Special needs problems are being fixed, council bosses say

Council bosses insist that they are already working improve support for children with special needs in Stoke-on-Trent, after concerns were raised by inspectors. A joint Ofsted and Care Quality Commission inspection earlier this year found 'inconsistent experiences and outcomes' for young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in the Potteries.

While there were some children had their needs identified quickly, others face 'long periods of struggle and upset' due to delays. The inspectors made a number of recommendations for how provision could be improved by Stoke-on-Trent City Council and partner organisations, including more timely assessments and making services more responsive to concerns raised by children and young people.

Senior bosses were grilled on the inspection report by council's children and family services overview and scrutiny committee. They told committee members that work to implement the recommended changes was already underway.

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Delyth Mathieson, assistant director of education and family support, said: "I'm very pleased that all the things that were recommended as actions within the Ofsted report itself were things that we had already identified as actions that we were planning on taking. In some cases, some of the things that were identified were things that were already underway, but Ofsted had recognised that we hadn't been doing them for long enough to be able to evidence a sustained impact."

Natalie Williams, strategic manager for special educational needs, told the committee that work was being done around ensuring that the 'lived experience' of service users was taken into account.

She said: "What's really important under this new framework is that it's not just about the actions, but also the impact they have on the children and young people and their families. It's very different from the previous framework, which was 'are you doing what you're supposed to under the code of practice'. Now it's about gathering the voices and lived experience from families, which we already do, but it's about developing that and making sure we've got that across the board and across the city.

"What our inspection told us is that there are pockets of really good work and children who are having a really good experience, but there are families and children who aren't."

The inspectors said that parents often reached 'crisis point' before services assessed their children's needs, and that meetings for early help were not always well attended by the specific services that could make the most difference.

Committee chair Daniela Santaro raised concerns over this issue, saying she was herself aware of some meetings being poorly attended. She said: "How can gaps be addressed? I'm aware of other meetings I'm part of, where people aren't in attendance - I don't want to name them because they're not here - but they're just not present."

Ms Mathieson said that work was being carried out to offer a wide range of early support to help families before the point of statutory intervention. She said: "This is all part of the family hubs approach. It's about that bit before crisis point - how can we put all those interventions and support in place, how can we wrap around and support parents and young people before they get to a crisis point.

"Some of that is about signposting, some of it is about having welcoming spaces like family hubs, and the apps we have, where the take-up has been really impressive. Those are all forms of early help. It is about co-ordinating all of that and making it available, so working with all the organisations across the city to put that into place."