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Open letter for Parents and Carers - July 2022

Dear Parents/Carers, as I write, we are nearing the end of term, and what a term it has been.  As the academic year draws to a close, I wanted to write to you to update you again on our continued efforts to develop and improve services for children and young people with SEND and their families across Suffolk.  

Co-Production and Communication with Families 

Our commitment to co-produce and communicate with families remains at the heart of all we do. We continue to meet regularly with our official co-production partners Suffolk Parent Carer Forum and are grateful for all their hard work and commitment across the various projects they have been involved with this year. We would like to take this opportunity to encourage all parent carers to get involved with and support SPCF – visit the SPCF website to find out more. 

Our Local Offer website has undergone a refresh this term, and now features new accessibility features, easier use on mobile devices and an improved search function, all of which we hope will make it easier for families to find the information they need. Thank you to all those parents and carers who worked with us on this. Do have a look around and let us know what you think – we are continually updating the site and we want it to be as useful as possible. 

We are launching an improved form to gather compliments, comments, and complaints from September. The data from these will be kept in one central “dashboard” area, to enable us to better see trends and identify areas for prioritisation going forwards. You will be able to access the form from this website - do check back in the new academic year and let us have your feedback. 

We have developed a model for teams to use in their conversations with families aimed at improving co-production. Called “Signs of Inclusion”, it follows a similar structure to the ‘Signs of Safety’ framework widely used within social care and encourages families to share their hopes for their children and the types of support they feel their child would benefit from. Following an initial six-week trial with Family Services staff, parent and carers reported feeling more confident in their child receiving the right support and more positively engaged with the service.  

Over this academic year we also offered more than 70 “Time to Listen” appointments for parents and carers to meet virtually with a range of senior leaders across the Suffolk SEND Partnership, including Education, Inclusion, Health and Social Care. Parent carers who responded to our feedback survey after their appointments reported that slots were easy to book, conversations were honest and open and that they felt listened to, and the senior leaders who participated also reported that the feedback was helpful and enabled them to move situations forward. We want to keep these conversations going in the future and would welcome your feedback as we plan for next year. Did you attend one of these appointments? Did you hear about them at the time? Would you prefer online or in person, and who would you like to meet with? If you have any feedback for us, please do email localoffer@suffolk.gov.uk and we will take it into consideration. In addition, do keep an eye on the News section of the Local Offer website or on our social media posts for future dates and information. 

We are conscious that whilst we are increasing our team’s capacity families are still not always receiving the level of communication that we would like to offer from the services.  We are looking to introduce a new approach to this in September and will provide you with more detail nearer September.  

Supporting Inclusion in Schools 

As well as our statutory processes, we have continued to invest and develop in the ways in which we can support our schools to be inclusive by design” and resource them to support children with SEND at the earliest stages of intervention.  We have been working hard to support schools to undertake the Assess, Plan, Do, Review cycle in a person-centred way.  

Valuing SEND is an approach which provides schools with a standard way to assess needs across the 4 areas of SEND as set out in the SEND Code of Practice, with an added area of independence. Developed by our strategic partners IMPOWER, it aims to help families, teachers, SENCOs, and others to identify children’s needs and then identify evidence-based interventions that can meet that need. VSEND also supports schools to undertake a provision map for the setting and consider where they might have gaps such that they can address this for their school community.  We have completed some of the trial of Valuing SEND across one primary, one secondary and one Special School and one alternative provision in Suffolk. 30 pupils were assessed as part of this part of the trial, which saw SENCOs coming together on a weekly basis to share insights and ideas. Feedback has been encouraging, with SENCOs reporting that the system supported them to have positive discussions with wider school staff and families about what support could be put in place within their child’s current setting, better enablement of new teaching staff to understand SEND needs and what provision could look like, and in some cases, to enable discussion about whether a child’s needs would be better met in a different setting. We are encouraged by this and are continuing the trial across more settings currently.  We aim to have concluded the trail and analysed the outcomes before the start of next term. 

Building on the initial trial of the Inclusion Support Line, I am also pleased to announce that we have successfully recruited two advisors to enable us to extend our support offer to schools with the Inclusion Support Line, available all-day Monday-Friday, from September 2022. The Advisors will act as the first point of contact for schools with questions and queries about how to navigate the system and meet children’s needs.  The Advisors will be able to signpost them to the most appropriate resources and avenues of further assistance. We hope that this will enable us to respond to schools more quickly, and that this will in turn enable schools to feel confident in supporting the children within their communities. We have also developed a new ‘SENCO Central’ area on the Local Offer website, where SENCOs can go to read the latest SENCO bulletins, view the SENCO training calendar and download advice and guidance for key tasks throughout the year.  

Our Specialist Education Support Services, with specialist teams across many areas of SEND, are nearly at the end of their first complete year since their service redesign. Rather than needing to refer to each team individually, referrals now come in centrally and then the most appropriate team respond, reducing bureaucracy for schools and enabling us to respond more quickly. Schools can also book short Inclusion Support Meetings (ISMs) to get guidance from a specialist teacher, and more than 340 ISMs have been requested since January of this year. The newly created Whole School Inclusion team have also worked with around 80 schools this academic year to help them embed inclusive practice across the whole school community. Feedback from schools on the new service design have so far been positive and I am positive that this will enable schools to quickly meet a wider range of children’s needs at an earlier stage, leading to better outcomes all round. Find out more about the Specialist Education Services here. 

I would also like to offer an update following a review that has been carried out on Phase 1 of the SEND Capital Programme.  That is the programme that has created the additional special school places and extra unit places attached to mainstream schools.  As part of Phase 1, in the last three years Suffolk County Council have created 23 new specialist units attached to mainstream schools and 3 new special schools. Phase 1 has also enabled us to grow existing provision by adding additional capacity within our previous specialist units and special schools. It has been identified during this review that, despite the huge increase in places already being developed, more are required in order to meet the demand that we are currently seeing. Last month, Suffolk County Councillors who make up the Cabinet unanimously approved a further £10.6m in order for us to commence Phase 2 of this programme. As a result of this, I am delighted to report that Phase 2 will shortly be underway and will consist of the expansion of Castle EAST School to 120 places, and a further 3 new specialist units spread across the county, each offering at least 18 new places.   We continue to assess the need and we are already preparing the information to request a phase 3 of this programme 

Staffing and Recruitment 

When analysing our staffing capacity following last year’s Independent Review of SEND Services, it became apparent that there was too much work for the size of the team we had. Following a commitment from Suffolk County Council to provide an additional £1.1 million to address this, we have embarked on a wide-ranging recruitment campaign.  

One of the areas most affected by staffing shortages was our Family Services Team, who lead on the statutory assessment processes as part of an Education, Health and Care (EHC) needs assessment and reviews of EHC plans across the county. I am pleased to report that in additional to the new Head of SEND Services, a interim SEND Operations Manager and Family Services Managers for all three geographical areas, we are in the process of recruiting additional staff including lead coordinator, coordinators, assistant coordinators, Resolution and Tribunal officers (3 totally new roles aimed at working collaboratively with families to resolve difficulties and reduce the need for Tribunal appeals).  

In addition to the new colleagues joining us in Family Services, we are also recruiting a new Education Access Team working with schools to reduce exclusions and monitor and support with part-time timetables.  As mentioned above we have also recruited two Inclusion Support Line Advisors, a Communications and Engagement Officer, one new Educational Psychologist (we wanted more and are still advertising) and a Project Officer to support staff training. 

Statutory SEND Work 

We are continuing to experience staffing shortages in our Educational Psychology (EP) service, which is having an impact on our ability to complete Education, Health and Care needs assessments (EHCNAs) within the required 20 weeks. This is part of a nationwide shortage affecting many Local Authorities, and we continue to actively recruit whilst using Associate Educational Psychologists (locums) as much as we can.  We continue to look at other ways to utilise our internal EP workforce most effectively. 

We have also been focussing this term on improving the quality of our Education, Health and Care plans (EHCPs). With this in mind, we have delivered training for our Family Services teams on the writing of EHCPs, and our colleagues in Health have also delivered training to their staff on writing advice for ECHNAs and SEND decision making panels. 

We also have our Quality Assurance cycle in place to check and audit the quality of the advice we receive from schools and health and social care colleagues during the initial assessment process. The most recent report shows an improvement in the quality of advice, and we are confident that this will help us deliver higher quality EHCPs.  

We have also begun a project to move our records to a case management system called Liquid Logic. This system is already in use across other areas of the Council, and we are confident that it will help us to improve our case management and our communication with families and schools. 

Partnership Working 

We have continued to work closely with our colleagues across Health and Social Care this term to jointly improve outcomes for families. Some examples of this from recent months include the following. 

  • We have agreed to invest additional monies into Speech and Language Therapy, to enable provision to be standardised across the county and address gaps in our current provision. 

  • We have developed the links between education, social care, youth justice teams and schools to enable us to have a better understanding of how many pupils are currently on part-time timetables and what is being put in place to support them 

  • New referral pathways into the Children and Youth Mental Health Services and other mental health specialist teams are seeing increased service coverage across the county with a fall in waiting times 

  • Waiting times for non-urgent support from the Emotional Wellbeing Hub have reduced by over 55% since July 2021 ensuring we meet the 10-day response target, due in large part to our new collaboration with Barnardo’s. The new parent carer helpline, which can be accessed by phoning the Emotional Wellbeing Hub number, has already taken 1131 calls and of that number 956 were parents. 

  • We have made improvements to the East and West Suffolk Neurodevelopmental pathway, to try and ensure that families with concerns about Autism, ADHD and/or behaviours that challenge can get earlier support with or without a formal diagnosis. Find out more about this Pathway here.  

As you can hopefully see, we have had a busy few months.  We know that it will take time for the full impact of these improvements to be seen, and we are nowhere near finished in terms of accomplishing all that we intend to.  I hope this update serves to give you confidence that we are taking seriously our responsibility to improve. We remain committed to securing the very best future we can for all children and young people with SEND in Suffolk.  

I wish you all a very happy summer and look forward to working with many of you over the coming months. I anticipate that my next update will be at the end of the Autumn Term but if in the meantime you would like to give us any feedback, please do get in contact via localoffer@suffolk.gov.uk . 

Yours faithfully,

Ros Somerville 

Assistant Director, Inclusion 

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