THE director responsible for Devon’s education services says the county council has let children down for four years.
The frank admission came as senior council figures discussed the highly critical findings of a new report into services for young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
The councillor in charge of education services has also apologised for its ‘lack of serivice’.
The report, based on a joint inspection by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission in May, found no progress has been made in improving four areas of ‘significant concern’ previously identified in 2018.
The government is now threatening to step in, with representatives from the Department for Education (DfE) and NHS England due to meet council and local health leaders next week to discuss next steps.
Devon County Council and NHS Devon, which works in partnership to run SEND services in the county, have both apologised.
Speaking at a cabinet meeting today. Wednesday, Melissa Caslake, the council’s director of children’s services, said it had ‘let down the children of Devon over the past four years since that first inspection’.
She acknowledged the problems – including a lack of understanding strategy, poor communication, and a need to improve autism support – but said the department’s new leadership has ‘not had sufficient time … to get on top of those issues, grapple with them and take it forward.
‘That is what we must do now and I think people will see that the letter also references that as well.’
Ahead of next week’s meeting with officials, Ms Caslake added the Department for Education has already informally suggested the level of support it will provide Devon to ‘implement and develop’ a rapid improvement plan for the service.
However, a decision will formally be made at the meeting.
Opposition leader Councillor Julian Brazil (Lib Dem, Kingsbridge) called it a ‘very disturbing letter’ and said possible government intervention was a ‘sad reflection on Devon County Council.’
He admitted the new leadership team – appointed last year – did need to be given time, but said the problem was ‘nothing new’.
‘It’s been going on for over 10 years. We failed to address the problems, we’ve allowed drift and I think that’s a terrible state of affairs.’
Cllr Brazil questioned whether it was right for the county council to have just one cabinet member – Cllr Andrew Leadbetter (Conservative, Wearside & Topsham) – who ‘covered the whole spectrum of children’s services.’
‘Perhaps we should have an individual cabinet member who purely concentrates just on this one specific issue,’ he suggested, ‘because I don’t think we’re taking it seriously enough.
‘It is the children of the county of Devon that are suffering and, of course, they are the most vulnerable people that we are meant to be looking after.’
Labour councillor Tracey Adams (Pinhoe & Mincinglake) said she is ‘so disappointed that there’s no progress at all’ and called for an urgent action plan.
She suggested ‘creative’ and ‘technological’ solutions, including employing people remotely to work on a backlog in cases.
Fellow Labour member Councillor Rob Hannaford (Exwick & St Thomas), chair of the council’s children’s scrutiny committee, warned the service was now “drinking in the last saloon, because it feels like the tone of these letters is now constricting more and more, and we can see the way that it’s going.
‘It is very serious for county council. I think cross-party, none of us would want to lose control of our children’s services.’
Cllr Leadbetter, who was put in charge of the department last year, said he was ‘as devastated as everybody else to receive that letter.’
He apologised to all the families and children in Devon ‘for the service – or lack of service – that we’ve been providing.
‘We do recognise the errors we’ve made – I think that’s very important. We recognise the issues, we recognise we need to do better, and I wish to personally apologise to all those families, to all those children and pledge now that we will do better in the future.
‘We’ve done a huge amount of work already but, quite frankly, we just haven’t had time since we’ve had the new people in post to make the changes in time for this SEND inspection.’
Cllr Leadbetter claimed the council ‘immediately authorised an extra 20 or 30 staff members” after it received the feedback letter, adding “that is immediate action, and at the moment we’re recruiting people into those posts.’
He also said SEND provision was a ‘country-wide issue’ but did say it was speaking to better-performing neighbouring authorities, including Torbay.
A report will be presented to a full council meeting next Thursday, July 21, outlining the improvement plan.
The meeting between local leaders, the DfE and NHS England will take place at County Hall on Tuesday, July 19.