A boy with autism was put at risk of harm for nine months and left without proper education for two years after a local council failed to provide him with appropriate alternative provision, a government ombudsman has warned.
Dorset Council was found to have put the pupil at risk after sending him to a community farm before discovering nine months later that the setting was not Ofsted-registered and did not have proper procedures in place.
The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has warned that this is the eighth time it has found failings in the council’s approach to special educational needs provision and said this suggests that there are system-wide problems at the authority.
Background: SEND system not perfect, says DfE adviser
Dorset Council has apologised to the pupil and his family for the distress and disruption caused by its handling of his education provision.
Failure in SEND support
The pupil, who also has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), started secondary school in the county in 2015. After two years of struggling with mainstream school, the council decided to try to find him an alternative placement.
He was initially placed at a community farm before being taken out and was then sent to a private setting for children with special needs and autism, but this did not have the level of registration needed to deliver full-time education.
Around two months later, the boy’s parents removed him from this setting because of concerns about the education it was delivering and the behaviour of other students.
The council then put in place just four hours of tuition a week, which only lasted a month.
In April 2019, after the farm had received its registration, the boy returned for 15 hours a week and was given an additional three hours a week home tuition.
The ombudsman’s investigation found that the council failed to consider whether the boy needed an EHC needs assessment and did not follow the annual review process correctly.
The council was also at fault for failing to arrange suitable alternative educational provision and for the way it handled the father’s complaint.
The report concludes: "It is clear there were periods when [the child] did not receive a full-time education or a suitable equivalent, nor did he receive the provision detailed in his EHC plan. Furthermore, the council put him in two placements that could not deliver full-time education, despite expecting that they could. Worryingly, one of these placements did not have adequate processes and procedures in place and was potentially unsafe, meaning it put [the child] at risk of harm."
Michael King, the local government and social care ombudsman, said: “From the start of secondary education in September 2015, the council should have kept the boy’s Education, Health and Care Plan under review.
“But despite multiple triggers, it did not even consider conducting a reassessment – leaving him with the same EHC plan since primary school.
“Consequently, the boy has been out of full-time education for two years, affecting his ability to take his GCSE exams, and his future prospects. His father has told us his son has spent a considerable time isolated at home, setting back his education, increasing his anxiety and adversely affecting his confidence and independence."
Councillor Andrew Parry, portfolio holder for children, education and learning at Dorset Council, said: “We fully accept the ombudsman’s findings and apologise to the family for the stress and disruption caused, particularly to the young person involved.
“Improving our SEND services is a priority for the new Dorset Council. We have a new director and new head of education and learning, and are working with schools to provide more alternative education for children with additional needs in Dorset.
“We’re also reviewing our internal processes to improve the way we support families. We have a lot of work to do but we’re determined to make things better for children and families.”
The council will now allocate £4,000 to be used for the boy’s educational benefit over and above that used to provide day-to-day support, and consult him and his parents on how this money should be spent. It will also pay the boy £1,000 for the distress its actions caused and pay his parents a further £300 each to remedy the injustice they suffered.
Earlier this year, the council’s leader, Spencer Flower, wrote to the government to highlight the "impossible" situation councils face in ensuring that they deliver SEND provision without additional funding.