Parents group want Sutton’s head of SEND to be sacked

A parents campaign group has backed a call for the sacking of Sutton Council’s head of SEND, Councillor Jenny Batt.

Jenny Batt: ‘complete failure to engage’

The parents issued a statement this morning in which they said that they have found Batt’s “complete failure to engage to be both astonishing and concerning”.

The Sutton EHCP Crisis group is seeking the re-assessment of education and health care plans for at least 700 families who have children, teens or young adults with special educational needs and disabilities.

Sutton’s SEND service was rated “inadequate” by Ofsted inspectors last year, and the EHCP Crisis group have shown that many of their members have been refused services from the council because of unlawful practices and policies which seek to deliberately withhold help even when Sutton has a statutory duty to provide it.

Both Ofsted and a subsequent specialist report commissioned by the council have been critical of the lack of leadership at Sutton over its SEND provision.

Earlier this week, in a belated gesture to appear to be doing something to address the many shortcomings of its SEND service, Inside Sutton broke the news that Tracey Burley, the managing director of Cognus, the council-owned company which is supposed to deliver SEND services, was leaving her position with immediate effect, and a tax-payer-funded £100,000 golden farewell.

£100,000 scapegoat: Tracey Burley

Burley has been seen as a convenient scapegoat for the Liberal Democrat-run council in Sutton. The opposition Tory group said that Burley “has been used as a human shield by the Liberal Democrats to cover up their own political failure to get a grip on the crisis engulfing Cognus and the council”.

The Tories now demand that a local politician, such as Batt, should also carry some of the responsibility.

There’s more than a whiff of political expediency in Sutton Conservatives’ move, since Batt is reckoned to be lined up as a prospective LibDem parliamentary candidate in the Tory-held Sutton and Cheam seat. Being sacked, or even forced to resign from a senior role on the council amid the controversy over the failing SEND service would not do much for Batt’s Westminster ambitions.

But Sutton EHCP Crisis group’s withering remarks today about Batt will do little to shore up the councillor’s position.

“Sutton EHCP Crisis was created with the sole aim of restoring lawful decision making for EHCP assessments and plans in our borough and improving the current stressful and exhausting process for families,” said the group’s founder, Hayley Harding.

“Whilst we welcome any changes that are attempted to try and improve this situation by Sutton Council and Cognus Ltd, we do not want changes in leadership to detract from the main issue of the approximately 700 children that have been unlawfully rejected for EHCP assessments since 2015. The families around Sutton who have a lot to deal with already have not even been given the respect of an apology from the council for what has happened and the stress they have been put through.

“This is not acceptable, and we will continue to campaign for fairness until this is achieved.

“Our campaign group is apolitical, but we do greatly appreciate any help anyone will offer us. With this in mind, in response to the recent press statement by the Sutton Conservatives, we would like to state that we do agree with what has been called for.

“This is on the basis that at every meeting we have had with her to date, Ms Batt has failed to say anything to us nor give any written response. Given that her position is one of Head of SEND for the borough we have found her complete failure to engage to be both astonishing and concerning.

“The failure here is a clear illustration of why we feel the current review of SEND services being undertaken by Sharon Scott (which has been limited to Cognus Ltd’s role) should be extended to also cover the role of the local authority. Aside from this we do look forward to meeting with Ms Scott in the coming weeks and hope that she will be given the scope and freedom to report completely impartially and in the public interest, that her full report is made available publicly.”

For its part, Sutton Council could not even manage to handle the announcement of Burley’s sacking – for that is what it is – without bungling it.

Although the council has been strongly criticised over its lack of leadership on the issue, that probably did not require Councillor Marian James to manage to issue her response to Burley’s departure from Cognus before the company had managed to get itself organised sufficiently to issue its own announcement.

Premature evacuation: Cllr Marian James’s statement in response to Cogus’s news, but issued by Sutton Council an hour before the company published its confirmation of Burley’s departure

The premature issue of the statement from James, Batt’s colleague on the council’s people committee, only further underlined how Burley’s departure was all an elaborate stitch-up to try to save the council’s face.

“Today’s news from Cognus,” James’s statement said, before Cognus had confirmed Inside Sutton’s report, “demonstrates that the council and Cognus are working together in new ways to improve the service and to review the way in which we work together.” Even though the timing of James’s statement demonstrated that the council and Cognus couldn’t even manage to co-ordinate publication times.

“I am grateful to all concerned for what it represents. I look forward to our continued joint working on our improvement journey.”

It was another hour before Cognus managed to publish their announcement of Burley’s departure, which company chairman Ian Comfort described as happening because “she has decided it is now time for change”; £100,000 is an awful lot  of loose change…

But then in his statement, Comfort also tried to claim that “the organisation is in a good position”, which is also far removed from the truth.

Comfort’s commentary may also have been a little awkward for the LibDem council leadership, which has tried to distract from Sutton’s SEND failings by blaming central government for under-funding the service. The  problems in Sutton, though, have never really been about a lack of resources, as the borough’s SEND service is among the best-funded local authorities in the country.

Comfort underlined this: under Burley’s leadership, he wrote, “we have secured considerable additional funds from central government”.

The statement confirmed that senior Cognus staffer Bob Harrison would take temporary charge of Cognus “until such time as a new managing director is recruited”.

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