Loss-making council company prioritises profit-generating clients over legal responsibilities for the education of some of the borough’s most vulnerable children. By CARL SHILTON
Parents of Sutton children with SEND have been lied to by their local council, as it has tried to fob them off with an inferior – and cheaper – set of lessons and therapies.
Cognus, Sutton Council’s education delivery company, is putting the borough’s autistic children at the end of a queue for face-to-face therapy sessions, claiming staff shortages, while improving its own bottom-line by selling their services to other local authorities.
Sutton Council has been under close examination because of the failings of Cognus, including an appearance on BBC Panorama 18 months ago.
Controversial Cognus – company motto: “No limits on learning… provided we can make a profit out of you” – has come under fire for its withdrawing vital face-to-face speech and language therapies to Sutton children with SEND – special education needs and disability. A row erupted at a council committee last week, and saw one angry opposition councillor storming out of the meeting after local LibDems tried to wave the matter away.
Since September 2021, most speech and language therapies at two of Sutton’s largest autism spectrum disorder (ASD) bases have been available only online. Although most of them were back in their classrooms following covid lockdowns, pupils at Oaks Park High School, in Carshalton, and Avenue Primary Academy were moved en masse to cheaper, and less-effective “teletherapy”, replacing their face-to-face sessions.
The therapy sessions are a legal responsibility for the council to provide under each child’s EHCP – education, health and care plan.
The issue was debated at the council’s people committee last week after Hayley Harding, a local mum who runs the Sutton EHCP Crisis Group, petitioned the council.
The petition explained how face-to-face therapies at these ASD bases were removed without parents being informed and without consent. The petitioners demanded these virtual sessions be replaced with the in-person therapies that children need.
“Holding the attention of a child with autism can be very difficult,” Harding told the committee. During the pandemic, Harding said, virtual therapy was better than nothing, but it was not acceptable now.
She noted how the council response to the petition had described face-to-face therapy as “premium provision”, as if it were not a statutory, legal requirement.
“I was told this was sanctioned by the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists. But we found out that this was not the case. The College is clear that decisions to use ‘teletherapy’ should be made on a case-by-case basis,” Harding, a lawyer by profession, told the committee.
“It does not sanction a blanket implementation of this method of delivery to an entire autism base in a school.
“To claim, as Cognus does, that parents gave their consent before the pandemic when an EHCP was issued is ridiculous.
“You cannot give consent for something you don’t know about. The head of the autism base at Avenue Primary told me no discussions took place about individual pupil needs.”
The council has claimed that a shortage of suitably qualified staff was to blame, and the issue was national. Cognus says it has 17 staff vacancies. But Harding has found that this recruitment problem only existed with Cognus, in Sutton. In Merton, for example, all speech and language therapy was being delivered face-to-face, Harding said.
Delivering therapies online was simply a box-ticking exercise, said Harding. “These EHCPs were written before the pandemic. Face-to-face therapy was the implied term.”
Joanne Cassey, the MD of Cognus, had claimed just 13per cent of 603 children requiring therapy received it online.
But Cassey’s own figures given in an answer to the meeting showed that, in fact, 49 out of 70 children at the two ASD bases were receiving teletherapy – 70per cent.
Cassey said, “At Oaks Park we are supporting a total of 39 pupils. Thirty-two are currently accessing remote provision and seven are receiving face-to-face therapy following discussions between the therapy teams and the school.
“At Avenue, Cognus supports 31 children. Seventeen are receiving remote support and 14 receive face to face support.”
Sutton’s borough solicitor, Sarah Willis, weighed in, trying to cover their tracks by claiming implicit consent for teletherapy, and that this remote mode of working is in some way “direct” with the therapists.
Willis said she had looked at the Royal College’s guidance. “It says that it’s important to have consent as you would for in-person therapy… the consent of parents to the therapy that is specified in the plan is obtained through the EHC assessment process. So consent is already in place for the therapy, and it is the same therapy that is being delivered to the child …
“The plan will typically specify direct sessions with the therapist… ‘direct’ means that the child is having contact with the therapist, and that is being provided through teletherapy.”
Conservative councillor Tim Crowley was blunt in his rejection of the council’s explanation, accusing the borough solicitor of trying “to get people off the hook”.
Crowley said, “We’ve heard tonight that parents weren’t informed. It’s the crux of the matter.”
The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists guidance is quite clear and makes three important points:
- Appropriateness for using telehealth should be determined on a case-by-case basis
- It is important that you obtain informed consent from the service user before commencing telehealth sessions, as you would for in-person therapy
- Additionally, there is a right to refuse this model of delivery
The NHS definition of informed consent is: “The person must be given all of the information about what the treatment involves, including the benefits and risks, whether there are reasonable alternative treatments, and what will happen if treatment does not go ahead.”
The campaign group and parents maintain that “informed consent” was therefore legally required to change the means of delivering the therapy to their children.
Andrew Theobold, a member of the committee representing the Diocese of Southwark, which has a role with Church of England schools in the borough, asked a question that brought an astonishing answer, as Cassey revealed that while she and the council were unable to provide in-person therapy to Sutton’s children, such services were being supplied by Cognus in Surrey.
The gasps from opposition councillors were audible, but any further questions were closed down by the chair, Liberal Democrat councillor Marian James, who clearly realised the implications of Cassey’s statement.
Theobald, a political neutral in the debate, was withering in his remarks.
“What I’ve heard this evening is excuses. I’ve heard a legalistic argument saying why, legally, what Cognus has done is justifiable.
“That doesn’t answer the point the petitioner made. If you’re going to change the therapy you’re giving to their children, somebody should talk to the parents about it.”
Under pressure, James rejected a recommendation from Crowley (“To work to ensure we reintroduce face-to-face therapy for all children that need it on a case-by-case basis”) without even bothering to put it to a vote of the LibDem majority committee.
When Crowley pointed out that there had been no vote completed, James shouted at him. “Councillor Crowley: stop it!” she yelled.
“No, I won’t stop it, chair,” Crowley shouted back. “Because it’s not about you. It’s about the children.”
At which point Crowley gathered his papers and left the room.
Inside Sutton has since learned that Cognus is delivering its remote therapy sessions to autistic children by employing therapists from outside the UK – thought to be a cost-saving exercise by the financially troubled company. It is also reported to be conducting all its therapy assessments online at present.
It was revealed by Inside Sutton last year that the council and Cognus had secret plans to cut costs by removing provision from around 200 SEND families around the borough.
“Not for the first time, our council is letting down our children, some of them extremely vulnerable,” a concerned parent said.
“It looks like they would rather let Cognus make money than deliver the face-to-face therapy to Sutton’s autistic children which they have a legal duty to provide.”
Read more: Minutes show plan to end services to 200 families in Sutton
Read more: SEND campaigners fight on after Panorama revelations
Read more: Sutton Council sacks Cognus MD over their SEND shambles
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