PROTESTORS calling for Devon to significantly improve its under-pressure special educational needs (SEND) service have described their struggles to get help at a protest outside Exeter’s County Hall.
The Devon SEND Parents and Carers for Change group held its second protest in two years over what it calls a “dire provision” for young people with special educational needs or disabilities.
An inspection by education regulator Ofsted in 2022 said the county had “not made sufficient progress in addressing any of the significant weaknesses”.
It added that in spite of a new strategy launched in 2020, it “fundamentally fails to address the significant weaknesses that were apparent at the previous inspection and are still evident now”.
Lee Farrell, from Upottery, said his 10-year-old daughter had been diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety five years ago.
“We’ve been battling for two years and three months now with [Devon’s SEND service] to give some support for our daughter,” he said.
“This council has been classed as inadequate for five years. I would like to see the Department of Education remove educational services from this council and take them over themselves. They’re not fit for purpose.”
Another protester who gave her name as Helen, a 56 year-old from Exeter, has two children had special educational needs.
“My oldest son is 15 now and ever since he started school I’ve spent the whole time trying to get support in place and trying to make Devon County Council fulfil their legal obligations,” she said.
“They blatantly break the law and nobody holds them to account.”
She welcomed the protest as a method of bringing parents together, as it gave them “more of a voice”.
“In an ideal world, they’d listen to parents, they’d intervene sooner and they would stop breaking the law,” she added.
“They would fulfil their statutory obligations and legal responsibilities.”
Mike Summers from Exeter said he was attending the protest with his son who has additional needs. “He’s been failed since reception, he’s now in Year 10,” he said.
“Every day, every week, every month, it’s a battle to get him what he deserves.
“And I say what he deserves, not what I believe he’s entitled to, what law, what legislation, what statutes say he’s legally entitled to. Devon County Council still can’t do that.”
Mr Summers said his son will be leaving school soon, and so any impact from the protest might not benefit him.
“But there’s probably kids that haven’t even been born yet that are going to be born into this, and that breaks my heart, to be honest. I feel it’s quite sad,” he added.
Councillor Lois Samuel (Conservative, Okehampton Rural), cabinet member responsible for the service since last summer, said improvements are being made across the service.
“The scale of the challenge locally and nationally is significant, and the improvement journey that we’re on in Devon will take time, working in close partnership with the NHS, schools, and importantly with parents and carers,” she said.
“Our priority right now is to make sure that pupils who need additional support are identified at the earliest opportunity and receive the right support at the right time and in the right place.
“Where possible, we would like to make sure that children and young people are supported to attend their local schools and be part of their local community as much as possible.”
Ofsted’s 2022 report noted that the number of children and young people waiting for an autism spectrum disorder assessment had fallen, but that those seeking this service “still wait too long”.
It said at the time: “There are almost 2,000 children and young people on the waiting list and almost half of these have been waiting for over a year.
“These numbers do not capture the whole picture of need. Parents describe battles to get onto the waiting list and there is a separate service for children under five years old.”
Devon County Council said it had hired a new director of SEND improvement, Kellie Knott, at the same time Cllr Samuel took her post, and that together, the pair were overseeing improvements to the service.
A council spokesperson said: “Educational Psychologists (EPs) are now working in 100 schools to identify children with special educational needs and disabilities and to help schools support pupils as early as possible.
“EPs are also developing support pathways for children experiencing difficulty attending school.
“Over the next few months the council will be introducing a new framework and guidance around a standard level of support which should be available from schools across Devon for pupils with SEND.”
The authority added the number of children waiting for an education, health and care needs assessment (EHCNA) had “reduced significantly” in recent months.
It is also seeking more financial support from the government for further education support, and is engaging with Essex County Council, its “improvement partner”, learning from that authority about better ways of working.
New funding has also been secured to support pupils with neurodiverse conditions, such as autism, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) starting in 40 primary schools across Devon, Torbay and Plymouth over the next financial year.
“We understand and recognise that many parents and carers remain frustrated at the pace of improvement, but the changes required involve whole system changes along with the need for our responsibilities as a council to improve,” Cllr Samuel added.
“The plans in place to secure these improvements are being closely monitored by our welcomed partnership with the Department for Education.”
Additional reporting by Will Goddard