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Children 'at risk of being failed', as support services battle lockdown

A generation of Norfolk’s children are at risk of being “failed” and “forgotten” as issues with already struggling support services are worsened by the impact of the coronavirus lockdown.

Experts fear the scale of the “fallout from the Covid-19 crisis” for young people is being masked, with vulnerable children trapped in abusive homes and homeschooling widening attainment gaps and cutting off access to mental health support.

Councillors, campaigners and families have told of children being “tragically let down”, excluded from mainstream education, and “actively suicidal” before receiving support.

Huge pile of books. (36533685)
Huge pile of books. (36533685)

It comes after Norfolk faced serious criticisms of its special educational needs provision, while children and young people’s mental health services remained in special measures last year.

The former MP and mental health advocate Sir Norman Lamb warned of “lifetime consequences” for those at risk and called for greater ambition for the county’s children.

The key areas of concern highlighted are:

• Mental health services for children and young people remain in special measures,

• Families facing year-long waits for special educational needs support,

• Warnings of a “black hole” for the most vulnerable young adults,

• Teachers and youth workers increasingly concerned about continued homeschooling,

• Existing “low aspiration levels” and a gender gap in educational attainment,

• A “digital divide” in technology access disadvantaging poorer students,

• Fewer police child abuse referrals and fears at-risk children may be recruited by gangs,

• And warnings of increasing deprivation for the 15pc of children who live in poverty.

The Department for Education (DfE) said the government had always recognised “the impact of coronavirus on the most disadvantaged children and their families, and are committed to doing whatever we can to make sure no child, whatever their background, falls behind”.

A spokeswoman said primary schools were being encouraged to invite more pupils to return to the classroom, and the DfE was working to develop “a long-term package of support for children to catch up on lost learning”.

Norfolk County Council (NCC) said they had “high aspirations” for every child in Norfolk and “absolutely understood” how difficult delays were for families.

“I am sorry that we have not been able to keep up with the huge increase in demand on our services,” the children’s services cabinet member said.

And a spokesperson for the Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (NSFT) said specific improvements had been made but “we know there is lots more to do”.

‘She’s been massively let down’ – the reality of special educational needs failings

Alarm bells were rung over a recent report into the county’s special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) provision, which saw inspectors highlight “significant areas of weakness”.

Watchdogs found long waiting times for assessments and support, a lack of trust, and children left “isolated” and at “crisis point” before receiving help.

And John Fisher, cabinet member for children’s services, admitted that issues with the services were “certainly not what I want for the children of Norfolk”.

However, inspectors did also welcome a transformation plan put in place by the council as “far-reaching, ambitious, well-planned and securely financed”.

But families and a charity chief executive hit out at the council following the report’s revelations.

Nicki Price, from SENsational families said Mr Fisher’s response to the report was “infuriating” and risked losing the confidence of families.

She said: “We’re working with families whose children are in the wrong schools and can’t get education, health and care plans (ECHPs). One family was told they’d be seen nearly a year ago. It’s just so frustrating.”

One mother of a child with SEN, who wished to remain anonymous, said repeated school moves had affected her daughter’s mental health.

“It’s had a massive impact,” she said. “She is frightened of school. She will have meltdowns. She’s got no self-confidence. She’s really, really low. There’s just no support.

“She’s been massively let down by the system.”

Ms Price added: “If these issues are historic why is the rate of tribunals going up? That money could be better spent on helping children.”

She said lack of SEN mental support was a continued problem.

“It all comes down to funding,” she said. “Children are having mental health problems because they’re out of education. They’re getting into county lines and crime. They’re particularly vulnerable to that kind of exploitation.”

The father of a young adult who had received SEN support said: “The best thing you want for your children is to give them wings. That takes a bit longer for people with SEN.”

Independent county councillor Sandra Squire said she had been highlighting SEN issues since being elected three years ago.

“In Norfolk we struggle particularly with SEND,” she said. “It’s consistently the EHCP timetables.

“It was the very first thing I spoke about when I was elected as a councillor three years ago.

“Here we are three years later and I’m asking the same question. It’s just not going away.”

Ms Squire said the council was poor at communicating with parents and said children missing out on education had long-term consequences for their futures.

She added: “The longer it goes on the worse it gets. They miss out on their education and the support they should get. You can’t always fix that.

“There is a feeling from parents that they’re turned down just to see who will appeal and take it to tribunal.”

Mr Fisher said: “I absolutely understand how difficult this is for families and I am sorry that we have not been able to keep up with the huge increase in demand on our services.

“Requests for EHCP assessments have nearly doubled over the last five years and it’s a pressure that is being felt all over the country, with the majority of authorities receiving similar inspection reports.

“We need a national solution to this issue but we are not prepared to sit and wait. That’s why we’ve developed an ambitious transformation strategy – backed with £120m of investment to create more specialist places for children and young people and to support schools to help their children much earlier, before their needs escalate. “

But Labour's Mike Smith-Clare said the inspection report had highlighted another key issue – the “cliff edge” in support for young adults aged 18-25.

“I think they’ve been let down tragically,” he said. “Opportunities, education and advancement should be part and parcel of life’s journey. Unfortunately, it’s become a lottery.”

Mr Smith-Clare said too many care leavers in Norfolk were not in employment, education or training, or were simply “destination unknown”.

“The last thing that I want is a generation that gets lost under the radar,” he said. “We’re talking about the most vulnerable people going into a black hole.”

Speaking after the report was published, Sara Tough, executive director of children’s services at the county council, said: “Obviously we want all children in Norfolk to flourish and we want their outcomes to be achieved in terms of the ambitions that they have as they grow up.”

The council’s plans to transform its SEND services includes creating 500 extra specialist school places across the county, building up to four new specialist schools, creating new specialist units in mainstream schools and expanding existing ones.

And the council stresses that its “vision” for Norfolk is to be a county where “all children and young people with SEND reach their potential and thrive [and] parents are confident that there is enough good quality local SEND provision”.

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