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Fresh calls for independent review of Suffolk's special educational needs service

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Fresh calls have been made for an independent review of Suffolk’s special educational needs service, as concerns surrounding a task force have been raised.

In March, Conservative cabinet member for education Gordon Jones revealed an oversight board would be established to hold senior officers to account over a poor Ofsted and Care Quality Commission in January.

Mr Jones said the board, which met for the first time on Friday last week, would comprise councillors, officers, clinical commissioning group staff and voluntary organisations such as Suffolk Parent Carer Network.

Suffolk County Council's headquarters at Endeavour House, Ipswich (9345776)
Suffolk County Council's headquarters at Endeavour House, Ipswich (9345776)

Of the councillor contingent, Mr Jones and his deputy cabinet member Chris Chambers represent the Conservatives while Labour’s Jack Abbott represents the opposition.

But both opposition groups have raised concerns over the board and how effectively it can assess where the special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) service has struggled.

Labour group leader Sarah Adams said: “When this board was announced, we said that, if it is to work, it is crucial that its makeup had broad representation and that existing decision-makers were not members.

“With this in mind, it is disappointing that an invite wasn’t extended to the Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent group and that the panel will be overseen by the cabinet member for education and his deputy.

“We will try and work constructively with this board, but it remains our position that, the only way to guarantee an impartial, transparent and robust process is to conduct a completely independent review.

“This would set out clear recommendations that Suffolk County Council must follow in order to improve our county’s SEND provision.”

Andrew Stringer, leader of the Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent group said his contingent was still denied a seat at the table after requesting it to be cross party.

“This board could have benefited from some of our members direct experience of this vital service sector, when we had the most recent change in leader at the county council we were promised an inclusive approach, it appears that in less than a year this welcome new approach has been ditched,” he said.

“Why the second largest group in Suffolk should be sidelined in such a way is regrettable and a lessens the chance for the best policy in future.”

Questions were also asked of why the group will not meet again until September given the urgency improvements were needed.

But Mr Jones has defended the board’s make up, and said it had been clear for a long time that where only one opposition group seat was available it would go to the formal opposition group, which is currently Labour.

He said: “It’s politically balanced, as it always is, and to include them it would need six councillors, and would therefore need six people from health and six independent people – that’s far too large a group. The councillors make up a third, so it is appropriately balanced.”

Mr Jones said it was not designed to replace the scrutiny committee, but would 'make sure the programme board is making the progress which they said, and they are responding to the Ofsted and CQC inspection. The fact that it is three times a year is appropriate because that’s after the programme board meets'.