Services which look after some of the county’s most vulnerable young people are “certainly not what I want for the children of Norfolk”, the cabinet member responsible has admitted.

Eastern Daily Press: Independent Norfolk county councillor Sandra Squire. Pic: Norfolk Independent Group.Independent Norfolk county councillor Sandra Squire. Pic: Norfolk Independent Group. (Image: Norfolk Independent Group)

Watchdogs have found “significant areas of weakness” in services which look after some of Norfolk’s most vulnerable children, it can be revealed.

The county’s special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) services were reviewed by education and health regulators earlier this year, to look into the county’s effectiveness in implementing the 2014 disability and special educational needs reforms.

And the inspection, carried out jointly by school’s inspector Ofsted and Care Quality Commission (CQC) in March this year, “raises significant concerns about the effectiveness of the area”, a report published today (Monday, June 3) has revealed.

READ MORE: Fears SEND children ‘left behind’ as inspection report set to be released

Eastern Daily Press: Watchdogs have found significant areas of weakness in services which look after some of Norfolks most vulnerable children, it can be revealed. Photo: GettyWatchdogs have found significant areas of weakness in services which look after some of Norfolks most vulnerable children, it can be revealed. Photo: Getty (Image: Archant)

Issues highlighted by the inspectors include:

• Long waiting times for diagnoses, poor access to services and a lack of confidence in some schools has led to a lack of trust from families;

• “Chronic weaknesses” in meeting deadlines for completing education, health and care (ECH) plans;

• “Angst and frustration” among staff and families;

Eastern Daily Press: Mike Smith-Clare. Photo: SubmittedMike Smith-Clare. Photo: Submitted (Image: Archant)

• Young people aged 18-25 facing a “cliff edge” in support with “poorly planned and uncoordinated” provision;

• Service directors “underestimated” the backlog in ECH plans;

• And families left “isolated” and at “crisis point” before receiving help.

The report stated: “Many families are understandably frustrated and anxious and believe that no one is listening to them.”

Eastern Daily Press: Ed Maxfield, Lib Dem Children's Services spokesman for Norfolk County Council, in the march against government 'under-funding' of education for children with special needs. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYEd Maxfield, Lib Dem Children's Services spokesman for Norfolk County Council, in the march against government 'under-funding' of education for children with special needs. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

However, inspectors did also note that despite services facing “chronic and wide-ranging inadequacies” two years ago, there was now a “far-reaching, ambitious, well-planned and securely financed transformation plan” in place.

But the plan was described as “very new in its implementation”.

The report noted that “significant investment” in new special schools was set to become an “imminent reality” and that “joint strategic planning, so long absent in Norfolk, is now a reality”.

READ MORE: Council’s SEND record slammed by MP as shock report reveals UK-wide failings

Commenting on the report, John Fisher, Norfolk county council’s cabinet member for children’s services said: “This is certainly not what I want for the children of Norfolk.

“In reference to my own children, this is obviously not [what I would want] but again, this is not what I want for the children of Norfolk and that is not what the children of Norfolk will get - and I don’t believe it is what they are getting anyway.”

He added: “The report identified the issues which are historic but we know we’re moving forward and we’re dealing with the families in a much better way than we have done in the past.

“My interest and my ambition is for all the children in Norfolk to have access to what they need to ensure they get a good education.”

And Sara Tough, executive director of children’s services at Norfolk 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.”

Rebecca Hulme, associate director of children, young people and maternity at Norfolk and Waveney’s clinical commissioning group (CCG) added: “We obviously recognise the issues and we hear that from parents and people who work in services as well.

“The focus shouldn’t be on diagnoses. It’s much more about the whole system and why we always come back to whole system working.” Ofsted and CQC have determined that Norfolk should prepare a written statement of action to address areas in need of improvement.

The services must explain how they will improve the timeliness of completing ECH plans and annual reviews; their plans and provision for young people moving into adulthood; and communication with parents, carers and families.

In a statement, Mr Fisher added: “We’re already investing £120m in special educational needs and disabilities to create more specialist places and we’re increasing our support to schools, so that they can help their children earlier.

“We’ve also increased capacity in our specialist teams and, as inspectors said, this is starting to make a real difference to children and their families.

“Local authorities across the country are facing similar challenges and we have raised this with government, alongside other councils. We need a national solution to what is a national challenge.”

And he pledged that the money - allocated in the council’s capital programme - would not be affected by the need to make savings to cope with the cost of Covid-19.

“That’s hundreds of construction jobs,” he said. “If we’re moving out of recession that is generally led by the construction industry - we are not going to back down from what’s in place.”

READ MORE: Parents blast ‘disappointing’ communication about review of education needs

Inspectors praised staff, and said: “The work of many individual professionals in social care, health and education is of high quality. There are individual cases where the lives of children and young people are better for the work of these professionals.” And the report found that Norfolk “has many confident and articulate children and young people with SEND who are aspirational about what they want from their future”.

But Nicki Price, chief executive of the charity SENsational Families warned that “families are really struggling to get the help they need”.

She said: “It is frustrating and it’s taking a long time to get them to listen. It is heartbreaking because you hear the same stories over and over again from families.

“It’s a constant fight for them.

She added: “We have families now who are waiting for school place for their children for this September.

“Communication has been a key issue, poor communication with families. Keeping them up to date, being available and being able to access help before you get to crisis point would all help families now.” And she said the charity was dealing with cases which required support from social services.

Labour county councillor Mike Smith-Clare said: “I certainly applaud the hardwork of frontline staff, although it comes as no surprise to read of the weaknesses that so many vulnerable young people and their families experience on a daily basis.

“People feel let down; not just with plans, support and communication, but in access to essential pathway provision into adulthood and independent living.

“There are many hurdles that need to be overcome in order to tackle these concerns - and even with the greatest optimism the biggest barrier will always be the perennial underfunding from central government.”

He added: “The report deals with the investment in one line but doesn’t say how it is addressing any of the long term shortcomings.”

READ MORE: Council’s SEND record slammed by MP as shock report reveals UK-wide failings

While Ed Maxfield, Liberal Democrat councillor, added: “The message from the council’s leadership is that they are not surprised by the areas of weakness that Ofsted has identified. But that begs the question what have they been doing about it?

“They can’t keep blaming increased demand because everyone knows the need for support has been growing for a long time. Ofsted focuses on the need for the council to involve parents in the solution.

“This is absolutely vital and a really important lesson that the council must learn.

“As long as I have been a councillor I have been saying that the authority struggles to speak human.”

And Sandra Squire, independent councillor, said: “There are no great surprises in this report. I’ve seen and experienced the issues from both sides of the system, both as a councillor and as a parent of two children with EHC plans.

“However, this is not just a Norfolk issue, it highlights how the system and crucially the finances within it, need to be reviewed and improved by the government. Hopefully we can now move forward with everyone working together to improve the lives and outcomes for all of our residents with SEND and their families.”

• Have you been affected by issues with SEND provision in Norfolk and would like to share your story? Email