'SIGNIFICANT areas of weakness' have been identified in Somerset's special education needs and disabilities services.

In a joint Ofsted and Care Quality Commission report, the services, run by Somerset County Council, alongside the Somerset Clinical Commissioning Group, the inspection bodies outline several ways in which children have not been getting the support required from the authorities.

The report outlines the main findings of the inspection, including a lack of 'joint working' and implementing reforms too late, and it identified the autistic spectrum condition assessment as 'dysfunctional'.

The report stated: "Fundamentally, area leaders have started to implement the SEND reforms too late. Leaders from education, health and care services have been distracted by their individual challenges.

"This means there has been little effort to work together to implement the reforms until very recently.

"Consequently, there are widespread weaknesses in the identification and meeting of children’s and young people’s needs. Their outcomes, and those of their families, are not being consistently improved."

The inspectors concluded that joint working between the services was 'underdeveloped' and it recognised a 'culture of blame' between the services, which has not yet been resolved.

Other issues outlined include a high exclusion rate of young people with SEND, and contradictions in the way in which assessments for children with autism are carried out.

The report added: "The rate of exclusion of children and young people with SEND is too high. Due to weaknesses in identification, too many go through the system with their needs not being met. Variability in the strength of school provision means that when children and young people do present with challenging behaviour it is not managed well.

"The autistic spectrum condition (ASC) assessment pathway in Somerset is dysfunctional. On the one hand, health professionals are reluctant to identify ASC in children too young. On the other hand, assessments are not considered once children are older than six. The lack of a robust pathway means that children’s needs are not accurately identified and assessed. This leads to too many children and young people with ASC and their families not having their needs met. The outcome for these families in Somerset is often very poor.

"Their experience of the system is causing distress to many children, their parents and their families."

Somerset County Council’s Lead Member for Children’s Services, Councillor Frances Nicholson, and Chair of the NHS Somerset Clinical Commissioning Group, Dr Ed Ford, have issued the following joint statement in response to the report.

Apologies have been given for some families not receiving the care they need.

The statement said: “We are sorry that some children, young people and families with SEND have not received the effective support and care that they need, and we wish to provide. We fully accept the areas for improvement identified. Positive progress is being made in many of these areas following a self-evaluation exercise that took place and we will continue to build on this.

“We want to ensure that all children and young people with SEND in Somerset are given the opportunity to thrive and reach their full potential, and we are jointly committed to ensuring swift progress is now made to improve standards so that services in the local area help to improve the lives of all children, young people and their families.

“Our immediate task is to provide Ofsted and the CQC with a strong joint Written Statement of Action for SEND services in Somerset, which will form the basis our of improvement plan to address the weaknesses outlined by inspectors. We would also like to thank our hard-working staff for their dedication and commitment in developing and improving the services we all deliver, and parents for their continued support and understanding.”

Some positives were outlined in the report, including the speech and language therapy provision, and joint working in early years.

Click here to view the full report

Ruth Hobbs, director of Somerset Parent Carer Forum, added: “Lots of opportunities were provided during the inspection for the experiences of children, young people who have special educational needs and disabilities and their families to be heard.

“This has led to a report which accurately reflects their experiences. Our focus over the next 18 months will be to work with Somerset County Council and Somerset Clinical Commissioning Group to ensure that good practice is built upon and the improvements needed are made, while keeping the needs of children and young people central to any changes.”

Councillor Leigh Redman, leader of Labour group on Somerset County Council, and chairman of the council's scrutiny committee for children and families, said: "I have only had limited time to read the report, based on an initial inspection the report was hard reading for me, to read how poorly Somerset are treating young people with special needs and/or disabilities and their families is awful.

"The report found several areas of weaknesses within Somerset that will need urgent addressing.

"To read how the report highlighted a need to better support children on the Autistic spectrum was a big concern, I believe this has been an on-going issue for some time, the report seems to highlight a real problem with the left hand not talking to the right hand. I hope this is near the top of the action points.

"The scrutiny committee I chair recently published a task and finish report that looked at the high levels of exclusions in Somerset, and there are synergies between some of the findings of this inspection and our report.

"We too noted issues with EHC plans, a lack in speed of support, and also concluded that the rate of exclusion of children and young people with SEND is too high.

"Our report also found a weakness in identification, with too many young people going through the system with their needs not being met.

"I’m sure Scrutiny members will be seeking answers on how we can put right the deficiencies highlighted in the report and scrutinise the details behind the improvement plan.

"I hope that the director of children services is able to work closer with Somerset’s children and families scrutiny committee, so that, where appropriate, we can support the improvements and help SEND children and their families."