Is Welwyn Hatfield facing a SEN officer crisis?

Teacher playing with child outside at Carter's Nursery, Welwyn Garden City.

Carter's Sunflowers Nursery in Welwyn Garden City was set up in response to the frustration of navigating the SEND system. Carter "gained an Education Health Care Plan (EHCP) at age 4 but waited for 2 years before a suitable school place became available". - Credit: The Two Photographers

“It’s just a job to them. But this is my child’s life. I don’t feel like they care,” says Sarah, Hatfield resident and mother to her four-year-old son who has autism. 

Sarah’s sentiment is sadly not held in isolation. Parents of local children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) have found getting the support their kids are legally entitled to be a bureaucratic battle.  

In an October survey conducted by a group of parents, SEND National Crisis Hertfordshire, 88 per cent of 170 respondents said they had been impacted by “the lack of SEN officers within Hertfordshire Local Authority over the last six months”. Thirty-four per cent of those 170 people fall under the East Herts, Broxbourne and Welwyn Hatfield SEN teams.  

But what is an SEN officer? And is Welwyn Hatfield facing a shortage?  

SEN officers are managed by Hertfordshire County Council; they are instrumental in ensuring children’s individual educational, social and health needs are assessed and met.  

Officers work with parents of children with SEND to process their child's Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP), a legally binding document that determines what level of support a child requires and which schools they can attend. The EHCP process is supposed to take 20 weeks from the date of request. 

However, for Welwyn Garden City mum Mae Metcalfe, 24, the process took approximately seven months. Mae submitted a request for an EHCP for her autistic five-year-old son in November 2020. The plan was finalised in June 2021. 

“It was an absolute nightmare from the beginning,” Mae explains. She found trying to get hold of her SEN officer “really difficult”. “Then one day I receive an email saying [my SEN officer] had left the service. I had no idea she was leaving.” 

Little girl playing inside Carter's Sunflowers Nursery in Welwyn Garden City

"He deserves to be in full-time education just like anybody else.” - Credit: The Two Photographers

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When Mae asked the central team who her new SEN officer would be she was told she doesn’t have one. “It was coming up to the holidays and [my son] hadn’t got a place in a school for September yet so I was freaking out. I probably emailed about 56 times and called over 100 times. They didn’t respond at all,” Mae says. Eventually, she went through Child Services and contacted someone who managed to sort things out. 

Mae’s son now attends a mainstream school with council-funded one-to-one support; however, her son is still not receiving the full amount of support that he needs.  

“He’s very autistic. He can’t speak properly and he’s still in nappies but his one-to-one assistance only goes up to 12pm. That’s not good enough. He’s five years old. He deserves to be in full-time education just like anybody else,” Mae says. 

Hatfield mum Sharon [not her real name] has experienced similar communication issues with her SEN Officer. Her son is due to take his GCSEs this year but has “no provisions” in place to allow him to take those exams. Their SEN Officer left in April this year and Sharon still doesn’t have a replacement officer. 

EHCPs are supposed to be reviewed at least once a year for children over the age of five. But Sharon's son’s EHCP hasn’t been reviewed in the three years he’s had it.  

For Hatfield mum Tatiana, the EHCP process for her seven-year-old daughter was taking so long that she went private.  

After failing to hear back after repeated attempts to contact the SEND team manager for East Herts, Broxbourne and Welwyn Hatfield, Tatiana hired a private speech and language therapist and educational psychologist because “the process would take too long” and the damage to her daughter’s development would be “irreparable”. 

Sarah’s four-year-old son is due to start school in September, but at the moment he doesn’t have a place. Her SEND officer left suddenly and since then her son’s case has been continually passed on throughout the team. 

“We don’t know who’s got hold of his case right now or where we’re at with it,” Sarah says. Until the EHCP is finalised, Sarah can’t put her son’s name on specialist schools’ waiting lists. 

Currently, Sarah’s son is attending Carter’s Sunflowers Nursery in Welwyn Garden City, an inclusive nursery for children with additional needs. It's been a "life saver" for Sarah. Carter's take children up until the age of eight, in part because there’s a need for those who aren’t yet placed in schools to have somewhere to go. 

Children in Carter's Nursery Welwyn Garden City playing game.

Carter's Sunflowers provides a low arousal environment that enables children to focus their attention and learn new skills. - Credit: The Two Photographers

“If he wasn’t here, he wouldn’t be going to a school until year two or three,” Sarah says. There are six children on Carter’s waiting list. 

But she doesn’t blame SEN officers specifically, rather the broken system and a lack of funding. “There’s a lot expected of them. There’s a lot of pressure. I feel sorry for them sometimes,” she says. 

Teresa Heritage, cabinet member for children, young people and families, said: “Hertfordshire, in common with many local authorities, is experiencing high demand for specialist provision, with a 37 per cent increase in pupils with EHCPs in the last three years and this raises its challenges both nationally and here in Hertfordshire.

"However, we are committed to making sure that every child has the right opportunities and support in place to meet their needs.

“The county council has significantly increased its investment into SEND funding in mainstream schools across the county from £9.5m to £17.5m this year. And we’ve made real progress in key areas across the education and health care process, preparation for adulthood and development of specialist provision support.

In early November 2021, HCC's Cabinet agreed an immediate investment of £1.5m into SEND services in order to improve the capacity of front-line teams and accelerate the work on strengthening an early help offer for families. Additional investment will also be identified in the forthcoming budget round.

“We are truly open to families co-producing the development of our SEND service and we’d invite all families who would like to be involved in developing our services and support offer for SEND in Hertfordshire to sign up to receive the SEND newsletter for regular updates: https://sendnews.hertfordshire.gov.uk/subscribe

HCC also said that they have set up a rota system for call handling so that they can answer more calls and blocked time for officers to respond to enquires so that, if someone leaves a message, they promise to call that person back within five days. 

The duty line for the team covering Welwyn and Hatfield is 01992 588562 or easthertsbroxbourne.senteam@hertfordshire.gov.uk and is available 9am - 5.30pm Monday - Thursday, and 9am - 4.30pm Fridays.

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