Kent County Council’s special-education system is on its knees

Sandra’s daughter Georgina, born in 2010, began crawling late, around the time that other children were learning to walk. Pre-school staff warned that her speech was delayed and her concentration span was short. By the age of four she had been diagnosed with autism, of a sort doctors and teachers said could not be managed in a normal classroom. But when Sandra began jumping through the hoops required to get her into a special school, Kent County Council (KCC) refused even to see her for an assessment. It seemed “unfathomable”, says Sandra, that a child who “could not hold a pencil for five seconds” had been abandoned by KCC.

It’s a pattern repeated up and down the country. And Kent County Council (KCC) reject more than one every four assessments.  An investigation by led by the , Bureau Local, SchoolsWeek, ITV and The Shepway Vox Team has found evidence KCC & other local authorities are under substantial pressure from the government to bring its spending down. As a result there will be cost-cutting measures by KCC which will threaten and prevent special education needs children from receiving support, or reduce, or remove the help they now receive.

The government has launched a major consultation about the future of Special Education Needs & Disability (SEND).

The investigation has uncovered the human consequences of a desperately underfunded system. Kent County Council have in excess of 15,000 pupils with an Educational Health Care Plan (EHCP), which has grown 143%, since Jan 2013.  This is NOT all the children with SEND needs.

There are usually 2 levels of support for children with Special Educational Needs & Disability (SEND):

1 – A Statement of special educational needs (SEN) is a legally binding document that is drawn up by a local authority. It sets out the child’s special educational needs and the educational provision that they require to meet those needs. The purpose of the Statement is to ensure that the child receives an adequate level of educational provision at a suitable school placement.

2 – Introduced in September 2014 the Education, Health & Care Plan or EHCP is a document which sets out the education, health and social care needs your child or young person has and the support that is necessary to cater for those needs. The ‘gateway’ for the EHCP is to have special educational needs, although the EHCP itself also covers health and social care needs and provision.

The EHCP is a legally binding document. It is binding on not only KCC, but also on local health services (Kent & Medway Care Commissioning Group). These Plans can be in place for children or young people between birth and the age of 25.

The number of Kent pupils with EHCPs has risen by 143% between 2013 – 2021. It continues to rise

Money – or the lack of it – influences every part of the system that supports children and young people with SEND. It determines what help children receive, which school they go to, and where. The central problem is that funding has failed to keep pace with demand, creating a fast-growing financial black hole at the heart of the SEND system. Our joint investigation can reveal KCC has the highest deficit of any council in England standing at more than £102m. This is not reflected in the accounts, and as the Council’s external auditor -Grant Thornton commented yesterday 27.4.22, said this is ‘not good accounting

The deficit has risen from £2.1m in 2017/18. At that time the Cabinet member responsible for education and SEND was Cllr Roger Gough (pictured). He is now the Leader of KCC and responsible for finding solutions to something which started on his watch. At yesterday’s Audit & Governance meeting, Matt Dunkley Corporate Director Children, Young People and Education made it clear the DfE have accepted Kent will be eligible for ‘safety valve’ intervention (read bailout) which will give Kent money to lower its deficit but with stringent strings attached (See here for examples). A meeting with DfE will take place in May 2022, and after a bit of horse trading a bailout figure will be agreed. This is expected to in Sept/Oct 2022.

Broken system

As the government launches a major consultation about the future of Send provision, our investigation has uncovered the human consequences of a desperately underfunded system. As the deficit continuies to grow, the result is an increasingly adversarial process in which parents, schools and KCC are pitched against one another, with a child’s needs appearing secondary to financial costs.

Georgina, now 11, no longer attends school. “she would stand balling her eyes out, shouting because she wanted to go to school but she has this baffling inner battle” said Sandra, who is now trying her best to help her daughter at home. “She knows she must attend school but physically can’t make herself, like a rabbit in headlights frozen from fear, screaming, lots of screaming which goes on and on.

In February, Sandra appealed the result of the needs assessment. She now faces a wait of four to six months, by which point Georgina will have missed an entire academic year. Her best hope is that she wins and Georgina will return to education in September at an independent school for pupils with autism. She is, expecting the worst and hoping for the best.

“I was told by unfriendly KCC SEND staff, who’ve forgotten what they were supposed to learn from the awful Ofsted report in 2019, Georgina’s future would not be based on what’s in her best interests – it would be on what’s best value for money,” she said. “That killed me because what’s best value for money is not going to be what’s in her best interests … This is my child’s future, being decided on the bottom line.

“What did he say” (Matt Dunkley CBE – Corporate Director Children, Young People and Education), she plucks a well worn page from her file “here, here he says:

All key partners involved in offering services to children with special educational needs are committed to making the improvements required and to ensure that there are sufficient resources available to do this. We are equally determined to change the way we work with families, moving rapidly to a position of greater openness, engagement and where appropriate, genuine co-production.

“That hasn’t happened, it hasn’t.”

It’s clear Sandra wants the best for her child as every parent does and KCC failing to ensure that there are sufficient resources available to do this, feels like a betrayal to a lot of SEND families across Kent.

“Katie Ghose, chief executive of the disabilities charity Kids, said the findings were a “stark reminder of the gap between the support disabled children and their families need to thrive and the funds available to local authorities”.

The issues

There are three main issues contributing to KCCs £102m,SEND deficit.

1 – Rising demand

2 – Increasing complexity of need

3 – Loss of funding to KCC Education due to fall in income from the introduction of Community Infrastructure Levy since 2010.

These 3 issues have left KCC without enough state-funded provision struggling to cope and hugely reliant on costly independent schools which can cost as much as £95,000 a year for a single pupil. That said, a worker in the sector claims local authorities cost taxpayers money by going for the cheap option first.

With 845 SEND pupils being sent into Kent by other local authorities, this means less places for Kent SEND pupils. But then Kent send 1,200 SEND pupils to schools in other local authorities, because local places in Kent have been taken by other local authorities. Cornwall send SEND pupils as far away as the Shetland Isles.

Hundreds of families have been forced to look far afield for suitable places – and children have to travel long distances to get there. More than a hundred Kent children are travelling an estimated 20 miles or more each way; one child has been placed in special needs education 200 miles away in Newton Aycliffe (County Durham), with at least another sixteen children at schools more than 100 miles away. The transport costs to and from school for SEND pupils in 2018/19 were close to £1.5m.

For many parents it has become a case of weighing up a place that meets their child’s needs against the stresses and strains of getting them there. Claire knows this balancing act well. Her son Jason is unable to cope in mainstream education as a result of pathological demand avoidance (PDA). The condition includes greater refusal to do what is asked of the person, even to activities the person would normally like, due to extreme levels of anxiety. PDA is not recognized by the DSM-5 or ICD-10, the two main classification systems for mental disorders.

At primary school, Jason refused to take part in lessons, hiding under his desk or in filing cabinets. So intense were his meltdowns that his school eventually reduced his attendance to just an hour a day, over lunchtime. At home he became so distressed that he began to hurt himself, and Claire worried he might take his own life if he did not get help.

It took years before anyone would accept he needed support. Claire was told by KCC send staff Jason was not autistic and did not have ADHD; that she was an “bossy” mum who “wanted something to be wrong with her son to collect more state benefits“. Eventually he was transferred to a pupil referral unit, an alternative to school for children who struggle in mainstream education. When that placement collapsed, Jason’s school finally decided he needed an education, health and care plan (EHCP), a document that sets out the additional learning support a child is legally entitled to and where they should receive it.

Claire looked for a school in Kent, her local area, that could meet her son’s complex needs, but the nearest one she found was in Surrey, 65 miles away. Jason now makes a three-hour round trip there and back every day. To make matters more complicated, he does so in a taxi with another child who also has complex needs.

The joint investigation found a lack of transport provision, but it also found that 1,200 SEND pupils travel to & from schools inside and outside of Kent as the sole child in the car. This comes to a combined cost of £1.4m and rising. It’s not only the expense KCC have to consider, as they must too consider the environmental issues, but nobody can expect a child with ADHD or autism, to grasp such vague concepts.

“We’ve had a lot of problems,” said Claire, who gave up work in order to drive Jason to school herself. “It’s two very complex children who set each other off. The driver, who lacks SEND training, doesn’t understand SEND kids. If one of them gets upset or goes into crisis, they starts shouting.” More than once Jason has jumped out of the car and run away along a busy road. Even on less dramatic days, Jason and Claire are more often than not late for school. It affects his education.

But Claire believes the challenges are worth enduring. “Yes there’s a balancing act, but we accepted that from the start,” she said. “It was the right choice. I’d make it again if I had to.” Since starting his new school, Jason has “come on leaps and bounds from the child we thought wasn’t really going to achieve much,” she said. “We thought, ‘As long as we can get him stable and happy, that in itself would be an achievement.’ That was all we were hoping for. But he’s actually sitting GCSEs this year. He’s thriving, he’s doing really well.”

The domino effect of out-of-area placements

Jason and Georgina’s story will be familiar to many. Freedom of Information requests submitted by the Bureau to councils in England show that at least 1200 Kent children with EHCPs are in schools or other education establishments outside Kent. Of those, more than 150 have to travel twenty miles or more away – the maximum distance MPs on the education select committee suggested that children in the care system, a similarly vulnerable group, be moved away from where they live.

Christine McInnes, director for education at Kent county council, told the Bureau Local: “There are children spending two hours [or more] being transported to a special school. To what benefit? I’m not saying that should never happen, but it should only happen in extreme cases because actually you’re taking 10 hours a week out of that child’s life when they should be doing after school activities, meeting with friends, and having a life. Instead, they’re spending it being transported around.

An out-of-borough placement “can cut [a child] off from the same opportunities to live, learn and thrive at home and in their local community as enjoyed by their non-disabled peers”, said Ghose, chief executive of the disabilities charity Kids. “Yet with early intervention and the right support, many children and young people could be educated in their local school.”

The only route the council will be able to take’

As more children are placed further away or in independent schools, the cost to councils of providing specialist education rises. Kent’s £103.3m deficit grew by 67% in 2021-22. Independent school placements are the most significant pressure on its budget. The cost of taxis in 2018/19 for taking SEND pupils outside of Kent was half a million pounds. It was £610,000 for pupils travelling to school inside Kent. The council has hoped to reduce these costs but admitted “there is no indication yet this can be achieved”.

Usually a child’s EHCP  is paid for through the dedicated schools grant, the main pot of money allocated by the Department for Education to local authorities and then distributed to schools.

Kent’s deficit has reached £102m – in cash terms, the largest in the country. In a candid interview the council’s special educational needs and disabilities director, Mark Walker, said parents had lost faith in the ability of Kent’s mainstream schools to meet their children’s needs. As a result, he explained, the council receives a high proportion of EHC plan applications from parents than schools. What parents want, Walker said, is places at expensive independent schools and he blames the SEND Tribunal, which hears appeals against local authority decisions, for helping them get their way. In 2020-21, this national independent tribunal ruled in favour of parents in 96% of cases.

He gave dyslexia as an example, explaining that the council has a well-qualified speech and language service and an educational psychology department specialising in the condition. “Why then are we losing a tribunal for parents that want to go to Frewen College, which is an independent college in East Sussex?” Frewen is one of a small number of dyslexia schools in the UK. Its fees start at £6,500 a term.

He added: “It’s a beautiful building, fantastic facilities – they’ve got a swimming pool there and everything. As a parent, if I see that, I want that sort of education for my child. I know why people go for it. But that’s different from, I think, what was expected within the [SEND] Code of Practice.”

Frewen’s principal, Nick Goodman, said these notions of luxury were misguided. “It is indeed in a lovely setting,” he said. “It is a not-for-profit charitable trust. It does indeed have a swimming pool – outdoor, unheated – and many of our classes are taught in temporary classrooms dating back to the 1980s. A look at our accounts will confirm that margins are tight. It is not the buildings or the swimming pool that make Frewen College attractive to the parents of students with specific learning difficulties. It is the provision and outcomes.”

Walker believes the answer to reducing the deficit is to increase inclusion at mainstream schools. “We need to make sure parents in Kent don’t think they have to get an EHCP in order to get the type of support their son or daughter needs,” he said. The deficit, he said, would take years to reverse.

Councils with deficits have to submit plans to the Department for Education on how they intend to balance their books. Some include proposals to amend thresholds for which children are eligible for the education, health & care needs assessment that marks the first step towards securing an EHCP – thresholds that have no legal standing.

Kent already turn down a high proportion of assessment requests. In 2020, it turned down 30% or more;  well above the national average.

A spokesperson for the Local Government Association said: “Meeting the year-on-year increase in demand for Send support is one of the biggest challenges that councils are dealing with. Councils lack the levers to bring this spending under control and this is a key issue that needs to be addressed.

Reform – but years away

The government published its much-anticipated green paper outlining proposals for the future of Send provision in England in March. Proposed changes include digitising EHCPs to make the process more straightforward, new banding and tariffs around high needs to “put the system on a financially sustainable footing”, and a drive to promote inclusivity in mainstream schools. There will also be £2.6bn to create new special school places in England over the next three years.

These reforms could take years to introduce. Meanwhile, thousands of special needs and disabled children will continue to struggle to access a suitable education.

Amanda is another parent who has faced a tough search for the right school. She told the The Shepway Vox Team that due to a lack of suitable provision in Kent, where she lives, the only option for her 10-year-old son Peter, who is autistic and dyspraxic, is an independent school outside the county.

Peter’s EHCP application contained detailed professional advice in support of his case, but Kent named a different school – a decision Amanda is now appealing.

“Kent doesn’t want my child or other children in independent schools because they’re costing way too much money,” she said. “Instead they put them somewhere that’s going to be cheaper, and that’s taking precedence over their well-documented needs.” A Special Education Needs worker informed The Guardian local authorities cost taxpayers money by going for the cheap option first.

KCC Leader Roger Gough, and Education Cabinet Member Shellina Prendergast, responsible for SEND were asked for comment, but at the time of publication no response had been received.

Finally We understand the Director responsible for SEND at KCC, Matt Dunkley whose salary in 2020/21 was £201,616, will be leaving KCC in the near future.

All Parent & Children’s’ names have been changed.

The Shepway Vox Team

Dissent is NOT a Crime

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4 Comments on Kent County Council’s special-education system is on its knees

  1. An incredible piece of journalism – congratulations to the Shepway Vox team.

    Why is it that local government across Kent can find the time and resources to undertake all manner of seemingly low priority activities when SEND provision is in crisis?

    If a local council can build a brand new sports centre, then it should have built a facility for SEND pupils instead.

    If a local council can facilitate the construction of a world class skate boarding facility, then it should have facilitated the development of a new SEND facility instead.

    • Could that be because Kent voters keep voting for Tory candidates?

      Until the opposition parties get together and form an alliance to only have one candidate opposing each Tory candidate then this situation will continue.

  2. I understand the problem concerning the placement situation for our children as two of my grandchildren have places in the system and their parents fault tooth and nail to get them settled, they live in thanet and go to Dover and the Hearn bay Whitstable areas, its possible another grandchild may have Learning problems as they are showing similar signs as a relative ADHD and Autism and has a higher level of intelligence for age but is backwards in learning we are all hoping it is nothing and picks up before school, the person who diagnosed the other grandchildren said that all the symptoms /signs are there but according to the book/rules they are to young to test ( but said they would put money on their knowledge of children there is going to be a problem). Good luck and wishing those who are trying to get a placement for their child.

  3. KCC directors are on £200,000 Wages! similar to Boris Johnson who runs the country! There is so many interim managers its unbelieveable and they cant even reoly effectively to emails, and we wonder where the money goes. Yet the backlog of EHCP’S happen year after year because they wont employ more front line staff, train them, or build and supply appropriate specilaist schools and have highly trained staff to meet the needs of SEN children and young adults who cant cope in mainstream, and we wonder why we are getting an increase in those with mental heath cases, or suicide rates rising . KCC also like to be oppositional to parents and break the SEN code of practice legislations and force parents to tribunals for several months costing them money as majority of parents win, as opposed to working with them in mediation, and supporting their childrens needs and provide the provisions in legal care plans. KCC failed their SEN ofsted in 2019 and having been in system several years are actually getting worse. No email acknowledgements and they break their own policy deadlines as well as DFE’S! Ignore key issues, unlawful invisible policies between schools regarding EHCP yearly amendments, Maladministration and gas light SEN parents. It’s a diaboilical council service for the most vunerable! Parents end up at independant schools because they tried several mainstream and specialist…failed in even basic welfare …one case a SEN child nearly drowned in a KCC recommeneded mainsteeam school within 6 weeks of attending, totally ignoring the parent who said it was unsuitable and no they don’t want the fancy swimming pools as that child is now traumatized years later thanks to KCC! Even the Green paper is trying to make special educational needs Co ordinators (SENCO’S) have less qualifications in schools which will have Detrimental effect on the welfare of those with Special Educational Needs.

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