LA fails disabled young man repeatedly over a decade. Are stronger deterrents needed?

LA fails disabled child repeatedly over a decade. Are stronger deterrents needed?

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman is this week issuing two separate reports into the way the London Borough of Redbridge has failed the family of a 20-year-old disabled man with Special Educational Needs. In what it describes as “a rare move”, the Ombudsman is publishing the two reports on the same day to highlight the repeated problems the family has faced.

When you read this article, bear in mind that this is a local authority (LA) that passed its Area SEND Inspection in 2018, in the midst of the litany of failings this family faced.

Redbridge fails to carry out first remedy

In the first case, Redbridge had agreed to carry out an annual review of the young man’s Education, Health and Care (EHCP) after a complaint ruled on in October 2019 about the transition planning from child to adult services. He attends a special residential college and has a severe learning disability and other needs.

As part of that investigation, Redbridge was told to carry out the annual review by the end of January 2020. However, it failed to do so and despite investigators chasing, the local authority didn’t provide the Ombudsman with the evidence it needed to close the case until it was threatened with a High Court witness summons. When it did finally show it had done the review, in October 2020, instead of carrying out a fresh review, the LA relied on one it carried out in July 2019. The annual review meeting eventually took place in July 2020. Incompetence or deliberate?

Second failing - of a litany of Redbridge failings

In the second complaint, Redbridge failed to conduct a proper annual review in July 2018 and delayed issuing an updated EHCP. Some aspects of the young man's health provision, including immunisations, updating orthopaedic boots and dental treatment, were wrongly removed from his draft plan. This is a trick often used by LAs, presumably either through incompetence, or in the hope the family won't notice. Unfortunately for Redbridge, the family did notice and objected. However, ignoring this, Redbridge issued a final plan that was identical to the draft, another typical LA action.

Even worse, these are just the latest in a long litany of complaints the family has been forced to make:

  • In 2010, the LGSCO found fault with Redbridge for failing to consult with the specialist occupational therapist before deciding whether the (then) child needed occupational therapy (OT). It issued a decision statement setting out these failings;
  • In 2015, Redbridge was found at fault because it failed to provide him with OT for several weeks and when the sessions did begin, they failed to meet the requirements in his Statement;
  • In 2017, the Council failed to follow the correct procedures when it amended his Statement, which resulted in him missing out on around five months of special educational provision;
  • In 2019, the young man’s father complained that Redbridge had failed to ensure its participation strategy for children and young people with disabilities was inclusive but it was not found to be at fault;
  • Then there is this second issue above.

Well done to the family for their tenacity, in the face of appalling practice and what must have been an exhausting experience. I'm sure there are similar stories to this across the country but they have not come under the Ombudsman's scrutiny. These cases always make me concerned about all the families who have received similar — or even worse — treatment by their local authority but who don't know how to complain, or just don’t have the energy? What happens to their children? Do their LAs care? I seriously doubt it.

“These are not the first cases involving the family that I have upheld. We have been investigating problems the family has faced since as early as 2010. The council has had plenty of time to get things right for the family. That it is still failing them is incredibly disappointing and I call on it to review why this is and apologise.
“It is also disappointing the council has not yet agreed to my recommendations. I urge it to accept the improvements I have recommended to the services it provides to families of children and young adults with Special Educational Needs in the borough.”

Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman

What is the role of the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman?

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman’s (LGSCO) role is to remedy injustice and share learning from investigations to help improve public, and adult social care, services. You can read more about this in our post from the LGSCO here

In these particular cases, the Ombudsman has instructed the council to apologise to the family and pay them £200 to recognise the further frustration and uncertainty caused by its failure to comply with the previously agreed action. It should also pay £750 to the man for the lost opportunity to have his health needs considered properly and a further £750 for the father’s avoidable distress and time and trouble. It should also arrange a meeting between the council, the parents and the Designated Clinical Officer.

However, it’s clear Redbridge doesn’t see LGSCO rulings as anything it needs to abide by, and as this article shows, thinks that it knows better than the Ombudsman: Councillors ‘uncomfortable’ at plan to refuse compensation

Area-wide improvements needed

To improve practice for other families, the Ombudsman has told Redbridge to review its processes to

  • ensure it is carrying out annual reviews in line with statutory guidance,
  • ensure it has suitable processes in place to monitor and act promptly where an educational establishment fails to carry out annual reviews in line with statutory guidance,
  • have a suitable corporate process to ensure all recommendations are fully and promptly implemented.
  • The LA should also make a number of improvements to show how it now ensures it issues amended EHC Plans without delay

The Area SEND Inspection in 2018 including the following, yet Redbridge still passed:

"The quality of EHC plans is variable. In some cases, plans include mistakes and inaccuracies, a point made by a number of parents. Although the local authority has put in place a more rigorous quality assurance process, EHC plans remain inconsistent across the local area. In addition, outcomes are not always specified clearly and health and social care needs are not always evident when they should be."

How did Redbridge pass its LA SEND inspection?

So, this raises a number of questions. While Ofsted certainly has access to LGSCO decisions, they are not listed as a potential source of inspection evidence in the current area SEND inspection handbook. Indeed, when Matt had a brief look through some inspection reports last night, he couldn't find any mention of LGSCO evidence. Ombudsman complaints and SEND appeal rulings must be seen as more than just an "indicator" of parental dissatisfaction. Ofsted should take the time to examine the forensic detail of the decisions to see whether the local area is doing its job properly. We think it's a key indicator because if a parent goes to the enormous effort of appealing or complaining, it means they strongly believe their child has have suffered a gross injustice. Parents of disabled children are under enormous daily pressure - they don't do things on a whim.

As you may know, Matt and I are involved in developing the new framework for the next round of inspections and this is something we would certainly want to see included in the updated handbook.

This LA "passed" its inspection, but at the same time, it was clearly engaging in serial shoddiness. Even if Ofsted do look at Ombudsman rulings prior to an inspection, the length of time that a complaint takes to wend its way through the various levels before a final ruling means an inevitable delay in timely information being available.

Should Ofsted be able to look at complaints in progress — both within the local authority and with the LGSCO? How else should Ofsted be able to find and speak to families who may be missed through their online surveys and their regular methods, such as via the Parent Carer Forum? Should the upcoming SEND Review include legislative proposals to ensure LAs inform all families of SEND learners of an upcoming Area SEND Ofsted/CQC Inspection? I think the latter should be seriously considered. How hard could it be? The LA has the contact details of parents of every child who has an EHCP. The school certainly has the contact details of every parent whose child is on the SEN register. If you want to give me your ideas for this, do email us so we can put your ideas forward.

Is this a real "remedy"?

The other concern is just how much does an Ombudsman ruling really "remedy" injustice? This family received financial compensation of £1,700 from Redbridge (if it's coughed up) for a decade's worth of mistreatment of their disabled son's education. He missed months of schooling and a lot of SEND provision. While the Ombudsman feels publishing (repeated) stern reports and a financial slap on the wrist are enough — and are the limit of its powers — does an LA really care? How much did it save over a decade by not doing what it was supposed to do? Claire Ryan wrote more on this here.

If LAs like Redbridge clearly see LGSCO rulings as optional, then the Ombudsman needs have greater powers. Until local authorities are truly accountable, until they actually feel some real financial pain and humiliation as "remedy" for unlawful behaviour, they have little incentive to do the right thing.

Find the reports here

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Tania Tirraoro

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