Services for children with additional needs in Shropshire have been improved since a damning report last year, council and health bosses have said.
A raft of measures have been put in place in the last 12 months in an effort to turn around special educational needs and disability (SEND) provision across the county, which was criticised by the children’s services and health watchdogs following a joint inspection in January 2020.
It resulted in Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) ordering Shropshire Council and Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) to produce a written statement of action detailing how they would address the concerns, including excessively long waiting lists and “weak leadership”.
Giving an update to the county’s health and wellbeing board on Thursday, Karen Bradshaw, head of children’s services at Shropshire Council, said the statement of action had been approved by the inspecting bodies as being fit for purpose.
She said: “Progress against this plan has been set against a backdrop of a global pandemic and we have had to work in different ways over the past 12 months.
“However we have remained committed to working together collaboratively across the system to make the necessary improvements.”
Julia Dean, services manager for SEND, told the board progress had been made against each of the six areas of “significant concern” raised by inspectors, which largely focused on the health elements of SEND provision.
These included poor leadership and health services’ lack of input into the area’s SEND action plan.
Ms Dean said governance improvements had been made through the strengthening of the SEND strategic board and creation of ‘SEND champion’ roles.
She said: “I think what we realised was that SEND is everybody’s business, and we were not getting that message out very well.
“It’s very important to remember that 14 per cent of our population of children and young people have a special educational need, with 3.1 per cent having significant needs that require an education, health and care (EHC) plan, and then a proportion of those requiring very specialist access to specialist services.
“Unless we know who they are and what they need, we are not going to be commissioning the right services to support those needs as they transition on into their adult lives.
“The SEND champion role will be to support other strategic groups and partnerships to recognise that SEND is part of every discussion that we need to be having.”
Inspectors highlighted children being left waiting for long periods of time for autism spectrum disorder and ADHD assessments, and speech and language services.
At the time of the inspection there were more than 1,000 children waiting for speech and language therapy, almost 900 of whom had been waiting for 18 weeks or more.
Ms Dean said this list had been cut to 210 by September, of whom 32 had been waiting longer than 18 weeks.
Work has also gone into developing a clear neurodevelopmental pathway after inspectors flagged the lack of one as a serious concern, which Ms Dean said had meant some children were not receiving the right diagnosis or support.
Ms Dean said this also linked to another of the inspectors’ concerns – the high level of school exclusions among children with SEND.
She said the effectiveness of any work in this area was difficult to measure given the circumstances of the last year but that schools were being supported and training provided to staff.
The final area of concern was an inconsistent quality of input from different partners into EHC assessments and planning, which Ms Dean said were “very education-focused” and lacked health service input, but steps have been taken to make the process more joined-up.
A follow up inspection will take place within two years.
Ms Dean added: “They (the inspectors) won’t be ticking off the actions that we have done, they will want to know that we have made an impact and made a difference.
“We will need to ensure that we are able to evidence that and it’s therefore really important that we include the SEND population and ensure they are part of any of the changes that we make.”
The board endorsed the statement of action and will receive regular updates to monitor progress against the action plan.
Councillor Ed Potter, portfolio holder for children’s services, said there was “a really positive move in direction”.
He added: “It hasn’t been easy and there is a long way to go, but we are heading in the right direction now.”