THE councillor overseeing children’s services in Oxfordshire has vowed that complaints over special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) provision will be looked into.

Parents and carers led a protest outside Oxfordshire County Council (OCC) last week to highlight problems with accessing services.

The council highlighted the nationwide issues in this area, including forecasts that show Oxfordshire will have a £47.3 million SEND deficit by March 2023.  

However, parents not only criticised the availability of provision but also the council itself. 

Olivia from Oxford said there had been a “complete breakdown in communication” and that the county “makes it as difficult as possible to get through the EHCP (education, health and care plan) process”. 

“They block, deny and ignore us, families are fed up with being ghosted while our children are abandoned by OCC without adequate care or support,” she said, also accusing the council of “refusing to accept evidence from external professional reports” and “cherry-picking evidence”.

“We are calling on the council to take action to help families to access the support we so desperately need,” she said.

“We want to see adversarial practices replaced with working collaboratively, we want to see legal timescales being adhered to and we want our children supported in a way that works for them.”

Ross from Uffington said his autistic daughter has been without an education for 18 months and had a  “deteriorating state of mental health” prior to that while attending school part-time for “several years”.

He described “months of non engagement” from OCC and said he had been “forced to seek legal representation at significant cost”.

“Why would a local authority only wish to communicate via solicitors? That costs me money and it costs the local authority money,” he said. 

“The current SEND team communication policy is inadequate and needs updating. Too much help and advice is withheld and without clear justification, reasoning or explanation. Why?

“The systematic use of unlawful practices and failure to engage not only with us but also with the legal process not only results in our daughter being left without an education but it also leads to increased trauma for her, delaying her recovery, potentially increasing and prolonging the high level of support she will need in the future. That will cost money.

“We are not the only ones. Countless other families are being stonewalled by OCC’s SEND team. We have attempted to use OCC’s complaints process several times only to find this is unfit for purpose.” 

Councillor Liz Brighouse OBE (Lab, Churchill & Lye Valley), the deputy leader of the council who is in charge of children, education and young people’s services, said each individual complaint needed to be looked at in detail but that the county’s waiting list for EHCPs had been brought down.

“The demand far outstretches the budget we have for this work,” she said.

“Consequently, we have to make sure the people we have in place are properly supported and able to prioritise and get back to parents within timescales, and where there are issues that they are dealt with. “

Asked how the funding issues relate to the direct criticism of OCC, Cllr Brighouse replied: “It impinges on our ability to employ enough people to respond to demand.

“If you have rising demand, you need staff in place to be able to respond. We have workforce issues right across social care, whether that is for children or adults, and that is something that may have (affected this) but we don’t know until we look at the details.

“It may be, for instance, that the professionals dealing with cases have had a different view to a parent on what is needed.

“We are going to look at the complaints but we can only do that when we have the details of what happened. That is really important.”

She highlighted the work of a “very active” forum of more than 800 parents, carers and children who were consulted on Oxfordshire’s reviewed SEND strategy and have influence over the implementation stage, plus a council-funded independent advice and information service.

“If we have done things that need to be addressed in terms of training of staff – we know we need more staff – then we will do that,” she added.

“The SEND caseworkers are dealing with between 200 and 250 cases at any given time. As you can imagine, that can be a major challenge.

“They are trying to support parents who are quite distressed and anxious. We are trying to meet the need that comes in but without the resources to do it, you can only do what you have time to do. 

“Those workers who are working so, so hard, they will be feeling very stressed about all of this.” 

A spokesperson for Oxfordshire County Council stressed that direct engagement with parents and carers is the start position for all cases.

“In the few cases where a parent takes legal action and is represented by a solicitor, communication would then have to involve our solicitors,” they said.

“We very much want to be liaising directly with families to ensure the best service and that support is mutually agreed for each child’s education and development.”