PARENTS have accused Devon County Council of ‘relentless institutional failings’ of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

A protest was held at county hall in Exeter yesterday, Wednesday, about what they believe is the council’s ‘neglect’ of their children, with an open letter demanding ‘urgent action’.

Last year Devon was hit with a government improvement notice for its services for SEND children, which it runs in partnership with NHS Devon.

The Conservative-run council and NHS Devon both apologised after a revisit by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission last May found that progress had not been made in fixing four areas of significant concern identified in December 2018.

Devon’s children’s services, which excludes Plymouth and Torbay, are rated inadequate, with the government threatening intervention unless there are signs of improvement.

The county council says there are ‘significant problems across the whole system in Devon,’ but added it is ‘totally committed’ to making things better.

However, Elaine Davis-Kimble from Devon SEND Parents and Carers for Change, which arranged the protest, said: ‘It’s absolutely horrendous. You’ve got children and young people out of school for years in some cases, with no placement at all, no SEND provision.’

She claimed funding delays are leading to some SEND children having to stay at home, causing parents to leave work or reduce working hours so they can support them.

This then leads to mental health problems, she added, because of children not being around their peers. She described the Devon Child and Adolescsent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) as ‘broken’.

Ms Davis-Kimble said parents sometimes have to spend thousands of pounds on private assessments or take the council to tribunals to fight for child provision, of which parents win 95 per cent of cases.

She blamed “mismanagement” rather than a lack of funding: ‘Comparable counties, and there are about 20 I think across the UK – some comparable demographically and in terms of population size to DCC with similar budgets – are doing far better.

‘It’s an endemic, cultural, blaming ethos and not getting stuff sorted internally within DCC that seems to be the biggest problem quite frankly.’

The current lack of communication with parents also drew criticism: ‘There’s no way DCC can begin to address the problems with its services unless it speaks to the very people using those services, which they don’t do,’ Ms Davis-Kimble said.

She claimed the official communications channel, Parent Carer Forum Devon, is run by paid employees of the council, adding: ‘It’s not an independent body and it hasn’t managed to capture hardly enough the parent voice.

‘We need to essentially look at a much more creative, comprehensive and genuine consultation process where parents can tell them what it wrong with their services. You need to listen to the people actually using it. That’s the most important thing for us.’

Ms Davis-Kimble says the authority’s 0 to 25 team needs a ‘complete overhaul’, highlighting how each caseworker is assigned to 500 children and staff not being trained adequately enough.

On the future of Devon’s councillor in charge of children’s services, Andrew Leadbetter (Conservative, Wearside & Topsham), who has been in post for almost two years, she said: ‘We haven’t seen any improvements during his tenure, so that maybe speaks for itself.’

Labour councillor Rob Hannaford (Exwick & St Thomas), chair of the council children’s scrutiny committee which is working with Ofsted and the Department of Education to address the problems, said the service ‘remains a huge concern for me and many others’.

‘This well-supported protest group and demonstration is an accurate reflection of the pain and frustration that many SEND families feel and experience on a daily basis.’

He added: ‘Individual caseloads of 500 are simply not manageable or feasible. Substantial work is now being undertaken to deal with these pressing issues, such as more recruitment and retention, which is reflected in the large increase for children’s services in the forthcoming county budget.

‘However, we must still see a much greater pace of improvements, a sense of urgency for better outcomes, and where progress has been made that it’s consistent and sustained.’

‘Totally committed and focussed on working together with schools and health colleagues to make things better’

In response, a spokesperson for Devon County Council said: ‘We accept that there have been significant problems across the whole system in Devon and that the experience of many parents has not been good.

‘Communication with many parents has been poor and needs to be improved. And too often our support plans have not been timely or good enough.

‘We are asking all services to meet with families to listen to their experiences and get them involved in helping us to improve.

‘We are totally committed and focussed on working together with our schools and with health colleagues to make things better.

‘Extra resources have been identified in the budget to strengthen our SEND casework team and to help us compete with other local authorities to recruit and retain experienced staff, but we know that this won’t be easy and there are no quick fixes.

‘We rely on our partners to support us with this change and it is clear that many of our local issues reflect a national challenge in how society helps and supports its most vulnerable children and their families.

‘We all want to make things better in Devon and we will do everything we possibly can with our partners to meet this challenge.’