The distress caused by Surrey County Council’s failure to secure the correct education for a child with special educational needs (SEN) led a watchdog to fine the authority £2,000.

The local government and social care ombudsman investigated after the child’s mother raised a complaint saying the county council did not provide the special education outlined in her child’s care plan – which meant they missed out on support for a year prior to starting school.

The mother said this left her in a state of uncertainty and had to give up work to provide care.

The county council accepted it had not been able to find a school place for the child, partly because of a shortage of staff where they had planned to carry out an assessment. 

It comes a month after a mother of a SEN child claimed Surrey County Council “blamed her” as a parent, and the ombudsman ordering a ‘senior level’ review into the service.

According to the ombudsman’s report released this week, the child needed speech and language therapy, adult-led tasks and therapeutic strategies to help them achieve independence. 

Following the investigation, the ombudsman found the county council at fault for not securing the special educational provision and that this caused the child “an injustice because of the missed provision”.

As such the county council agreed to pay “to properly recognise the injustice”. 

The SEND crisis has prompted Tim Oliver, leader of Surrey County Council, to accept that the service is “not good enough right now” and promise that the council was “totally focussed on making it better”, during a speech on Tuesday, July 12.

He said: “One of these most important priorities is supporting children and young people who really need extra support as they grow and learn – particularly those young people with additional needs and disabilities.

“For parents and carers, this is all consuming.

“As a parent myself I get it.

“There is nothing more important than your child’s wellbeing, and I completely accept how passionate and frustrated parents and carers can be with the system when they are seeking advice and support.

“Applications from parents for Education, Health Care Plans, EHCPs, are through the roof. This is a symptom of many factors, and it is not unique to Surrey.

“The system around EHCPs is frankly not good enough. It’s a national issue, and a very complex issue, but here in Surrey we take our responsibilities very seriously, and I am personally committed to improving the situation.

“We need to get the assessment process moving quicker, clear any backlog and ensure parents have the confidence that their child will be supported in the most appropriate way.

“In many instances, this will not require an EHCP, and for those children the current support in school has to be there, and it has to be of a high standard.

“We are creating more SEN places in both mainstream and special schools across the county, hundreds more already delivered over the last couple of years and hundreds more to come, with committed funding and sites identified.

“We are also investing in additional staff to tackle this.”

He said the problem was deep rooted and made harder by a lack of qualified professionals, such as educational psychologists needed to carry out assessments.

Cllr Oliver told the full council meeting that they were lobbying government on policy and funding, as well as working with schools to provide support and communication as well as “constantly reviewing and adapting our own processes to make the system better”.

He added: “I accept it’s not good enough right now, but please believe me when I tell you that we’re totally focussed on making it better in Surrey, and I will continue to engage with officers, parents, and carers as we do that.

Responding to the report, Cllr Clare Curran, cabinet member for education and learning apologised for the distress the family experiences and that it took seriously findings from the ombudsman and try to learn from their conclusions.

She said: “We recognise that there can sometimes be significant challenges in finding the right support for children with additional needs and disabilities, but we are committed to ensuring that all children can access education so that their outcomes are improved and they are happy, healthy, safe and confident about their future.

“When children are not able to access school, or a school place is not available for them in the short term, Surrey County Council will arrange for alternative educational provision.”