“I know parents on the verge of a mental breakdown”: Greater Manchester councils missing deadlines for children with special educational needs

Children and families with special educational needs in Greater Manchester face a postcode lottery when it comes to receiving the support they need, with figures showing huge variation between councils for meeting care plan deadlines.

Bolton Council was the worst performer for timely SEN care plans out of all Greater Manchester local authorities in 2023 which could provide data, according to Freedom of Information requests.

It shows the local authority only managed to issue an education, health, and care plan (EHCP) within the legal deadline of 20 weeks in 39% of cases.

It is the duty of local authorities to create an EHCP for a child or teenager with special educational needs, which sets out the extra support that child is legally obliged to receive. 

After such a plan is requested by a parent or school, councils legally have 20 weeks within which to issue one. 

Nationally, only 49.2% of plans in 2022 were issued within the time limit, down from 59.9% in 2021, according to the Department for Education. 

Delays in in EHCPs result in children missing out on the support they need, such as therapies and mobility needs, according to the Disabled Children’s Partnership “Failed and Forgotten” report 2023.

The report also warns that long-term delays increase the risk of children falling out of the education system altogether and becoming isolated in later life. 

“The delay has a massively detrimental impact both on the children and their families,” says Tanya Finn, from the group Manchester Parent Champions, a support group that advises parents navigating the system.

Tanya, who has advocated for children with special educational needs for over a decade, also says that the 20-week deadline incentivises local authorities to rush through plans that are unsuitable.

This then leads to further delay as the plan then needs to be amended and redrafted until it is suitable, a process that can take months. 

As a parent to children with special educational needs herself, Tanya is acutely aware that councils failing to meet the 20-week deadline is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to issues around special educational needs.

“There’s also a massive issue around staff retention – families have no continuity throughout their assessments. Some can go through two or three different caseworkers just through a 20-week assessment, having to explain the same things twice.”

Her son is due to start in Year 7 in September, but as his plan is not yet finalised, it remains unclear where he will be going in only a few months’ time.

It’s a situation many other parents currently find themselves in, Tanya says, adding that the lack of transparency from local authorities and complexity of the process significantly disadvantages deprived families and those for whom English is not their first language.

“I know parents on the verge of a mental breakdown,” she added.

Only four of the ten Greater Manchester boroughs performed better in 2023 (or 2022 where that was the most recent year with data) than in 2017 – Tameside, Trafford, Salford, and Oldham.

Overall, there are only minimal signs of long-term improvement across Greater Manchester.

Stacey Rhodes, from Stockport, applied for an EHCP for her son Lincoln, aged four, in September – but despite his application being accepted in January, they still haven’t received the plan, forcing the family to make a formal complaint.

As a result of the delay, Stacey wasn’t able to name schools in time and Lincoln has missed out on getting into a specialist school in September.

“I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve cried, and it’s making me extremely anxious,” she said. “It shouldn’t be this hard to get our children an education that they are entitled to.”

All Greater Manchester councils have seen a large increase in the number of requests for an EHCP since 2017, across all boroughs, which is one reason for the increase in delays. 

In 2022 alone there were 7,029 requests for an EHCP in Greater Manchester, the highest figure ever.

The figure for 2023 is incomplete as it does not include data from the boroughs of Trafford, Stockport, and Salford – but discounting these boroughs, the 2023 figure stands at 6,293, compared to an equivalent figure of 5,227 from the year before, an increase of just over 20%.

The situation in Greater Manchester mirrors the national picture. Department for Education figures show that there are more than 517,000 young people on an EHCP in 2023, a record amount.

However, the increased demand for EHCPs is not in itself a problem, and is in fact good, according to Claire Coussins, Director of Fundraising and Engagement at children’s SEND charity Kids.

“Increased awareness about the different special educational needs and disabilities makes early intervention possible,” she said.

“We are moving away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach and celebrating each other’s individuality,” Coussins explained. 

Despite the crisis, some councils are showing signs of improvement in 2024. Bolton Council, for example, has managed to issue 59% of EHCPs within the 20-week time limit so far this year.

Coussins, however, was clear that intervention from central government was necessary if the 20-week limit is to be achieved everywhere.

“Immediate fixes are needed to prevent more families with disabled children from falling into crisis because of chronic waiting lists and system failures,” she added.

A spokesperson for Bolton Council said that the local authority had worked hard to improve on the previous year.

“We pride ourselves on being open and transparent and we have a long-standing and positive relationship with the Bolton Parent Carers Forum, working collaboratively towards the best possible outcomes for our children and young people.”

Featured image credit: jarmoluk/Pixabay

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