Special education families in Surrey suffer from “inconsistent” provision that all too often makes them feel they are not “valued or visible” in their communities, a watchdog found.

The Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) inspection was presented to Surrey County Council’s education committee on Monday, December 11.

Councillors heard that, despite improvements, many children and families were losing out as the overall pace of change has been too slow.

Previous SEND inspections in 2016 and 2019, identified “significant areas of weakness” in which sufficient progress had not been made. 

A 2022 inspection into children’s services at the county council rated its overall effectiveness as “requires improvement to be good”.

There have been changes to some leadership posts since then, including new appointments and a different governance structure – but not enough has been done to help those using the service.

The report read: “The local area partnership’s arrangements lead to inconsistent experiences and outcomes for children and young people with special educational needs and or disabilities.

“The local area partnership must work jointly to make improvements.”

Children and young people with SEND have variable experiences in Surrey, it continued, and that leaders had identified the areas that they needed to improve.

But the “overall pace (of change) is too slow and not yet improving outcomes for many children and young people”. 

It added: “Too often, children and young people with SEND and their families do not feel valued or visible in their communities.

“Many children and young people are unable to access mainstream after-school and holiday clubs, and these are not routinely adapted to their needs. 

“Children and young people on waiting lists for short breaks programmes wait too long to access the provision they want.

“Children and young people in older age groups feel there is a lack of support and suitable opportunities for them, such as safe spaces or groups outside of education.”

There are bright shoots, the report noted, highlighting the ATLAS (Accept, Teach, Listen, Access, Support) participation group producing “many of the recent positive changes across the local area”.

For too many children and young people, however, “identification and assessment of their education, health and social care needs still take too long.

“Consequently, some children, young people and their families experience unnecessary escalation of their needs. Some families report that this delay impacts adversely on their whole family’s well-being.”

Waiting times for neurodevelopmental  assessments still take too long, while other parents told inspectors they felt they were left  “with no other option than to remove their child or young person with SEND from education settings because they feel that their education and health needs are not identified or met effectively”. 

In these situations, the report found, children and young people often spent extended periods of time out of education while waiting for their needs to be identified.

Addressing the committee was Councillor Clare Curran, portfolio holder for education.

She said: “We do not consider in to be good enough for Surrey children.

“We recognise and completely understand the frustrations that are felt by some families and practitioners within Surrey who are trying to navigate the complex SEND system and access the right support for their children.

“I hear from many parents first hand every day.

“Their distress and frustration is hard to hear and I am sorry that parents are struggling to access the support they feel their children need.”

Cllr Curran told the meeting there had been an increase of 150 per cent in the number of care plans issued to young people in Surrey between January 2015 and the end of October 2023, as well as a 61 per cent increase in requests for education and care needs assessment since 2020 “which has meant that some families  have had to wait far too long for the right support”.

There are currently 13,000 young people in Surrey with an educational care plan.

She added: “Our absolute priority is ensuring that we make the necessary changes to our services to improve the lives of the most vulnerable children.

“Surrey children, young people and their families matter to us all.”

The council has said it has put in a recovery plan to tackle delays in education, health and care needs assessment –  and that education psychology capacity is to be doubled on the back of a £15 million investment which has begun to make a dent in the backlog.

Leader of Surrey County Council, Cllr Tim Oliver said: “We are on a journey and it has been a painful journey, particularly for families.”