A crisis over provision of SEND services has forced the council’s chief exec to take urgent action, appointing a director to the company in charge
Sutton stages a full council meeting tonight at which the borough’s provision of services for SEND children will be a key agenda item.
The LibDem-run council has been under fire for more than a year over its mismanagement of this service, following a failed Ofsted inspection, critical coverage on regional television programmes and recent ridicule in the pages of the country’s best-selling satirical fortnightly magazine.
Tonight, council leader Ruth Dombey’s “top team” will face a grilling with a series of questions from angry parents and opposition councillors about the unlawful blocking of school and health support services for children with SEND – Special Educational Needs and Disability.
Senior sources suggest that behind the scenes, the council continues to be in disarray over the issue, as a full-blown row has broken out between the elected politicians supposedly responsible for setting borough policy, senior council officials in charge of delivering services to the Sutton public, and staff at Cognus, the council-owned commercial company which was set up to provide SEND services.
In a report into its SEND service commissioned by the council last year, but which they kept under wraps for months, author Dr Peter Gray said there is “an insufficient level of trust and collaboration between the local authority, Cognus and education providers in the borough”.
With the borough’s politicians continuing to bungle their responsibilities, failing hundreds of families, there’s a growing suspicion that a scapegoat or two will soon be sacrificed, and that these will probably be leading figures at Cognus. Golden handshakes – at vast expense to the public – are sure to follow in an effort to get the ruling LibDems off the hook.
At the centre of the gathering storm is Amalia Banon.
Banon joined at the end of last year from Croydon Council, where she was known among parents of SEND children for being less-than-helpful over their children’s vital education and health care plan (EHCP) assessments.
“She always seemed to have an attitude that she wanted to avoid the council having to spend money on EHC plans,” a Croydon parent said.
Sutton parents who have encountered Banon in 2019 suggest that she has brought similar attitudes with her from Croydon.
Sutton continues to refuse an unusually high proportion of EHCP applications – last year, 64 per cent of all applications for EHCP assessments were dismissed. The national average is 22 per cent.
These refusal decisions, when challenged by parents through independent appeal tribunals, get overturned in 87 per cent of cases.
In a highly critical letter sent to Dombey last month, members of a parents’ campaign group wrote that Banon was, “making all decisions of whether to assess and issue EHCPs to vulnerable children on behalf of the authority”.
Banon, the parents wrote, “has a clear misunderstanding of the law”.
What also was unclear was where Banon worked, and therefore to whom she was answerable. Banon had in fact been recruited by Sutton to be their new head of SEN to help fix the many shortcomings highlighted by the Ofsted inspectors. But as far as many who had had dealings with Banon were concerned, Banon – who tends to use a Cognus email address rather than a council one – was an employee of a private company and therefore her conduct was less open to scrutiny.
In the parents’ letter to Dombey they quoted Banon extensively from recorded discussions at meetings. “Tribunal decisions go against the authority because judges need training in the Children and Families Act 2014”, Banon told parents at one meeting.
“Medical reports by professionals are hypothesis” was another of Banon’s assertions.
“Provision means money”, Banon also told parents.
The parents wrote in their letter to the council leader, “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.”
Banon was not the only new broom brought in by Sutton following the disastrous Ofsted report in March 2018. Fiona Phelps was appointed as Sutton’s assistant director for education and SEND.
Phelps arrived in Sutton highly experienced and well-regarded within the field, but she must by now be wondering what she has taken on. As the link between the council and Cognus, as well as parents and the local NHS commissioning group, she has been handed a thankless task.
Despite Phelps’ overarching position, she has at times been treated as an outsider by Cognus, to the extent that she is expected to visit Cognus only by appointment.
While well-placed council insiders are delighted that Phelps is on board, many believe she is hamstrung amid a Mexican stand-off between Sutton Council’s weak political leadership on SEND and Cognus.
Sutton’s SEN Multi-Agency Panel appears to make the decisions on whether a child receives an EHC plan, but Banon has tended to have the final say, with the panel merely advising Cognus.
While the council has the ultimate responsibility for delivering the statutory SEND services, it is Cognus, and Banon, who has been making many key decisions, something which has confused parents.
Under mounting pressure, with questions being asked in the House of Commons and with Sutton racking up yet another appearance in Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs column, it may have led to Helen Bailey, the council’s relatively new chief exec, stepping in to “fix” Cognus by sticking more council appointees on the company board, something which the council, as 75 per cent owners of the company, is entirely at liberty to do. Nonetheless, given the timing and recent events, it appears a blatant effort to wrest back some control.
“Nick Ireland will have a new role as the director of Cognus, and we will have other council officers sitting on the board,” Marian James, the ineffectual councillor who chairs the council’s people committee, announced at its most recent meeting.
Ireland is Sutton’s acting strategic director in the people directorate.
“As a council officer I can be put on the board of Cognus and in addition to that there will be other officers who can become part of the board to ensure the council can direct the company in regards to what is required in relation to statutory requirements,” Ireland said, underlining the power grab represented by the move, and a clear concern within the council that Cognus is not doing “what is required in relation to statutory requirements”.
The appointment of Ireland to the board of Cognus, though, is thought to be a second-best option, since Bailey is unable – for now at least – to make any changes to the senior execs running the company.
Inside Sutton has learned that there was a meeting of Sutton Council’s Corporate Management Team (CMT) earlier this month. The CMT is a senior officer team led by Bailey that has executive powers in many situations.
It is believed that it was at at this meeting that Bailey decided to take charge of the situation, and to put council officers effectively in charge of Cognus by flooding its board with directors. Bailey has authority to appoint directors on behalf of the council’s shareholdings board.
Bailey’s response is being seen by many at the council as effectively usurping the power of Marian James, one of Dombey’s most trusted senior councillors, after more than a year of dither and indecision and no real change to the SEND crisis in Sutton.
However, Bailey cannot sack a director. This is a reserved matter for the Sutton shareholding board which does not meet again until October. So sacking the incumbent managing director (and sole executive director), Tracey Burley, was not an option.
In fact, Cognus only has five directors. Its Articles of Association state it must have “at least” seven directors. Ireland has not yet been registered as a director at Companies House.
The incompetence of some strands of the council’s leadership means that staff morale in the SEND service may be seriously affected – the very staff on the ground who deliver the vast majority of the council’s education services incredibly well, who are dedicated to their jobs, and who were widely praised in the Ofsted report.
With the political leaders unlikely to shoulder any blame, it’s highly probable that an unlucky executive at Cognus will soon be offered a golden goodbye, but only after signing a binding non-disclosure agreement, to save the politicians’ blushes and make them look decisive.
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