Parents and carers of children and young adults with SEND – Special Educational Needs and Disability – claim that the new, malfunctioning Local Offer website launched by the council last month is not only full of broken hyperlinks and broken promises… it may also even be breaking the law.
As Inside Croydon reported at the weekend, the Local Offer website made its debut appearance in July, but had clearly not been proofed or checked, with many links to services being missing, and information on the site clearly out of date even before it was published.
The problem for the council is that this is not just a shoddy piece of work on a “nice to have” online service: the council is required by law to provide up-to-date and usable information for those with SEND and their families.
The requirements on local authorities, such as Croydon Council, can be found in Sections 27, 28, 30, 32, 41, 49, and 51-57 of the Children and Families Act 2014; the Equality Act 2010; and The Special Educational Needs and Disability Regulations 2014 (Part 4).
As one frustrated parent told Inside Croydon, “Council officials and our senior elected councillors really do need to take a look at the SEND Code of Practice. There’s a high chance that they are breaking the law.”
Inside Croydon highlighted recently how the council had been in breach of its statutory duties when the borough’s Autism Board – a committee of health and education groups which is required by law to meet regularly to oversee the local provision for those with autism – had failed to hold any meetings for nine months, from October 2017. This was due to the absence of “key stakeholders”, it was claimed.
Croydon’s “Autism Champion”, and the chair of the Autism Board until May 2018, was the then councillor, Andrew Rendle. The period when the Autism Board failed to meet coincided with a time when Rendle was busy seeking selection as a Labour candidate for May’s local elections. Rendle’s efforts proved futile.
The council has not suffered any adverse consequences for this failure to meet its statutory obligations over the Autism Board, with newly appointed Autism Champion Jerry Fitzpatrick undertaking to ensure that meetings will be convened regularly.
But the Local Offer website seems to highlight a whole range of further breaches of the council’s statutory responsibilities in another area of service provision for some of the borough’s vulnerable youngsters.
Just in case council chief exec Jo “We’re Not Stupid” Negrini, or Alisa Flemming, the cabinet member who is supposed to be responsible, have not looked at the government’s SEND Code of Practice recently, Inside Croydon has downloaded a copy for their use here.
And here’s a clue: you’ll find what you need in Chapter 4, called “The Local Offer”, and it starts on page 59…
As the parent observes, “Where words like ‘must’ appear, it means they have a statutory duty, they are required by law, to provide these services.”
This gets all the more messy for Councillor Flemming, as she has already presided over one, long-running disaster on her watch as a cabinet member, that of the council’s children’s services failing its Ofsted inspection in July 2017, and continuing to be under special measures ever since.
Has Flemming now failed to oversee the council meeting the minimum requirements of the law for SEND Local Offer, too?
To save Negrini and Flemming the bother of downloading their own copy of this important document, we reproduce here a couple of key passages:
“Local authorities must publish a Local Offer, setting out in one place information about provision they expect to be available across education, health and social care for children and young people in their area who have SEN or are disabled, including
those who do not have Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans. In setting out what they ‘expect to be available’, local authorities should include provision which they believe will actually be available.”
The use of bold type for the word “must”, for emphasis, is the choice of the Department for Education and Department of Health, who published the Code.
The Local Offer, the Code says, has “two key purposes”, one of which is “To provide clear, comprehensive, accessible and up-to-date information about the available provision and how to access it.”
The Code continues…
“The Local Offer should not simply be a directory of existing services. Its success depends as much upon full engagement with children, young people and their parents as on the information it contains. The process of developing the Local Offer will help local authorities and their health partners to improve provision.”
“Croydon Council’s idea of what ‘full engagement’ means, and my idea of ‘full engagement’ are poles apart,” another parent told Inside Croydon. “We only even discovered Croydon’s Local Offer was online through a parents’ group newsletter. There was no engagement from Croydon Council with us about it.”
You don’t have to drill much further through the Code of Practice to find more gems. Such as this:
“The Special Educational Needs and Disability Regulations 2014 provide a common framework for the Local Offer. They specify the requirements that all local authorities must…” that pesky word again, and in bold, too, “… meet in developing, publishing and reviewing their Local Offer”.
The Code of Practice then helpfully lists what local authorities, such as Croydon, must (our use of emphasis this time) cover:
- How the Local Offer is to be published
- Who is to be consulted about the Local Offer
- How children with SEN or disabilities and their parents and young people with SEN or disabilities will be involved in the preparation and review of the Local Offer, and
- The publication of comments on the Local Offer and the local authority’s response, including any action it intends to take in relation to those comments.
This last point is of some interest, since those who have tried to use Croydon’s Local Offer website say that they have been unable to find where on the site they can leave their comments, or where other users’ comments might have been published.
Of course, as they are using a piece of Croydon Council’s “digital offer”, it is entirely possible that the site has been made so difficult to navigate that those site users who have spoken to Inside Croydon have simply failed to find this comment area – which, as the government’s SEND Code of Practice points out, is a statutory requirement.
The alternative possibility is that whoever built the Croydon Local Offer website never included a comments area.
After all, if there is no complaints box, no one can submit a complaint…
Last year, there was a total of 226 complaints about Croydon Council services referred to the Local Government Ombudsman. You’ll find no mention of this at all on the council’s own website, nor in any official council press releases. But this is one league table on which Croydon is very near the top.
It made our council the third most-complained about local authority in England and Wales (only Newham and the city of Birmingham had more complaints).
And these complaints were not trivial matters, either, with the majority being upheld by the Ombudsman or requiring official intervention.
Of all those complaints referred to the LGO, 37 were about Croydon’s education and children’s services, one of the most complained-about areas of the council’s work.
Yet on Croydon Council’s shiny new Local Offer website, no one can find anywhere any reference to the Local Government Ombudsman, nor how to contact the LGO office and start complaint proceedings with the council.
Which, from the point of view of Negrini and Flemming, is probably just as well.
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While reading the Code of Practice, the council officials and councillors may also like to check the use of the word annual…
Is there not one local councillor prepared to stand up and represent this vulnerable group of people? Wither local democracy.
Competent, accountable leadership starts at the top.
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