SEND: Carshalton and Wallington

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 21st June 2022.

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Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington 11:00 am, 21st June 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered SEND services in Carshalton and Wallington.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. In addition, I will speak about the special educational needs provision at the London Borough of Sutton and its arm’s length company Cognus.

Every child deserves access to good education and the support that they are entitled to, for the best start in life. But for too many children and their families in Carshalton and Wallington, getting that access is a daily fight because of a Lib Dem-run council that does not seem to care about the most vulnerable children in our borough. Every single week at my surgery, a parent, carer or family member raises complaints about getting their child access to the support that they are entitled to when fighting for an education. They have shown me the countless emails, meetings, phone calls back and forth with Cognus and even with councillors responsible for running the service, but I hear the same story week on week. Messages are going ignored, support gets refused and parents are having to escalate cases up to the tribunal and/or the ombudsman in order to get support.

The problems with SEN provision in Sutton have been well documented. In 2018, concerns were raised by the Care Quality Commission about Sutton’s SEND department, and by Ofsted, which delivered a damning inspection report. The report found that there had been insufficient progress made on implementing the 2014 reforms, poor communication and over-optimistic self-evaluation, among other issues. It was estimated that approximately 700 children had been unlawfully rejected for education, health and care plan—EHCP—assessments since 2015. In any other council, at the very least, the lead member would have resigned, but all have remained in post and the same councillor remains in charge of the service today. What was the Lib Dems’ response to the Ofsted report? No humility, no shame and no remorse for the pain that they had caused children and their families. Instead, they called for Ofsted to be abolished.

Since 2018, the council has claimed that it has improved its service, that Cognus is working well and that it has the backing of the majority of parents in the borough, but that is not reflected in reality for parents in Carshalton and Wallington. It was around that time that a local mum Hayley Harding set up the Sutton EHCP Crisis group. She has amassed the backing of hundreds of local parents and families who have been through similar situations as she has. I pay tribute to Hayley—I know that my hon. Friend Paul Scully, who is Hayley’s MP, does too—and to the hundreds of campaigners who have been battling for their children to receive access to the support to which they are entitled.

The struggle to get EHCPs has continued for many parents since 2018, despite what the council might claim. Sutton Council and Cognus have been the subject of many local and national media scandals since 2018, most notably when Sutton shamefully appeared on a BBC “Panorama” exposé in 2020. Did that spark a change in attitudes at the council and Cognus? I am afraid it did not, and the parents’ fight has continued.

Last year, a shocking set of Cognus board minutes were leaked. The unredacted copies reveal a shocking truth. Not only was Cognus in a dire financial situation, with a loss of £717,000 a year, despite Sutton consistently appearing as one of—if not the—highest-funded boroughs for SEND, the council is aiming to save money by cancelling around 200 children’s EHCPs by the end of the year. Did that revelation start the winds of change for parents? No. The unredacted minutes were there for the world to see, yet the council and Cognus denied their contents. Let me just emphasise this point: printed official minutes were obtained, and the response from the council and Cognus was to deny that what was printed in them was true. That is absolutely shocking.

In 2022, four years on from the Ofsted report, it appears that no lessons have been learned. Just a few months ago, the Department for Education’s own figures showed that Sutton, once again, was found to be the highest rejector of families applying for EHCP assessments in the country. Almost half of all children were rejected. To put that into perspective, the national average is 23%. That comes back to what the 2018 Ofsted report initially found, when it took particular aim at the leadership of the service—in other words, the Lib Dem councillors in charge of running it.

Since 2018, I have seen countless examples of the council setting itself against parents and families of children with special educational needs and disabilities. Not only do parents struggle to get an EHCP in the first place, but the plans that are issued are often completely inadequate. For example, parents have shown me obviously copied and pasted EHCP plans. Many of them had not even bothered to change the child’s name from the plan it was copied from, meaning not only is the wrong child named on the plan, but it has the wrong support in it.

That leaves parents and families spending months, even years, fighting with the council and Cognus all the way to a tribunal and/or the ombudsman to get what they deserve. This is not a group of parents deliberately trying to make trouble for the council. The figures show that around 90% of cases are found in the parents’ favour. While the council is wasting taxpayers’ money, taking families through expensive proceedings such as this, rather than providing the support they are entitled to, the children are left in the middle, not getting access to the support that they need. This is a real mark of shame on Sutton and cannot be allowed to continue. If councils such as Sutton’s continue to turn against families of children with special educational needs and disability, the frameworks must be in place to support the families.

I know the Government recognise that, which is why they conducted a review into SEND. I have a few questions for the Minister about how the SEND review will support families of children with SEND in places such as Carshalton and Wallington. I want to know how the SEND review will make it easier for families to raise disputes and have them resolved more quickly; what mechanisms will be put in place to ensure that councils comply with their statutory obligations; and how, overall, the SEND review aims to change the negative experience that many families have of fighting for their children’s education. Children deserve the best possible start in life. I look forward to hearing how the Government can help achieve that.