Oxfordshire’s director for children’s services has urged councillors not to hold a meeting with parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) amid fears it would be counterproductive.
The People Overview & Scrutiny Committee at Oxfordshire County Council considered whether to hold a meeting involving parents, carers and teachers in the wake of the demonstration over SEND provision outside County Hall earlier this month.
The protest and subsequent petition to the council claimed children had been left without adequate provision and that parents had not been communicated with by the council’s SEND team.
The matter was discussed for more than half an hour, but the director for children’s services, Kevin Gordon, said that the council’s SEND strategy, policy on education other than at school (EOTAS) provision and general communication from the county’s SEND team were all in hand and matters that could be addressed through the committee’s usual scrutiny function.
He argued that preparing for such a meeting would take already-stretched council staff away from attempts to improve services.
Mr Gordon said: “Please, can we not have any special meetings about SEND? I am very much hearing that we want to talk about SEND. I have outlined the three areas that this committee can look at.
“Can I ask that this is taken away and in meetings with the chair and the vice-chair that we plan a sensible way forward that gets this balance right between extra work for the staff who are trying to improve these services alongside making sure that members are informed.
“We had SEND scheduled within the forward plan anyway. I don’t see why this needs another special meeting.”
There had appeared to be a consensus from councillors in favour of such a meeting as well as an all-member briefing – an update on SEND provision for all county councillors – and Councillor Michael O’Connor (Lab, University Parks) continued to state the case.
“It is to get across the complexity of the situation,” he said.
“When I am interacting with parents on these issues, it is very hard to explain that yes, you have a statutory entitlement, but also that SEND workers have absolutely huge caseloads, they are stressed and burning out, and the broader financial backdrop, so it would be as much an exercise of understanding.”
Mr Gordon interjected to say: “That is exactly why we need to be doing this within context.
“Just to hear parents without some sense of what our strategies are in this area, in my view, doesn’t give hope to parents. It can actually cause despair.
“I want to be talking to parents about what we are doing to improve things, which is about our SEND strategy, inclusion within mainstream schools, and our increase in the special school estate.
“Listening to parents without context doesn’t help them. To do that it needs to be prepared in a structured way, using my officers’ time to develop an update on things like our SEND strategy and the two other areas I mentioned.”
Councillor Andy Graham (Lib Dem, Woodstock) was torn but keen to err on the side of caution. “I think there is far more that needs to be reflected on,” he said.
“I know what the director has been saying, and I feel some sympathy with it while at the same time accepting that it is important that we listen to parents. It is making sure we have created the right forum for officers to be able to take it forward. Otherwise, it is a bit of a waste.
“From what Kevin has said, I think we may end up doing one thing without being in a position to help parents. That is my concern.”
It was agreed that committee chair Councillor Nigel Simpson (Con, Kirtlington & Kidlington North) and vice-chair Councillor Kate Gregory (Lib Dem, Thame & Chinnor) would liaise with Mr Gordon outside the meeting to decide the best way forward.