SOMERSET Council has been fined hundreds of pounds after a vulnerable boy was left having “suicidal thoughts” after being unable to attend his preferred school.

The current council and its predecessor Somerset County Council have been reprimanded on numerous recent occasions by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) over delays in ensuring that children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) have access to quality schooling.

Over the last 12 months, the ombudsman has served up several hefty fines on the councils to reflect their poor performance – including £2,000 in both October 2022 and March 2023, and £3,300 in August 2023.

The latest judgement against the council has seen them fined £600 after a young boy (known only as J) missed out on his preferred school due to delays in issuing his care plan.

The council has apologised to the child’s father, known as Mr F, and has promised to pay the full amount of compensation.

The ombudsman exists to investigate allegations of “maladministration” and “service failure” in the public sector – in other words, instances in which it is claimed councils have not fully carried out their legal duties to taxpayers.

Under UK law, it is not mandatory that any child with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) must be provided with an education, health and care plan (EHCP).

However, any child which does have an EHCP must have this plan reviewed on at least an annual basis by the council, the parents and the school where the child is receiving education.

Mr F’s son, J, was attending a mainstream primary school (School X) and had an EHCP in place as a result of his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

His EHCP was reviewed on April 7, 2022, with officers concluding that no changes were needed, except to settle on which secondary school he would be starting in September 2023.

Following input from School X in May 2022, the draft was issued to Mr F on July 7, 2022, and he met with officers to discuss it.

At this stage in the process, the council should have consulted with secondary schools which met J’s needs – but instead, it issued a further draft plan on August 3, 2022, and carried out no further consultation with Mr F until September 27, 2022.

The council consulted Mr F’s preferred school (School Y) on December 2, 2022 – with the school responding on the same day that it would have no space to accommodate J until Easter 2024 at the earliest.

Mr F complained to the council on December 4, 2022 that his son’s new EHCP had not been issued and raised concerns that his son was running out to secure a place at his preferred school.

The council apologised on January 3, 2023, blaming the delay on “staffing changes”, and pledged to confirm J’s placement by February 15, 2023 – the deadline for school transfers.

Mr F subsequently escalated his formal complaint, arguing the council’s delays would lead to J missing out on starting at School Y in September 2023.

The council responded that “a considerable number of children” wished to attend this school and reiterated School Y’s advice that it had no available places until Easter 2024.

J’s final EHCP was finalised and issued on February 14, 2023, which listed an unnamed placement for J’s education from September onwards.

Mr F subsequently complained to the ombudsman, stating that J had started a part-time timetable in April 2023 since School X “could no longer meet his needs”.

He added that the experience had led to J’s mental health “rapidly deteriorating”, resulting in a referral to Somerset’s child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS).

The ombudsman found that the council had already sufficiently apologised for failing to meet the statutory deadlines for issuing a new EHCP, stating its delays were in part caused by the failure of School X to provide timely information.

However, they added that the council had failed to follow the proper processes when it came to issuing the revised EHCP and was “at fault” for the delay in consulting with School Y.

The report concluded: “The delays caused J’s mental health to deteriorate and as a result he disengaged from school,

“CAMHS confirmed J’s anxiety was directly linked to uncertainty over his school and that he had had suicidal thoughts.

“I cannot say that the delay in issuing a final EHCP was the sole cause of J’s mental health issues or disengagement from School X.

“But I consider the uncertainty about which secondary school he would be attending caused distress to J and the family.”

The ombudsman has ordered Somerset Council to pay £600 in compensation – of which £300 will go to Mr F and £300 directly to J to “remedy the uncertainty and distress caused” by the numerous delays.

A council spokesman said: “In this case we have agreed to pay the remedy recommended by the Ombudsman, and are currently waiting for a response from the complainant so we can initiate the payment.”