Wokingham parents promise summer of protests over cuts to SEND services

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FURIOUS parents have promised a summer of protests over cuts to services for children with special needs.

An angry group confronted councillors arriving for a meeting at Wokingham Borough Council’s offices and accused the Conservative group of sneaking in through the back door.

Five of the parents attended the meeting to question the executive member for children’s services, Cllr UllaKarin Clark, who they said refused to respond to their follow up questions.

Ruth Rae, one of the demonstrators, insisted last week’s protest would be the “continuation of a struggle which will persist until our children are truly receiving the support they need”.

“Councillor Clark stated that the council were aware of the difficulties and delays, which she blamed upon staff recruitment and retention, and that additional funding had been procured to address the problem,” she explained.

“However she was unable to say when these additional staff would be recruited and how long it was going to take to work through the backlog of EHCP applications and reviews, currently running into the hundreds.

“We are not satisfied with the council’s lack of action and lack of funding which has led to this intolerable situation, where the council are failing to meet their statutory duties to children with SEND, preventing the early interventions and support which can make a huge difference to their educational outcomes. It is not simply a question of more funding; we believe that the council have been very short-sighted in underestimating the demand in this area, and in making poor decisions about leadership and structure around SEND support.”

Marcus McDowell, who also attended the protest, described the SEND cuts as “lunacy”.

“There simply is not enough funding which means children are not receiving the support at the early stages,” he said.

“Some children require taxis while others need occupational therapists to help with writing. Without this kind of help, their future looks bleak.

“It is not a case of a lack of money, just that the council is spending money of things which are not important. We are determined not to allow this to happen so we will keep challenging and questioning the council.”

Cllr Lindsay Ferris, Lib Dem leader was among the councillors backing the parents. “From discussions with Children’s Services earlier this year, it was clear that both the Special Educational Needs (SEN) and Children’s Mental Health Service (CAMHS) areas within WBC were severely short of staff and resource, so why then if we as the Opposition were aware of this problem, did the then Conservative Exec member for Children’s Services not support her area and press for additional funds to support the required resource at that time? Is that not what an Executive Member should do? It feels like a dereliction of duty.

“We have now had an Ofsted Inspection into Special Needs area which clearly shows that there are still resource problems in these areas some 5 months later.

“This is simply not good enough. I shall be raising this issue directly with the new Chief Exec to ascertain why this happened and what can be done.”

In the meeting, Cllr Clark said that the recent Ofsted inspection for the council’s children’s services is “an accurate appraisal of the current position”.

She said: “An unprecedented escalation in demand coupled with high staff turnover and leadership instability in the Summer of 2018 led to a deterioration in the quality of services for children, and could have compromised the safety of some children and young people had this not been urgently addressed.

“However, this perilous situation was recognised and addressed by the new senior leadership team who have taken steps to establish stability and begin to improve services.

“Because of the recent instability, at this point in time we would not have expected a ‘Good’ judgment, and we recognise that services for children are still too variable.

“But we are very pleased that Ofsted has acknowledged that things are improving under the new, stable, leadership team and that they made many positive observations about our work with children and young people.

“This is a testament to the quality of staff and the hard work and dedication they put in daily to improve the lives of children and young people in Wokingham.”

Carol Cammiss, Director of Children’s Services at Wokingham Borough Council, said: “Children with special educational needs and disabilities are a high priority for this council. We allocated additional funding earlier this year to ensure the service meets its statutory requirements as set out under the Children’s and Families Act 2014 and the SEND reforms.

“We’re working tirelessly to make improvements to our services but this will, regrettably, take some time. We’ve experienced difficulties in recruiting and retaining SEND case managers but we have allocated resources to recruit additional staff. We have had some success with this and are confident that we will be able to meet our statutory obligations of completing Education Health and Care plans within the required 20-week deadline by the end of the year. Our focus is very much on improving services and we’re committed to meeting our legal obligations and duties. Every effort is made to ensure that vulnerable children are provided with proper levels of help and support.”

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