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Council rapped for 3-year delay

The local government ombudsman's censure of a statement hold-up has sparked calls for reform. Nicolas Barnard reports

Campaigners called for a better deal for children with special needs after a local authority was rebuked for a three-year delay in assessing a girl with severe learning difficulties.

Staffordshire County Council was censured by the local government ombudsman for the delay in issuing a new statement for a 12-year-old after a wrangle over the cost of sending her to a special boarding school.

The delay was partly caused by lengthy negotiations between education officials, social services and local health trusts. Ombudsman Jerry White has told the county it should pay the girl's mother pound;4,000 in compensation, saying: "I cannot accept there was any justification for taking three years to issue a revised statement."

The charity MENCAP said it was typical of a "substantial minority" of cases. Special adviser Brian McGinnis said better co-ordination was needed between bodies, with joint funding and more resources for educational psychologists.

He welcomed Staffordshire's decision to set up a formal "joint resources access" panel involving health, social services and education officials following the case.

"Formal machinery doesn't guarantee a speedy outcome, but it does make it more likely," he said.

Special educational needs cases form a growing part of the ombudsman's workload, around two-thirds of SEN cases involving delays in statementing. Manchester City Council was the subject of 18 reports during 1995 and 1996. Statutory guidelines say the process should take no more than six months.

Mr McGinnis said the delay often meant that reports produced at the start of the process were out of date by the time the statement was issued. More educational psychologists were needed to speed up the process.

A MENCAP survey found most parents felt they were not given enough support and information right from the time their child's condition was diagnosed.

The Staffordshire case involved a girl with congenital bilateral nerve palsy. Her development is slow, she has very limited communication skills, her walking is unsteady and her sight is restricted. Her behaviour is often aggressive and the family was under severe strain.

Her mother told the council that the girl was not making progress at her special primary school in summer 1993. The county's educational psychologist recommended a boarding school in May 1994.

Social services and the local health authority each offered to meet a third of the cost. But when a place was found it was vetoed because of the cost - pound;64,000 for 50 weeks a year. The child was meanwhile placed at a day school where she began to make progress, but pressure on the family increased.

After further consultations and tests, the day school was named in November 1996 in a revised statement of special needs. The authority and the family have now agreed a place at another private boarding school.

Vincent McDonnell, Staffordshire's principal officer for pupil and student services, said the delay had been caused by the extreme complexity of the case and the need to negotiate with a number of differing agencies.

"We accept it was an excessive delay and appreciate matters could have been handled with more speed," he said. "But for this authority it was an uncommon delay and is a demonstration of the complexity of the case."

Officers are recommending the council compensates the family.

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