As the Ofsted inspectors visit Fisher’s Folly this week, one family’s struggle to get the council to provide a decent standard of education for their son with SEND has forced them to write this open letter to the council leader
Dear Councilor Hamida Ali,
I have read with interest the recent news concerning your and Katherine Kerswell’s views on the failings of Croydon Council. You both stress your apparent commitment to sorting out Croydon.
Yet your failure to respond to our four requests, sent over the last three months, for a meeting with a member of your leadership team leads me to now make this letter to you public. Three months really is more than long enough to wait for an answer. We feel we’ve got a very compelling reason to seek a meeting with your leadership team and this is only part of it.
A few weeks back, at the opening of Croydon’s new free school for children with special needs, you praised the trust which operates it, Orchard Hill.
One of Orchard Hills’ schools had assessed our son, Tim, a few years back to see if they would take him. Tim is autistic, has attention deficit disorder and complex health needs, including kidney failure which meant he required a transplant. They took a medical history from him. Tim was eight years old at the time.
Despite Tim not being legally competent to consent to this nor being able to provide this kind of important information, based on his self-reported medical history one of the teachers said it would be “life-threatening” for Tim to even walk across their playground. Life-threatening, in the assessment of a teacher. Not a medical profession, a nurse or a doctor, but a teacher.
Both Orchard Hill and the local authority refused our requests to meet with us and Tim’s medical team to discuss the huge inaccuracy of this assessment. Instead, Orchard Hill and the local authority had a private meeting we were not allowed to attend (believe me, we asked, more than once).
Between the two of you, you reached an agreement that Tim could attend the school but only on the basis that he has his own classroom, his own teacher and two members of staff with him at all times, all as “essential safety adaptations”. That’s not a school for our eight-year-old autistic child with complex health needs. That would have been a prison.
At no point did the local authority consider how Tim had not died in the playground of the 600-plus mainstream school, nor in his class of 32 he was then attending and continued to attend without any additional “essential safety adaptations” for the next six months.
So we sought the intervention of your cabinet member for education and children’s services, Councillor Alisa Flemming.
After three requests, Councillor Flemming eventually responded.
She’d discussed the matter with the officers involved, the school that had been allocated was suitable and, while I paraphrase here, we should accept it and send Tim there.
We complained formally to the Orchard Hill academy trust and to Croydon Council. For their part, Orchard Hill offered us £2,000 if we stopped complaining about their assessment processes and staff. That offer, had we accepted it, would have tied our hands when we eventually heard what Croydon Council had to say for yourselves.
The council’s conclusion was that you had made no mistakes as the school was “an unsuitable school”.
It appears that either Councillor Flemming was misled by the officers she talked to, or she misled us. Which is it?
Three times Croydon Council threatened to use the special educational needs tribunal to force us to send Tim to that “unsuitable school”.
You negotiated a placement that cost close to £130,000 per year once transport was included. Over 10 years, that’s about £1.3million for education at what you’d described as “an unsuitable school” but where you were prepared to force our child to attend. Orchard Hill must have been laughing all the way to the bank.
I doubt there is a special needs parent in the country that wouldn’t want to sit down and have an explanation from the local authority as to why it was prepared to fail in its legal duty to provide their child with a suitable education by using the tribunal to force them to send their child to a school the local authority knew was “an unsuitable school”.
Your director of children’s services, Debbie Jones, and your head of conflict resolution, Kim Hyland, both informed us and our MP that there was no case to answer as the Local Government Ombudsman had “thoroughly investigated” our complaints. Yet they both know this to be dishonest, as the LGO informed us and yourselves that they are unable to investigate most complaints, including ours, concerning special educational needs.
A quirk of legislation means that complaints raised about special educational needs are, for the most part, not examined by the LGO. It is almost as if Croydon Council was aware of this and conducted a sham investigation, knowing that we’d have very little recourse against them.
The apology we asked you to obtain from your dishonest senior officials has failed to arrive, never mind an explanation as to why they feel dishonesty is more appropriate than addressing the issue in question.
I feel the need to remind you here that there is a legal duty for local authorities to adequately investigate all complaints, regardless of whether they are special educational needs related or not. There is no provision in local government legislation that says sham investigations are allowed if you can get away with it.
We can also show that at least two council officials categorically lied to the apparently “independent” investigator.
Tim’s caseworker, now a SEND team lead, submitted that specific medical evidence was considered when the local authority rejected our request for Tim to be moved to a specialist school. The investigator concluded from this that medical teams had been involved.
Yet the specific medical evidence she listed had not been submitted until the month after the date she told the investigator the decision was made. Your investigator was either asleep on the job or indifferent to adequately investigating our complaint.
Your head of special educational needs submitted that she wasn’t involved in the decision-making process at all. In fact, she claimed the local authority has no idea who or even when the decision was made. Yet we have a paper trail of evidence that supports our claim that she fabricated that story to avoid accountability.
The consequences of all this for Tim was that his kidney transplant work-up was suspended, due to psychological instability, and he ended up on dialysis, costing the NHS tens of thousands of pounds. How can you assure us that a legitimate, informed decision was made when you can’t tell me who, or when, the decision was made, and council officials lie about the evidence that was considered?
This is not even the end of the absolute misery the local authority inflicts upon us.
Last summer during the first covid lockdown, on medical advice we were all “super shielding” – not one of the four of us allowed in or out of the house – to protect our clinically extremely vulnerable Tim. Nonetheless, Croydon Council insisted that Tim’s annual education heath and care package review must take place.
We asked for it to be delayed until we knew when Tim could actually return to school, so that we could tell how much he had missed and how much of a problem this would be for him. You refused. You refused to delay Tim’s annual review until medical advice could be obtained.
But that isn’t even the worst of it. We got our MP to help, and your director of education, Shelley Davies, denied that the council had refused to delay the review. She straight out lied about it in her response to our MP that he helpfully sent to us.
We submitted a complaint to Councillor Flemming and she informed us that it would be handled in the appropriate manner. For your leadership team, “the appropriate manner” appears to be to simply bury it. We have had no response from this complaint, not even an acknowledgement. That was November last year.
We did get a statement from Shelley Davies last December, but it certainly wasn’t an apology. She claimed that as soon as she “became aware” of the council’s refusal to delay the annual review in order for medical evidence to be obtained, she intervened to ensure it was. In that case, she must have been aware of the situation when she misled our MP and denied that this had occurred.
Why do your senior officers feel that it is acceptable to lie about anybody’s case, Councillor Ali?
Croydon’s sole argument against Tim needing specialist education was their educational psychology, or EP, report. At the time we said that the EP report was not accurate or sufficient but we were told the report was complete.
The complaint response however concluded that parts of the EP report were not professional opinion but “conjecture”. Conjecture is a conclusion based on an incomplete assessment. Croydon then went ahead and used the EP report, based on conjecture, as the sole evidence considered in the council’s decision-making, ignoring the evidence we submitted from nine NHS professionals.
To stop us from seeking the truth, your head of special educational needs then threatened to cut off all direct contact between ourselves and the SEND team – with all the consequences which that might have had for our vulnerable child. This course of action appeared to be taken under the approval of your head of complaints, Kim Hyland.
I cannot imagine a more blatant attempt at bullying than this, and had we not already got Tim safely enrolled in a specialist school ourselves, we are under no doubt that it would have worked.
When this threat failed, Croydon Council agree to an independently mediated meeting. There, the council agreed to retract its complaint response. This would have been acceptable except the formal retraction only covered the findings to our Stage 1 complaint, not the findings to our Stage 2 complaint.
Your Stage 1 retraction directly contradicts the Stage 2 response, and the mediator recommended a second meeting, a “reality check” for yourselves he called it.
Your senior officers have spent the last nine months refusing to discuss the issue with us, hiding behind claims of an LGO investigation when they know the LGO is unable to investigate SEND cases.
The contempt you and your senior officials feel for us was perfectly demonstrated by your new head of “transformation” and special needs.
An internal email she mistakenly copied us into had her stating that we had been “claiming” Tim was on the verge of transplant for years. Being on the transplant waiting list is literally being on the verge of transplant. For more than three years in Tim’s case, to be precise, when we had to prepare him four times for potential transplants that then got cancelled. Eventually, at the fifth attempt, Tim has had the transplant.
It seems that this council employee was somehow suggesting that we were making up Tim’s medical needs. At least she was “open and transparent” about it by copying us in.
When you became council leader a year ago, Councillor Ali, much was said about Croydon Council being “open and transparent”. Yet now you force us to conclude that you are either utterly disinterested or simply unable to deliver on this promise.
We have been waiting for three months for you to respond to our requests for a meeting and that a member of the leadership team attend as well. We ask again, will you commit to meet with us, Councillor Ali?
Jamie and Jason Watson
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