Is Lancashire ready for special needs revisit?

Special needs services provided by both Lancashire County Council and the NHS will be be assessed
Special needs services provided by both Lancashire County Council and the NHS will be be assessed

Lancashire could struggle to show that it has made enough progress in improving its special needs services for young people before regulators return to the county later this year.

That was the assessment of a member of the body set up to turn the service around after a highly critical OFSTED report back in 2017.

READ MORE >>> "Frustration" amongst parents and carers at pace of special needs reforms

Sian Rees, improvement lead for the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) Partnership, said that Lancashire County Council and the NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) in its area needed to be “realistic” about the conclusions inspectors will draw during a revisit expected in the coming months.

“We are making progress, but the expectation from OFSTED is…that we will have made progress on every single one of the 12 areas [of weakness identified in the last inspection] by whatever they consider to be a sufficient amount.

“The word from other local authorities who have been through a re-visit is that you [have to be] making an impact – and that’s where we will struggle,” Ms. Rees told a meeting of the Lancashire health and wellbeing board.

She added that council and NHS partners had “probably done a bit too much talking” and now needed to move on to concrete action.

A 94-point improvement plan is being worked through over the next 18 months in an attempt to address the dozen concerns outlined by OFSTED last time they visited. They included a failure to engage effectively with parents and carers and the absence of a plan to improve outcomes for SEND children.

Edwina Grant, director of children’s services at Lancashire County Council, highlighted two specific OFSTED concerns which had been slow to see improvement.

“There are still issues for our young people as they transition [into adulthood]…even though we have made improvements,” Ms. Grant said.

But she presented a more nuanced picture about the process of drawing up education health and care plans (EHCPs) which identify the support which SEND children require.

“I get quite a lot of letters from parents expressing dissatisfaction at the speed of their EHCPs, but we need to [distinguish] between a parent who says they have no plan and a parent who hasn’t agreed to the plan yet.

“We do go the extra mile and work with parents to get the plan exactly how they wish it, but then you suddenly find you have gone outside the [expected] timeframe,” Ms. Grant added.

She also suggested that the complexity of working across so many CCG areas – while not “an excuse” – might explain the level of improvement which it had been possible to make so far.

Lancashire County Council leader Geoff Driver said he was not surprised that officers were being cautious about the possible outcome of the revisit.

“The last inspection resulted in the most damning report I’ve seen about a local authority service,” he said.

The meeting heard that while SEND services continued to attract complaints, they received an almost equal number of compliments.