East of England councils spending thousands fighting appeals over children's special education plans

Councils are spending hundreds of thousands of pounds fighting legal battles with the families of children with special educational needs, only to lose almost every time.

Exclusive figures obtained by ITV News Anglia show that in the last four years councils in the East of England had more than 1,000 appeals lodged by parents unhappy with their child's education health and care plan.

Of those, the authorities won just 51 - equivalent to losing 95% of cases.

Families who have won some of those appeals decisions have told ITV News Anglia about the financial and emotional toll the disputes have taken on them and their children.

An EHCP is a plan agreed by professionals, parents and schools which sets out the provisions put in place for children with additional needs.

Parents have a right to appeal a plan approved by a council if they do not agree with the level of provision contained within it. This appeal can either be approved by a council, or the council can decide to take a parent to tribunal.

ITV News Anglia asked every education authority in the East of England how many appeals it had faced and how many it had won - with seven of 14 responding to the the Freedom of Information Act request.

Only Cambridgeshire County Council disclosed how much defending those appeals had cost, revealing it had spent more than £400,000 between 2018 and 2021.

Lindsey Ewan has faced repeated battles to get the right education for her daughter Lucy. Credit: ITV News Anglia

Lindsey Ewan's 12-year-old daughter Lucy is autistic. She has had an EHCP in place for nearly 10 years, but Ms Ewan has been forced to fight for extra help for the last decade.

Before she started lower school, Ms Ewan received Lucy's EHCP which did not have crucial details regarding her daughter's needs, particularly regarding speech and language therapy.

The former police officer, from Ampthill in Bedfordshire, was forced to take Central Bedfordshire Council to tribunal, spending £13,000 on legal fees, and won.

"It put stress on me - I had to remortgage my house," she told ITV News Anglia. "If I hadn't put the fight in since she was young, she probably wouldn't be talking."

Lucy Ewan, whose mother Lindsey has fought two appeals Credit: Family photo

The same happened again when Lucy moved to middle school. Her mother was forced to tell the council she would take them to tribunal - a year later the council backed down, but the ordeal had cost her £3,500.

"Both tribunals weren't even winnable. If one parents fight them and 10 don't, they're still on to a winner," said Ms Ewan.

Right across the East of England, the number of applications for education, health and care plans has risen by 28%. At the same time, the number of special school places remains almost unchanged.

The problem is not confined to SEN schools. Mainstream settings have seen a rise in the number of children who have been missed by the system.

And the last two years of Covid, have not helped, said Tim Smith, headteacher of the Beeches Primary in Peterborough.

"Access to specialist provision has been particularly compromised in the last two years," he said.

"A lot of the agencies we work with - medical professionals - have been unavailable to schools to help us assess because they've been diverted towards Covid.

"So there are youngsters who we've not failed, we've not done as well as we've been able to do [previously] because early identification, rapid intervention, and specialist provision has been in short supply."

Demand for SEN places is rising across the region. Credit: PA

ITV News Anglia's figures show that the number of plans granted for children increased by:

  • 86% in North Northamptonshire

  • 43% in Bedford Borough

  • 107% in Cambridgeshire

  • 26% in Essex

But the number of children issued with an EHCP fell in Suffolk, by 9%, where the council is undergoing a structural change because of deep rooted problems in the SEND system.

Councils say they are in a difficult position too. Cambridgeshire County Council has a £39m shortfall in its SEN budget, which it says it cannot make up because government funding is not enough.

Lucy Nethsinga, the Liberal Democrat leader of the council, said: "Families have to go through this process of getting an EHCP, often they're not happy with what they first get and then they go to a tribunal and then they often get better provision.

"But the whole process is long and painful both for the council and for families and so the system is not working well for anybody as it is at the moment.

"Government funding was supposed to cover the high needs block, the fact that we have a £39m deficit means they haven't done."

Will Quince said the government was increasing funding. Credit: PA

The government say it was listening to parents as part of the ongoing SEND review.

Children and Families Minister Will Quince said: "I know the current system of support for children with special educational needs and disabilities isn't consistent across the country.

"That's why we have listened to children, young people, their families and the sector and have published our ambition for the future of SEND support through open consultation, to create a stronger, more accountable and less adversarial system.

"While we work to reform education, health and care across the country longer-term, we are also increasing high needs funding to over £9.1bn next year, to make sure the sector is equipped to help children with SEND right now."