EXCLUSIVE: Sutton Council has been criticised by a local MP for being ‘insensitive’ to parents of children with SEND, while an official complaint has been lodged over a senior LibDem councillor’s conduct.
By our Sutton investigations editor, CARL SHILTON
Confidential board meeting minutes from Cognus, Sutton Council’s controversial company responsible for delivering SEND services in the borough, reveal shocking plans to cut provision and therapies to 200 families across the borough this year to balance the corporate books after making a £700,000 loss.
A parents’ campaign group has called the action “disgraceful”, and accuses council officials of lying to them over the future provision of services.
The minutes relate to meetings held in November 2019 and September 2020, and they show that Cognus making plans to “cease or reduce therapy” for children, teens and young adults in the borough with special educational needs and disabilities.
That includes Cognus’ plans to cease providing educational health care plans for 200 SEND children this year.
The minutes also reveal how Cognus passed off as “independent” a report that they “managed” themselves to help them pass an Ofsted inspection last year. The confidential minutes even show that a senior Liberal Democrat councillor edited the report before it was delivered to Ofsted. This discovery has resulted in an official complaint being made about the conduct of the councillor who chairs Sutton’s “people committee”.
Sutton Council and Cognus issued joint statements this week after being caught out when the minutes were made public. Their response was condemned by Elliot Colburn, one of the borough’s MPs, for being “insensitive”.
“We’ve seen the minutes,” tweeted Colburn, the Conservative MP for Carshalton and Wallington.
“You’ve been found out. Stop trying to find excuses and fix the problem!”
Cognus has courted controversy in the past and been subject to legal challenge from parents over the way it has denied or delayed legitimate claims for help from families with SEND children. Councils are required by law to provide educational health care plans – EHCPs – for those who qualify.
Sutton has one of the highest levels of SEND funding per capita in the country. Yet it also somehow managed to reject three times the national average of applications for EHCPs.
The high refusal rate sees many Sutton families taking the council’s decision to tribunal, where according to figures in 2019, 87 per cent of cases are won by parents. This devastating rate of losses by the council, though, was only because the judges “don’t understand” the law, according to a senior Sutton Council staffer.
Sutton’s SEND department was rated “inadequate” by Ofsted inspectors in March 2018, with the council widely criticised for its handling of Cognus, and questions being asked in the House of Commons over the scandal.
Now, parents are alarmed that Sutton children’s welfare is to be put at further risk because of the crass mismanagement at Cognus and the council.
The Cognus board meeting minutes show that last year they made a loss of £717,000. But instead of the company, or the council, absorbing the loss elsewhere, they are going to cut services which they are legally required to provide.
The minutes reveal just how uncomfortable the company, and Nick Ireland, the council director responsible for Sutton’s social services, are about being confronted by families who expect them to carry out their legal duties.
“It was acknowledged that Nick Ireland has started to see an increase in emails sent to [Sutton Council] inboxes, with letters coming through from parents in, [sic] using the same language and patterns, stating the law,” the minutes record. Imagine: parents who know and understand their legal rights! Whatever next?
“It was agreed,” the minutes state, “that our practice needs to be exemplary so that we have evidence that we have done the work.”
The confidential minutes also reveal the full story behind a report from an “independent expert”, Sharon Scott, which was used to help Sutton’s SEND service pass an Ofsted inspection last year. Families claim that the “independent” report “has been continually used to claim that parents are wrong when they say that there are problems with the SEND service”.
According to the minutes, Scott was “managed” by Cognus. Sutton Council’s financial records show that Sharon Scott Associates Ltd was paid more than £55,000 in six separate payments by the council in 2019. Which might have some bearing on any “independent” report.
The minutes also show that Marian James, the LibDem councillor who chairs the council’s “people” committee, “fact-checked” the report before it was allowed to be made public.
Inadvertently, James this week managed to confirm that she had directed the not-so-independent consultant over the report, and that she had approved it before it was handed to the Ofsted inspectors.
“Regarding ‘fact-checking’ of the independent report,” the insensitive James said after being caught out, “as chair of the people committee, I asked to see the report prior to publication to ensure it had covered all the areas that I had asked the consultant to look at.”
Angry parents have filed a formal complaint to Sutton Council over James’s conduct. Ofsted, too, have been advised about the not-so-independent report.
Today, Hayley Harding, of the Sutton EHCP Crisis parents’ campaign group, told Inside Croydon: “As the Department of Education itself has recognised, the past year has been a really tough year for SEND children and their families which have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. For Sutton Council to now aim to take away their provision or therapy because of losses that they are responsible for is disgraceful.
“Why they decided to renew the contract for a further three years with Cognus for SEND provision when they knew this of the problems the company is having doesn’t make any sense.
“What makes this worse is that in just the last couple of weeks council staff have been telling parents at parent forum meetings that there are no aims to reduce EHCPs nor reduce therapies. To find out that, yet again, what we have just been told are lies is awful. They wonder why we don’t trust them with our children’s futures and yet this just proves why.
“To also find out about the so-called ‘independent’ report just shows the lengths this council will go to to prevent the truth being told and to stop our children getting what they are legally entitled to.
“No longer can the council pretend to know nothing about what is going on within Cognus because the people’s director and assistant director were present at these meetings when these targets were discussed.”
In the joint statements issued by the council and Cognus, Ian Comfort, the company chair, tried to contradict the records of the meetings he had presided over.
“There are no targets to reduce EHCPs,” Comfort said. Comfort described the £717,000 loss discussed at the meeting he attended and recorded in the minutes as “categorically incorrect”.
Comfort said, “All requests for ceasing EHCPs are dealt with on a case by case basis and are in line with Section 9 of the SEN Code of Practice from the DfE.”
And James claimed, “I fully understand parents’ concerns as a result of Cognus board minutes being publicised. I want to reassure parents that there are no targets relating to EHCPs and that Cognus’s finances have been externally audited…
“Clear and transparent communication with parents around SEND is an ongoing priority.”
None of which was good enough for MP Colburn, who described the comments from James and Comfort as, “Another insensitive reply from two organisations that just can’t seem to stop putting parents of SEN children in Sutton through challenge after challenge.”
- Read the unredacted minutes from the November 2019 Cognus board meeting here
- Read the unredacted minutes from the September 2020 Cognus board meeting here
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