Bristol City Council has paid out £1,750 compensation for failures that left a vulnerable student without vital support for six months.
The authority failed to issue an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) in time for the special educational needs (SEN) teenager who, as a result, missed half a year of speech and language therapy that they should have received.
Watchdogs upheld a complaint against the council, which has apologised and agreed to pay £1,500 to the youngster and £250 to their dad and take urgent action to improve how it ensures SEN provision is in place.
The city council said it accepted the ruling and that a new quality assurance framework was implemented last month to improve the annual review process, along with an EHCP electronic portal launched in July to enable close monitoring of review dates.
This comes three years after the council’s failing SEND provision was slammed by inspectors in 2019 amid significant delays in processing EHCPs. As Ofsted and the CQC have been re-inspecting the council’s progress in recent weeks, The latest data shows a slight improvement on previous years but that so far this year less than 40% of EHCPs are being completed on time.
The relationship between the local authority and parents has come under renewed scrutiny in recent months over allegations of surveillance of social media posts. At this week’s Full Council meeting, councillors will vote on a motion calling for an independent inquiry into this.
How the council failed
In its report, the Local Government Ombudsman said the authority’s delay in completing an annual review of the EHCP for the child, referred to as B, and failure to issue an amended plan within statutory timescales was “fault”, which means maladministration or service failure.
It said: “The council was also at fault for failing to ensure the education provision in B’s plan was in place.
“As a result, B started post-16 education without an up-to-date plan and missed six months of speech and language therapy. To remedy this injustice, the council has agreed to apologise, pay £1,750, and act to improve its services.”
It said the delays began when the authority was required to do a “phase transfer” review of the EHCP for B, who was moving to post-16 education in September last year, setting out the student’s needs and how they would be met, and that it was responsible for ensuring those arrangements were in place.
The rules say this should have been completed by March 2021 but did not happen until June, and the council wrote to B’s parents the following month confirming its decision to amend the youngster’s plan, the ombudsman said.
It said the authority sent out a draft plan in October, weeks into the new academic year, naming a further education college as the setting but that the final EHCP was not issued until January 2022.
The college then contacted the council saying it needed to review its funding for B’s provision because there had been a change from the previous plan.
The report said: “The council issued its decision to amend the plan in July 2021. Amendment must start ‘without delay’.
“The council’s records show no evidence of any work amending the plan from July until September, when [B’s dad] Mr X asked for an update and solicitors instructed by Mr X wrote to the council threatening legal action. This was fault.
“As a result, the council did not issue a draft amended plan until October.
“From issuing the draft plan, the council had eight weeks to issue the final plan.
“This was late November. The council did not issue the final plan until January 2022.”
The ombudsman said it accepted that changes to the EHCP requested by the parents prolonged the process but that “had the council followed the statutory timescales, it should have completed the annual review by the end of March”.
It said: “Even considering the time taken to agree the content of the final plan, B’s final EHCP should have been issued by July 2021.
“I therefore find the council delayed issuing the plan by six months. This was fault.”
The report said the correct arrangements were not in place by September 2021, let alone the following January, because the authority’s delays meant the college had to use B’s old, out-of-date plan to prepare to meet their needs.
“This is an injustice to B,” the ombudsman said.
It said that because there were doubts over funding, the speech and language therapist could not keep the teen’s time-slot open, so those sessions did not start until March this year when the service had availability again.
“B completed a full academic year without college staff having the training identified in his plan as necessary to meet his needs. This is a significant injustice to B,” the report said.
The watchdog told the authority to “Identify and implement a mechanism to ensure [it] checks SEN provision is in place following a phase transfer and/or issuing a new or amended EHC Plan”.
It added: “I have not recommended improvements to the timeliness of annual reviews because the council has already committed to such improvements following a previous complaint to the ombudsman.”
A Bristol City Council spokesperson said: “The council acknowledges and accepts the findings of the report.
“A new quality assurance framework has been implemented from September to improve the annual review process which will focus on all aspects of the process including the paperwork and reviews undertaken by educational settings.
“In addition to this the new ECHP electronic portal went live in July 2022. New plans will be issued using the new template and system which will enable review dates to be monitored closely.”