent, from 892 pupils in 2018 to 1,585 pupils in January.

The number of pupils with an EHCP (in either mainstream or specialist schools) has also skyrocketed from 1,690 in January 2018 to 5,545 in November 2023 – a rise of more than 220 per cent.

Government guidance dictates that the local authority should take a maximum of 20 weeks to produce and agree an EHCP with the child’s parents and their school.

However, in practice, there have been numerous occasions where the council (and its predecessor, Somerset County Council) has taken far longer to agree a plan – resulting in vulnerable children missing out on months of schooling and associated support, and increasing stress on their parents and families.

The LGSCO has levied copious fines on the council in recent times following complaints made by parents in light of these delays – including:

  • A fine of £4,000 after a child was unable to attend school between September 2022 and May 2023 due to a lack of mental health provision
  • A separate fine of £4,000 after a review of two siblings’ plans were delayed by ten and 12-and-a-half weeks respectively, causing them to ease miss at least a full term of school
  • A fine of £3,300 after a young boy with ADHD was unable to attend school due to delays in reviewing his provision
  • A fine of £2,000 after a young boy missed out on months of school and received no occupational therapy sessions
  • A separate fine of £2,000 after delays in reviewing a plan caused a young girl to miss out on six months of school
  • A fine of £1,100 over a young boy who failed to receive proper reviews of his plan in both 2021 and 2022
  • A fine of £600 after a young boy was left with “suicidal thoughts” after he could not be placed in his preferred school

Dr Rob Hart, the council’s service director for inclusion, spoke  before the council’s children and families scrutiny committee when it met in Taunton on December 12.

He highlighted that the rise in EHCPs was not driven solely by the pandemic, identifying the following other factors:

  • Changes in the legal framework laid down by the Department for Education
  • Issues around funding, including the use of the dedicated schools grant
  • Changes to the Ofsted inspection process and the national curriculum
  • Flaws in the national care system 

To address these issues, the council will be hold annual meetings with every Somerset school to identify children requiring support, allowing for earlier intervention.

Officers will also “clarify expectations with schools” to ensure that the appropriate levels of support are provided early on, which may reduce delays.

Additional staff will also be put in place to ensure reviews are carried out with sufficient speed.

A spokesman said: “We have accepted the ombudsman’s recommendations and apologise to the families for any distress caused to them.

“Our most recent feedback from Ofsted recognises the improvements we have made across children’s services, but we know there is more to do and are committed to learning from all complaints.”

An update on EHCPs will come back before the committee by June 2024.