Council pays thousands in compensation to family of girl with special educational needs

West Northamptonshire Council has said it is "sorry" it didn't provide the right service and that improving timeliness "continues to be a significant focus".
West Northamptonshire Council has said it is "sorry" it didn't provide the right service and that improving timeliness "continues to be a significant focus". -Credit:Danny Lawson/PA Wire

A Northamptonshire council has paid more than £5,000 and apologised to a family after failures meant a child was out of school for 19 months.

The nine-year-old girl first stopped going to school in April 2021 because she was experiencing significant anxiety. She did not receive any means of education from the West Northamptonshire Council (WNC) until November of the following year.

The Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) received a complaint from her mum, referred to as 'Mrs X', and decided to investigate. It said that had there been no delays in the process, an alternative education package should have been in place by May 2022.

WNC has accepted the findings and said it is "sorry" it didn't provide the right service.

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A draft Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan was issued for the girl, referred to in the report as 'Y', in March 2022. The council said she could be taught in a mainstream setting despite her mum's request for an Education Other Than at School (EOTAS) package.

Mrs X then arranged for her daughter to have an assessment by a psychology service which resulted in a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder with a Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) profile.

In September 2022, after the original EHC plan was taken to mediation, WNC agreed to provide an EOTAS budget for the family. Mrs X received the first payment 19 months after her daughter was initially taken out of school, in November.

The Ombudsman found that the council should have issued a final EHC plan in January 2022. In reality, it was issued in August, over 27 weeks late. No means of education had been provided by the council during this time.

It added: "If there had been no delays by the Council in the EHC process, I consider the Council would likely have agreed a personal budget for EOTAS by May 2022.

"The law requires a Council to arrange suitable education for a child it knows cannot attend school due to exclusion, illness or other reasons. The Council was aware that Y was not attending school and that the school was not providing Y with any education.

"The evidence suggests that at the time, the Council failed to recognise that it had a duty to provide Y with alternative education. The Council now accepts that it was responsible for this.

"This was fault and will have affected Y’s development and well-being."

The local government watchdog also found that the council wrongly advised the school to mark the pupil's absences as 'unauthorised', despite being aware of her situation. Her mum was told that it may lead to the council prosecuting her which caused her to seek specialist advice.

The LGO wrote that WNC's failings caused Mrs X "distress" and the "avoidable expense of seeking advice".

It ordered the council to make a payment of £5,100 for not providing suitable education and another £300 to acknowledge the mother's "distress and frustration". A host of actions to rectify council failures were also agreed to take place within eight weeks.

Cllr Fiona Baker, cabinet member for children, families, education and skills at WNC said: “Improving the timeliness and quality of our education, health and care plans continues to be a significant focus for us to address, to ensure our children and young people with special educational needs and/or disabilities have access to the right support at the right time.

We are sorry we have not provided the service expected and we accept the ombudsman’s recommendations. As a Council we have been open in recognising the challenges we face in terms of the increased demand we are seeing and the impact this is having on our children, young people and their families.

“We have been working hard on making improvements and implementing change that will make a difference, with recently bringing in a team of educational psychologists to reduce the number of overdue EHCP assessments which is making positive progress, as well as increasing specialist SEND places in the area."

She added that the council had seen a 40 per cent increase in requests for EHCPs in the last three years and that the rise in requests was "considerably higher than that faced by other councils". It also referred to another £ 1.35m of SEND funding approved at Cabinet this month to implement an alternative provision transformation programme.

Cllr Baker continued: “We recognise that we are very early on in this journey and these changes will take time to embed, however we are committed to providing better services and this additional investment will help us to achieve this.”