EXCLUSIVE: After Croydon’s children’s services was rated “inadequate” last year, now Sutton’s Special Educational Needs and Disabilities department has been found by Ofsted to be failing. And council attempts to suppress the report ahead of local elections have failed, as BELLE MONT reports
Sutton’s provision for children with disabilities and special education needs (SEND) has failed an Ofsted inspection, with the inspector’s criticisms aimed squarely at the council leadership.
Senior officials at the Liberal Democrat-controlled council had hoped to keep the withering criticisms in the report under wraps until next week, when the pre-election purdah period begins. But the Ofsted letter was leaked on a parents’ group Facebook page, where it appeared for a few minutes before being removed.
Inside Croydon has obtained a full copy of the letter, however, and its contents are damning.
The Ofsted findings have prompted opposition politicians on the council to demand the immediate resignation of the LibDem council leader, Ruth Dombey, and the councillor responsible for children and education services, who they say is “not up to the job”.
While there have been significant and severe cuts to local budgets under Conservative-led government austerity, the Ofsted report, dated March 21 from HM Inspector Andrew Wright, points to failures in leadership rather than a lack of resources for the dire problems in Sutton.
The report comes as Sutton Council has announced a cut to SEN transport services for post-19 school and college pupils, as its transport budget spirals out of control with a multi-million pound overspend. The council had declined an opportunity to renegotiate its transport spend on a cost-saving mileage basis, as has been implemented successfully in Labour-controlled Merton.
The inspectors visited Sutton between January 22 and 26, in a joint operation with the Care Quality Commission, to “judge the effectiveness of [Sutton] in implementing the disability and special educational needs reforms as set out in the Children and Families Act 2014”.
The report shows that staff on the ground are largely performing very well, and are flagging up the needs of children in a correct and timely manner.
The criticism is laid at the door of those who manage the service, for failing to develop good quality EHC plans – covering the education, health and care of young people, as well as failures to communicate coherently with parents, schools and providers, and for failure to provide a proper independent parental advice service.
Two areas of particular concern were in the lack of provision of diagnostic services for children with possible autism or ADHD, and the high number of exclusions from school of children with special education needs, particularly at primary level.
The service is headed by the chair of the children, family and education committee, Councillor Wendy Mathys.
It was Mathys who, in 2016, presided over Sutton ditching 95 per cent of its in-house education team, and setting up a company called Sutton Education Services Ltd (SES) to administer the education functions which provide SEND services.
But a string of botched management decisions and inaction by SES meant that an agreement to make local schools shareholders in the company failed, as officers appeared to have mislaid the agreements and did not register the shareholdings at Companies House. Following the resignation of its independent non-executive directors, last autumn the company was rebranded as Cognus Ltd, following the appointment of a new managing director.
Inside Croydon has learned that these failures contributed to a total lack of confidence in the organisation by local schools and stakeholders.
The main findings of the Ofsted report are:
- There has been insufficient progress in implementing the 2014 reforms, with providers and parents concerned about the quality of the leaders’ communication and oversight of reforms.
- Leaders have not appreciated how far behind they are, resulting in over-optimistic self-evaluation.
- The establishment of SES (now Cognus) to deliver support services has not had the expected impact.
- Leaders have failed to convert information from health professionals in the field into quality education, health and care plans, with vague objectives.
- Leaders have allowed the independent advice service for parents to dwindle, and blamed staffing levels for ineffective service. Some parents had to pay for their own legal help, while others resorted to non-specialist channels. The mediation service was also viewed scathingly by parents – “leaders do not want to mediate with families”.
- Poor communications have created tensions between schools and leaders, and providers told of feeling “at a distance” from the EHC planning and review process.
- The results of consultations with young people have not been acted upon.
- Parents and providers lack confidence in the local offer, and are not convinced it is up to date.
As a result, Ofsted has demanded that Sutton Council draws up a Written Statement of Action that explains how numerous areas of significant weakness will be tackled.
A disgruntled service user told Inside Croydon: “The feeling among parents and the people on the ground is that we’ve been through this repeatedly. We’ve spent ages giving detailed feedback, and then it is all ignored. Here’s our feedback again, can you actually pay attention this time? Otherwise why bother?
“It all paints a picture of ‘leaders’ who are in their own little world, not talking to anyone, not aware of what’s going on, not aware of their own failings, and allowing things to fall apart instead of taking action.”
Mathys has been a controversial figure in her time chairing the education committee. Her judgement has been found to be wanting on several occasions.
- In September 2015 Mathys blocked the building of a secondary school at Rosehill, in council leader Ruth Dombey’s ward, stating a preference to build on the undersized site in Conservative-controlled Belmont.
- In the summer of 2016, Mathys was referred to the council’s standards committee after she sent an email to the chief executive saying that she hoped that the EU referendum would distract attention from the murder of six-year-old Ellie Butler.
- In council, Mathys has consistently denied that the completion of the Harris Academy at Belmont would be late. She originally promised it would open it 2017. Then 2018. Only a temporary classroom will open in 2018, at an extra cost of around £1million.
- At council meetings, Mathys has denied that she is opposed to academies and free schools. However, when interviewed by the BBC at a LibDem party conference, she was quoted as saying she was disappointed at the failure to “press harder” on LibDem opposition to free schools which she said would be “divisive”.
Meanwhile, yesterday, and purely by coincidence, local LibDem MP Tom Brake – a cheerleader for Sutton Council – called for Ofsted to be shut down. Can’t think why…
Today, Sutton Council was saying that as Ofsted hadn’t formally published the report on its website, they can’t officially respond. “They are desperate to keep a lid on this before the elections,” a council insider said.
In the past 18 months, two other south London boroughs – Bromley and Croydon – have been handed huge criticisms from Ofsted for their children’s services departments. In Bromley, it led, eventually, to the resignation of Stephen Carr, the leader of the Tory council.
In Sutton today, Tim Crowley, the leader of the Conservative opposition on the council, said this latest Ofsted report is a indictment of the council’s political leadership, and of Mathys in particular.
“Wendy Mathys has presided over innumerable failures, delays and mismanagement as chair of the committee responsible for looking after some of the most vulnerable children in Sutton. The service is totally out of control and mismanaged beyond belief.
“This Ofsted report is damning. It rightly praises the fantastic staff on the ground, but is wholly critical of the leadership of our SEN service, who are letting down everyone else. This has happened on her watch. It is ultimately her responsibility, and the responsibility of the Liberal Democrat political leadership that has brought us this mess.
“I know of many parents and people who have been in tears of despair over the failing advice service. I understand one member of staff has had a breakdown, and has been gagged by the council from speaking out.
“At a recent school hustings, Councillor Mathys admitted she was unaware that the council no longer has a schools improvement service. This is a statutory service. Her excuse for not knowing was she hadn’t been told by officers.
“Wendy Mathys is well-paid for her role as committee chair. She is clearly not worthy of the money, and is not up to the job.
“I will therefore calling for the immediate resignation of Councillor Mathys, and of the leader of the council, Ruth Dombey, for setting the political direction of this failed service. I have also demanded from the council a statement in response to the Ofsted report.”
For Labour, their Wandle Valley ward election candidate, David Grant, who works as a teacher, said: “The council has been slow to respond to the changing educational landscape. As pointed out at a recent governors hustings for the local elections, when you jettison your education services to an arms-length body you lose control over what is happening in your schools.
“Our Liberal Democrat councillors are blithely unaware that leaders of their own SEN provisions are saying the service is not up to date and embarrassingly behind the times.
“A common theme of this damning report is lack of communication between leaders and agencies, a failure to grasp the importance of the 2014 reforms, an absence of any strategic thinking, and a complete lack of oversight.
“Where the voice of the child is in all of this mess remains to be seen.”
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