Here, unedited, is the full text of the letter sent on behalf of the Sutton EHCP Crisis Group, to Ruth Dombey, the leader of Sutton Council. The letter was dated June 10.
Dear Councilor Dombey,
We are the members of the Sutton EHCP Crisis campaign group and are writing to you for your intervention and help.
Over two months ago a large number of parents around the borough came together as we all seemed to be fighting the same battle to secure educational help for our special needs children. What we were all asking for wasn’t anything extraordinary, just what our children were/are legally entitled to.
The common issues that parents/carers found were as follows:
1. Their children’s EHCP Assessment Applications had been considered using unlawful criteria;
2. EHC Plans have been poorly drafted using unlawful language; and
3. Efforts were appearing to be made by Cognus Ltd to keep the help given to children to an absolute minimum.
Families have faced a year upon year battle to ensure the help that they have secured for their children wasn’t removed. These failures are leaving children to enter situations that are damaging to their mental health and their families are at breaking point as a result.
To date three meetings with Marian James, Jenny Batt, Tom Drummond and Lily Bande have taken place and two of those included Fiona Phelps, Nick Ireland and Victor Roman.
At the meetings themselves a great amount of evidence was put forward by the campaign team to show the unlawful practices that have and are taking place across the EHCP process under Sutton. The reason that we are now asking for you to intervene though is that it has become apparent since our last meeting that current team of Councillors (Marian and Jenny) and officers are not capable of dealing with the problem effectively. The reasons for this are as follows:
1. In our dealings with Officers, we have continually been given assurances that we have found to be untrue. Some examples of this are:
i. Following the first meeting Fiona Phelps e-mailed to state that only the SEND code of conduct was used by the decision making panel and nothing else. Following this Mrs Harding presented her with evidence that was submitted to the tribunal by Sutton LA in April that clearly stated otherwise;
ii. In our last meeting we were assured again by Fiona that the complaints procedure at Cognus Ltd had been updated to include a level whereby a parent could go to the LA if they were unhappy with the way their complaint had been dealt with by Cognus Ltd. The following day we checked if such an update had been made and this was not the case; and
iii. At the last meeting we were told that processes and people had been put in place to ensure that EHCPs were drafted adequately and lawfully. Yet at the meeting one of the parents presented her EHCP that had been issued just two days previously and this included unlawful phrases. We have since heard further accounts of plans being drafted at this standard.
2. Despite the fact that we have presented multiple evidence of unlawful decision making practices, we were told on Tuesday that lawyers had not been consulted to, at the very least, provide up to date guidance on what criteria should be followed and how. This to us showed a strong level of either incompetence or disinterest in our issue.
3. The current Head of SEN, Amalia Banon who at present is making all decisions of whether to assess and issue EHCPs to vulnerable children on behalf of the authority has a clear misunderstanding of the law. In addition she has said that in her view “tribunal decisions go against the authority because Judges need training in the Children and Families Act 2014”, “Medical reports by professionals are hypothesis” and to her “provision means money”. To our minds someone capable of openly making such despicable statements to a parent of a child with SEN should not be allowed to continue in such role and should be removed. Yet her position remains despite this incompetence having been highlighted to Fiona Phelps.
4. Marian James and Jenny Batt seem unwilling to hold officers sufficiently to account and have failed to take full ownership. Neither have yet suggested any tangible actions to deal with the problem. The answers that we have got from Marian when we have tried to ask her questions in meetings have just been to deflect the issue back to council officers. She also appears to have had insufficient oversight of what the officers were doing to try and deal with the problems because at our last meeting she was openly unaware that Fiona was now attending board meetings in an advisory capacity at Cognus. Something that if regular updates were taken place would have no doubt come up.
5. The only answer we have been given to each piece of written evidence that unlawful criteria has been used to assess SEN children (Cognus EHCP Guidance Booklet [now taken down after our concerns were raised], letters sent to families, SEND Policy of Jan 2018 and evidence submitted to the tribunal by Sutton LA) is that despite it being there in black and white it wasn’t actually used. We find this response to be dismissive, patronising and quite frankly wholly inadequate.
Whilst we recognise that you will understandably want to try and protect and defend your officers and council members we would urge you to remember the children that are suffering here as a result of the lack of and poor action taking place. They are not at fault in this situation yet are the ones who are really being made to suffer.
As leader of the council we are therefore asking you to intervene because the issues that we have uncovered (and continue to uncover) are becoming so significant that it is clear that the current EHCP process is not fit for purpose and needs an immediate top to bottom review. We feel the SEN children of our borough deserve full independent reviews of the following:
1. The EHCP process for families with SEN children in Sutton from the point that potential special educational needs are noticed by parents to their journey through the education system with an EHCP;
2. Every decision made to reject children for EHCP assessments from November 2017 to March 2019 that were made using criteria over and above statute, namely that included in the Cognus 2017 EHCP Guidance booklet that has now been removed from the Sutton LA website and the various letters that were sent to parents and carers that stated that unlawful criteria would be used to assess; and
3. The transparency and accountability of Cognus limited and its ability to deliver SEN services to the borough.
Our next step is to pursue a judicial review on this matter if we don’t feel like this is being dealt with adequately.
We look forward to hearing your response.
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