Surrey County Council must pay three families a total of £3,300 for the distress and frustration caused by delaying their children’s education care plans –  as it struggles with a backlog of around 1,000 young people.

The rulings were passed down by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman after finding the children and their families were made to suffer needless delays and trouble while trying to find the right schooling.

Councillor Clare Curran,  Surrey’s lead member for education, apologised saying the authority had “not always got things right” and the support and service was “not always of the standard” expected.

An Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) is a formal document that describes a child or young person’s special educational needs as well as the support needed, and the outcomes they would like to achieve. The watchdog ruled that Surrey County Council’s delays meant the young people missed out on vital education and schooling.

The three findings date back to October, with the watchdog releasing its rulings in December, and comes when services across the country are under pressure because of staff shortages.

In the first case, Surrey was ordered to pay £600 as a symbolic gesture in recognition of the “uncertainty, distress and avoidable time and trouble” caused its  failure to issue a final care plan within statutory time scales and its poor communication. It was also ordered to pay £900 in recognition of the delay.

In the second case the council was ordered to pay £1,100 for the injustice brought about by its delayed in issuing a care plan. The figure was “calculated at roughly £100 per month from the date the council should have issued the final EHC plan in October 2022, until the date it issued the draft plan in September 2023”.

It told the ombudsman it had “a backlog of around 1,000 EHC needs assessment awaiting an educational psychologist assessment”.

The third case cost the council  a further £700 for the distress and delay.

Cllr Curran said: “We are not able to comment on any individual children specifically, however we take the findings from the Ombudsman very seriously and apologise for the distress these families experienced.

“I am aware that the council has not always got things right and that the support and service that some children with additional needs and disabilities and their families receive is not always of the standard that we would expect, and I am sorry about that. 

“We are working hard to improve services, and a recent Local Area SEND Inspection noted progress is underway.

“Despite national pressures we regret all delays and are working hard to reduce any backlogs. 

“We have taken several actions to address this including securing an additional £15m of funding to increase the capacity of key teams, extending the use of locum and associate educational psychologists, commissioning external providers for support, and increasing advertising to fill positions.”

She said progress was being made in some areas but that it still needed to do better particularly when communicating with parents and carers.

She added: “We also recognise the significant issues that confront the SEND system nationally. 

“We have seen a 64 per cent increase in education, health and care needs assessment requests across Surrey since 2020, at a time of a national shortage of Educational Psychologists (EPs). 

“We are doing our utmost to recruit more to meet this demand, and we are filling this gap as best we can. “

Cllr Curran said the county council has already halved the backlog of EP advices through the steps it has taken locally, "but we hope to see the national shortage in trained EPs and other issues addressed soon through the government’s improvement plan".

She continued: “We remain committed to improving our services and outcomes for children and young people with additional needs and disabilities so that they are happy, healthy, safe and confident about their future.”