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Hertfordshire SEND Services: Ofsted Findings

Volume 742: debated on Wednesday 6 December 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Ofsted findings on Hertfordshire’s SEND services.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma.

I am relieved to have secured this debate in the wake of the damning inspection report by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission on Hertfordshire’s special educational needs and disability service. Hertfordshire has received the worst possible inspection outcome. I would like to say that that was a shocking revelation, but sadly it did not come as a surprise to me or the scores of constituents who have contacted me in previous years about their experiences of SEND in the county. I had already written to Ofsted twice this year to plead with it to bring forward the inspection as quickly as possible. It finally took place in July and was published in November. I have lost count of the number of families in St Albans I have spoken to who have reached breaking point. My casework team now spend a third of their time on SEND casework.

The Ofsted report sets out, albeit in fairly sanitised terms, what it is like to be a child or young person with special educational needs or disabilities in our area. It describes the poor communication with families about their education, health and care plans. It is explicit about the lengthy delays in preparing the plans. It is clear that when EHCPs are produced, they are often of poor quality. Inspectors also document the local authority’s continued failure to put in place the measures in those EHCPs that would ensure that children’s needs are met. The report echoes the experiences of so many families in St Albans and across Hertfordshire who have contacted me. Those families have been forced to fight every step of the way to get an EHCP, and even then many have to progress their child’s case to formal routes such as tribunals. But even with a tribunal finding in their favour, families still often struggle to get Hertfordshire to deliver on the ruling in a timely way.

The Ofsted report includes all that and more, but it cannot convey the heartbreak and human cost of the failures inflicted on families, so I want to share the experience of just one of my constituents. Charlie—not their real name—is a single parent to three children, two of whom have special educational needs. Charlie contacted me more than a year ago in utter desperation. Their oldest child had been permanently excluded from a mainstream school that could not meet their needs, and one of their younger children had been placed on a reduced timetable. The family was at breaking point. The local authority was well aware of the exclusion and had finally agreed, three months earlier, that special school places were urgently needed, but Charlie could not get any indication of when places might be available or any other support while the places were secured. In fact, calls and emails to the local authority went unanswered. Then, SEND officers failed to turn up to Charlie’s child’s exclusion panel. After that, a case was not presented correctly at a separate special needs panel, causing a further three-month delay, and then the council failed to even communicate the decision of that panel to the family. There was an utter failure in communication.

During this time, Charlie was unable to work. Having used all their annual leave, they were forced to take an unpaid sabbatical. Their bank had been sympathetic for the first three months and had allowed deferred mortgage payments, but with no update from the authority’s SEND service on planned provision, which would have enabled them to return to work, Charlie was about to lose the family home and was at real risk of losing their job. There was a very real danger that a parent and their three children would be made destitute and homeless. As a result, the children were, naturally, becoming more and more dysregulated. Their emotional wellbeing and mental health were deteriorating quickly, and their educational development had halted and in some respects gone into reverse.

When Charlie contacted me and highlighted just how close their family was to collapse, I contacted Hertfordshire County Council, stressing the urgency in no uncertain terms. Astonishingly, I too struggled to get any reply from the council. I had to follow up several times to finally secure a Zoom call with the responsible officers. I sent concise and direct questions about the case in advance of the meeting, hoping that I would get answers. Despite between eight and 10 officers joining that Zoom call, I was unable to get answers to even the most basic questions. I asked if Hertfordshire County Council would pay for the transport of a child from their home to the school, and not one of the officers could answer that question. In the end, I was told that a school placement would likely be in place within two weeks; in reality, it was another six weeks before it was provided. The urgent meeting was held in December last year, yet I was still following up on one of the EHCPs in late March of this year. Even to this day, the county council has failed to confirm the provision for the younger of Charlie’s children.

I would like to assure the House that that awful case is an isolated one, but it is not. Each and every week, my team and I get yet more examples of the chaos and confusion in the SEND service in Hertfordshire. It appears that there is simply no effective triage in place. The service is in such a state of meltdown that they simply cannot distinguish between emergencies and non-urgent inquiries. Hertfordshire MPs of all political persuasions have repeatedly asked for a more effective triage system so that we can escalate urgent SEND cases, yet we still do not have one; perhaps, after years of dysfunction, there are just too many emergencies to cope with.

I will turn to how on earth we got to this point, and I am afraid that it boils down to cold hard cash—or the lack of it. Fundamentally, our county of Hertfordshire suffers from two connected problems of the Government’s making. First, the Government’s flawed national funding formula is based on historical spend, not current need. That means that children in Hertfordshire are still receiving far less per head than children in comparable neighbouring counties, such as Buckinghamshire. Secondly, the funding that Hertfordshire County Council receives does not stretch as far as it could because it must spend huge amounts on expensive placements in the independent sector.

I will turn to the funding formula. This year, SEND children in neighbouring Buckinghamshire receive an average of £935 per head, while children in Hertfordshire receive just £614. That stems from the Government’s broken funding formula, which takes spending in 2017 as a baseline figure, and that has been particularly devastating for Hertfordshire. In 2017, £2.2 million of high-needs SEND funding was diverted from regular spending to provide new special school places by the county council as a one-off investment, and that figure therefore was not included in the baseline calculation at all. Additionally and, in my view, inexcusably, Hertfordshire’s Conservative administration returned £3.7 million, which was allocated for SEND by central Government. Its reasoning was that it was not given enough time to allocate it in that financial year, although I suspect, if asked, many families who were reliant on SEND services at the time would find that pretty hard to swallow.

All in all, the Department for Education formula ignores £5.9 million of annual spend that should have been taken into account when formulating the baseline. I have raised that with Ministers repeatedly in meetings, letters and parliamentary questions since 2021, and I have provided ample analysis from the local authority to demonstrate the disparity. In May this year, I received a shocking response from the then Minister for Children, the right hon. Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho). She suggested that by including the additional money in the baseline calculation, it would merely increase that year’s funding by £2 million, so it was not even worth adjusting. We would bite off their hand for £2 million. I understand that Department for Education officials met with Hertfordshire County Council yesterday to examine those figures again, and I hope the Minister may have an update for me today.

My first question is: will the Minister immediately release that £2 million, particularly in the light of Hertfordshire County Council’s announcement last week that without drastic action by the Conservative administration, the schools budget will be overspent by £15 million?

Secondly, when will the Government change the funding formula so that it is based on current need? The DFE has tried to justify the decision not to correct the formula by suggesting that Hertfordshire’s spend is increasing by a greater percentage each year compared with authorities such as Buckinghamshire. However, at the current year-on-year increase, it would take 15 years to achieve parity. That means that a three-year-old in Hertfordshire today would have to finish all their formal education before they would get equal funding with a child in Buckinghamshire for their SEND needs. That is indefensible.

My third question is about funding for special school places. HCC officers also tell me that, alongside having one of the lowest rates of funding per head, the council also has some of the highest costs. That is a result of needing to place more and more students in independent and out-of-county schools. I am relieved that some new school places were secured in 2019 in the council’s wave 2 bid, but I was very disappointed to be told just last week by officials from the Department for Education that Hertfordshire’s recent application for a new special school—which would go some way to mitigating that cost—was refused.

It was suggested to me that there might have been problems with that application, but HCC officials say they did not receive any negative feedback. Honestly, parents and MPs are simply not interested in finger pointing—we just want to see new school places created. Will the Minister commit to working with Hertfordshire to ensure that it can submit an application that has the best possible chance, so that our county can secure funding for the additional special school places that we so desperately need?

I have two other questions that are directly related to Ofsted. Both day-to-day funding and investment in special schools need to be addressed if we are to see any improvement in outcomes for families in Hertfordshire, but the issues in Hertfordshire now run much deeper than just the financial challenges, as Charlie’s example so clearly and devastatingly illustrates. We have all seen the Ofsted report, and I am disappointed that the Secretary of State has not—yet, perhaps—appointed a commissioner to support the council in rebuilding the service.

I welcome the news of the appointment of Dame Christine Lenehan as an independent chair of the improvement board, but the improvement plans that were presented to Hertfordshire MPs in 2023 by HCC were devastatingly similar to the ones presented to us in 2021. If anything, services have not got better; they have got worse. Families in my constituency have been waiting for far too long, so my next question is: will Ministers now grasp the nettle and immediately issue a formal improvement notice? My final question is: will the Minister appoint a SEND commissioner to get Hertfordshire back on track, in the way that the Government supported Birmingham City Council when its SEND services were found to be failing?

There is no doubt that SEND services are in crisis right across England. In the longer term, I urge the Government to end the postcode lottery of provision. Liberal Democrats would establish a national body to fund high needs SEND, and take pressure off local councils’ decimated balance sheets. But today I ask Minister to step up and take this opportunity to improve the lives of children and families in St Albans, and right across Hertfordshire. I ask him to please issue an improvement notice, please appoint a SEND commissioner to drive improvement forward, please release the £2 million adjustment without delay, and please, for goodness’ sake, fix the absurd funding formula that puts children in Hertfordshire at a permanent disadvantage—for at least the next 15 years. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) on securing a debate on such an important subject. Improving the special educational needs and disabilities system across the country is a priority for this Government, and that includes improving services for children and young people with SEND in Hertfordshire.

The Government’s ambition for children and young people with SEND is for them to thrive, fulfil their potential, and lead happy, healthy and productive adult lives. That means making sure that they have access to the right support in the right place at the right time, and intervening when a local authority is not providing that. I was therefore very disappointed to learn that Ofsted inspectors have significant concerns about the experiences and outcomes for children with SEND in Hertfordshire. The issues raised in the report are serious. I need to be confident that the local area partnership is taking the right actions to secure rapid and sustainable improvement.

DFE officials, along with NHS England advisers, are due to meet local leaders next week to scrutinise and challenge their improvement plan in response to the inspection. They will seek assurances about the actions that leaders are taking to improve SEND provision rapidly. The local authority has already appointed Dame Christine Lenehan, as the hon. Member noted. She was director at the Council for Disabled Children and will be the new independent chair of the partnership’s multi-agency improvement board. She is one of the country’s most highly respected and experienced SEND experts. I have every confidence that she will push the local authority to take the actions that it should take and move it in the right direction.

The Department for Education has also appointed a specialist professional SEND adviser to provide additional advice and support to the local SEND leaders and to the Department until such time as the Secretary of State is satisfied that that is no longer required. It is essential that rapid action is taken to improve SEND services in Hertfordshire and that the local area partnership accepts collective responsibility and accountability for delivering the agreed actions. That will require a relentless focus on improvement across all service providers so that children, young people and families can access the support that they need.

Let me turn to the hon. Lady’s questions about funding. Funding for mainstream schools and high needs funding for children and young people with complex needs will be more than £1.8 billion higher next year than this financial year. Total schools funding will be £59.6 billion—its highest ever level in real terms per pupil. Within that total, high needs funding will be over £10.5 billion in 2024-25—an increase of more than 60% on the 2019-20 allocations. That will help local authorities and schools with the increasing costs of supporting children and young people with SEND.

We recently announced provisional 2024-25 high needs allocations for local authorities, and Hertfordshire’s allocation is £187 million, which is £8.4 million more than the council will receive this year—a cumulative increase of 29% per head over the three years since 2021-22.

The Minister talks about the allocation that will be given to Hertfordshire County Council. Will he confirm that he will instruct his officials to speak directly to HCC about what should have been included in the 2017 baseline, so that we make sure that the money that we are going to receive is a fair reflection of what we should get?

If officials have not had that conversation already, I am happy for them to discuss that point with the council. This is the first time that I have heard that point from the hon. Lady today. I am well aware that she and other right hon. and hon. Members representing Hertfordshire have had discussions and correspondence with my predecessors at the Department about the way that the high needs funding formula works for Hertfordshire and other counties, and particularly the different levels of per-head funding that the council receives compared with neighbours. As she might know, officials from the Department met Hertfordshire County Council officers yesterday to discuss the local authority’s concerns, in addition to the meeting that she had with officials last week.

As the hon. Lady suggested, the situation is partly due to the historical spend factor in the formula that was in place when we came to power in 2010 and which used to be used as a proxy for supply and demand. We have been reducing the weight of that factor over time, but because of how much it made up the formula that we inherited, it is not something that can be changed immediately. That is why, as she suggested, the increases for Hertfordshire are higher than for others as we try to close the gap.

I accept that the increase cannot happen “immediately”, to use the Minister’s word, but does he agree that 15 years is too long? And if it is, and if immediately is not possible, is there a midway point? Might he look at how Hertfordshire can catch up with Buckinghamshire’s funding, for example, in a few years? Even knowing that that can happen over two or three years, or a maximum of four years, would bring huge relief to our services. Although I might accept him saying that it cannot happen immediately, I cannot accept him saying that it still has to happen over 15 years.

I can say to the hon. Lady only that we review the formula every single year. This is not the only factor that is within the formula. I believe that the gap is closing as a result of what we have been doing. As part of our annual process, we will look at every authority to see what is happening.

To turn to the hon. Lady’s questions about special school places, we know that demand for specialist provision in Hertfordshire currently exceeds the number of available places. We have published more than £1.5 billion of high needs provision capital allocations for the 2022-23 and 2023-24 financial years as part of our transformational £2.6 billion investment into high needs provision between 2022 and 2025. That includes almost £27 million for Hertfordshire. Local authorities can use the funding to deliver new places in mainstream and special schools, as well as other specialist settings, and to improve the suitability and accessibility of existing buildings.

Local authorities can also commission new schools through the free school presumption route. Hertfordshire held a successful free school presumption competition in autumn ’22 to identify an academy sponsor to open a 60-place primary school in Potters Bar. The new school is planned to open by September 2025. In addition, a 60-place secondary special free school, the James Marks Academy, was opened in September this year.

Hertfordshire has a county-wide capital programme to deliver the key priorities of the county’s SEND special school place planning strategy. I understand that the local authority intends to extend the current SEND sufficiency strategy by one year into 2025 to provide additional specialist provision places and resource provisions for children with communication needs in mainstream schools, ensuring that children can attend the provision stated on their EHCP and that their needs are met in the most appropriate local provision.

As well as expanding special resource provision in mainstream schools across the county, a priority from Hertfordshire County Council’s strategy is to open more permanent places for pupils with severe learning difficulties, physical and neurological impairment, and social, emotional and communication development need.

Positive actions have been taken. For example, the county is establishing a number of new specialist resource provisions in mainstream schools for children with communication needs. Four secondary provisions with 20 places each are being developed. One is already open and the other three will open in the next academic year. Those will be followed by nine primary provisions with 12 places each across the next two academic years.

I thank the hon. Lady again for bringing this matter forward and for raising the issues that she is seeing with Hertfordshire’s SEND provision. We all care passionately about the outcomes there, along with SEND outcomes across the country, and that is why this Government are determined to transform the system with our reform plan.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.