In an exclusive interview with the East Anglian Daily Times, Suffolk County Council's corporate director of children and young people, Allan Cadzow, explains why SEND provision across Suffolk has had difficulties and what the future holds for the county.

In 2014, the Children and Families Act made it the duty of local authorities to provide for those with special needs.

"This created a huge surge in demand," said Mr Cadzow.

Ipswich Star: Allan Cadzow, corporate director of children and young people at Suffolk County CouncilAllan Cadzow, corporate director of children and young people at Suffolk County Council (Image: Suffolk County Council)

"Not just in Suffolk, but across the UK."

Since then, the Council says it has seen a 200% increase in applications for Education, Health and Care plans (EHCP), a legal document that describes a child's special educational needs and the support they need.

"We went from about 3,000 to now over 7,000," added Mr Cadzow.

"That is hard to satisfy and there has been huge pressure on the system.

"About a third of the children that get EHCPs require a specialist placement of some kind. 

"It's very hard to get children the places they want and sometimes we don't end up with a place for those particular families.

"It's very, very difficult.

"And people who have led the national SEND review say the act was well intentioned but very poorly implemented.

"Neither schools, local authorities or the health system were given the resources or time needed to implement the act."

The government has carried out reviews into SEND provision and acknowledged the act was struggling - subsequently announcing yearly increases to funding at a national level.

However, it appears Suffolk currently receives less support than other areas - with Ipswich MP Tom Hunt recently calling on the government to fix this.

Ipswich Star: Ipswich MP Tom Hunt has called for fairer SEND fundingIpswich MP Tom Hunt has called for fairer SEND funding (Image: House of Commons)

"All we want is fairer funding," said Mr Cadzow.

"It sounds like we're making excuses but it just shows the kind of challenges we're facing.

"Meanwhile though, parents and families aren't getting what they think they're entitled to and that causes frustration for them.

"But it also causes a great deal of frustration for us as well because we want to do well for these families."

The council officer also pointed to a shortage of workers in professions designed to assist children and young people with SEND - such as speech and language therapists and educational psychologists.

"I do think the system has improved compared to what it was before," he added.

"But it still hasn't improved anywhere near enough."

Last year, a six-week review into Suffolk County Council's SEND services was conducted by experts from Lincolnshire.

The report concluded that weaknesses existed in a host of areas and made nine recommendations for future improvement.

The local authority also apologised for letting children and young people down.

Ipswich Star: Suffolk County Council apologised last year for letting children and young people downSuffolk County Council apologised last year for letting children and young people down (Image: Newsquest)

"We implemented all of the recommendations in their report," Mr Cadzow said.

"And that was just the start because we're doing our own wide-scale reform.

"So we are doing the best we can, but the scale of reform needed means it won't happen quickly.

"But we are starting to see improvements."

Despite improvement in the system, a council scrutiny meeting in October revealed an increase in complaints to the education and children's services scrutiny committee. 

It also highlighted that the timeliness of issues EHCPs has fallen over the past seven months - with just 12% of all plans in October 2022 being issued within the 20-week target deadline.

"We're very much focussing on the quality of these plans," said Mr Cadzow.

"And a big limiting factor is that each plan needs to have input from an educational psychologist - which there is a shortage of.

"If you look at the ratio of complaints to the number EHCPs then they have probably fallen slightly.

Ipswich Star: Complaints to the Council have increased over the last yearComplaints to the Council have increased over the last year (Image: PA)

"But we also know that behind each complaint there is an anxious parent and we obviously want to see them fall.

"And we're confident that will happen as we continue to implement reforms."

Summarising the picture going forward, the Mr Cadzow admitted mistakes have been made, but said the authority is keen to learn from these. 

"Every child we let down weighs heaving on us," he concluded.

"But it's our goal and ambition to keep on learning and improving.

"We're a learning organisation and we want to improve as fast as possible."

How are families across Suffolk struggling?

The EADT has also spoken to a number of parents and families about their experiences with SEND provision in Suffolk.

These are their accounts. 

Steven Wright is a single father living in East Bergholt with his two children.

The boy of 15 and girl of 13 were adopted by Mr Wright and his late wife. 

The pair suffer from fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDS) - a group of conditions that can leave those exposed to alcohol before birth with a range of behaviour and learning difficulties.

"My eldest has had an EHCP since 2018 but suitable provision has never been made," he said.

Ipswich Star: Steven Wright is a single father of two living in East BergholtSteven Wright is a single father of two living in East Bergholt (Image: Steven Wright)

"If a child receives a prescription but doesn't get the medicine they need, then they only get worse.

"He has had six breakdowns of placements and now he has to be home tutored which is paid for by the local authority.

"But it's too late. He's already missed five years of his education.

"I've been begging and screaming for the provision to be made but it's a part of a wider cultural problem.

"Thankfully, my daughter has had a better experience but my son had to suffer for that to be the case.

"Suffolk County Council has a duty to make the provision but it doesn't feel like it checks if that's actually happening.

"I've been left feeling ignored and this whole experience has had a devastating impact on my son. Education is not just about what you learn - it's also about the interaction and support.

"This is a systemic problem and it seems like there is a reluctance to sort it out at an early stage."

A single mother, who has asked to remain anonymous, described her experience as having a "terrible impact on me and my child".

"My son was diagnosed with autism just before his third birthday," she said.

Ipswich Star: Another single mother said her experience was having a terrible experience on me and my childAnother single mother said her experience was having a terrible experience on me and my child

"He's now 12 years old and has been in a school that can't cope with his needs. 

"But all I've been told is that there are no suitable placements in Suffolk, Essex or Norfolk.

"He has now started refusing food at school and it appears to be getting progressively worse - even to the point that it now seems he's refusing fluid. 

"We don't have any problems with this at home - it only appears to while he's in class.

"This type of behaviour would be addressed by a school tailored to his needs. 

"I'm a single mum with two children and no family or support around me.

"I'm totally reliant on public service.

"So I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place because, if I pull him out, I won't be able to work and provide for them.

"This is about the health of a child and it's a safeguarding issue."

Naomi Jones, a Beccles mother of three said the issues her family are facing have left her and her husband feeling like they are "fighting a losing battle."

Two of her children, aged 14 and 12, have been diagnosed with ADHD and ASD, while her third child, aged 11, has ASD and ADD. 

"All three of my children have had bad experiences," she said.

Ipswich Star: Naomi Jones, from Beccles, said her experience has caused her to lose all faith in the systemNaomi Jones, from Beccles, said her experience has caused her to lose all faith in the system (Image: Naomi Jones)

"My eldest has suffered terribly because he's in a mainstream school when he should be in a specialist.

"My 11 year old has been told she has the learning abilities of an eight year old, yet she's still in a mainstream school.

"Both of them have EHCPs but suitable provision isn't being made.

"I keep getting told there aren't any places but my children are suffering.

"We've applied for a plan for my 12-year-old, but I'm still waiting for that.

"It's extremely difficult and I've lost all faith in the system."

Kelly Smith, a single parent living in Beccles, has three autistic children, with two of them, both aged seven, attending a specialist school. 

Until January of this year, they were in a severe learning disability school - despite the placement being identified as unsuitable in March 2020. 

The children had to wait until September 2022 to find suitable education.

"We found out almost three years ago that they needed to go elsewhere," she said. 

"But there were so many delays in the process that they didn't end up getting what they needed until this year. 

Ipswich Star: Naomi Jones said she had lost faith in the systemNaomi Jones said she had lost faith in the system (Image: PA)

"Now they're three years behind and have missed a crucial period in their development.

"I don't know if they'll be able to claw that time back but they have to try. 

"What we want from the council is an acknowledgement of these failures, an apology and then for them to make up for lost time.

"Every child deserves the best education."

Alex Tomczynski, a spokesman for Campaign for Change (Suffolk SEND) - an organisation seeking to improve SEND across the county - said: "Since council directors wrote a letter of apology to all parents and carers of children and young people with SEND in September 2021, things have not improved for families.

Ipswich Star: Alex Tomczynski of Campaign for Change (Suffolk SEND)Alex Tomczynski of Campaign for Change (Suffolk SEND) (Image: CHARLOTTE BOND)

"Complaints made over the SEND service continue to rise, despite council claims that complaints are somehow ‘historical’.

"The root cause of the problems with SEND in Suffolk is poor leadership and management in the council. Lack of proper data collection and management has crippled their ability to plan. 

"Council leaders will often point to the ‘difficult national picture’ with SEND and the Government’s ongoing review. What they fail to note is that the key issue nationally with SEND is the failure of local authorities to comply with existing legislation and a lack of accountability for unlawful decision-making. 

"Suffolk cannot go on with a situation whereby only the children whose parents have the resources to challenge Council decisions obtain proper SEND provision. Many of us have spent tens of thousands of pounds and months and years individually fighting the Council."

Mr Tomczynski concluded by calling for: "New leadership at director level and a proper independent investigation into unlawful SEND practices at the council."