Special needs education row has split Oxfordshire's 'Fair Deal' alliance - Labour quits ruling partnership
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The report, featured in the Banbury Guardian last week, resulted in OCC and its partners issuing a deep apology for failing children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
This weekend Labour quit the three party alliance which took over control of the county council from the Conservatives in 2021.
Labour said the LibDems were ‘asleep at the wheel’ and should have held the Local Area Partnership (LAP) responsible for SEND to account and taken responsibility for correcting the problems.
Lib Dem and OCC leader Cllr Liz Leffman said she was ‘deeply disappointed’ at Labour’s decision and said Labour’s Cllr Liz Brighouse – chair of children’s services – should have resigned.
"The OFSTED report has shown this portfolio needs the undivided attention of a cabinet member who can overhaul the service and rebuild relations with parents. It has been clear since publication of the report that Cllr Brighouse has lost the support of many parents,” she said.
In a statement Labour said: “Labour came into this coalition two years ago in good faith. The Conservative-led administration had let our residents down and we recognised that there would be issues we would need to work through together as a coalition.
“We have felt for some time the Liberal Democrats do not appreciate the scale of the challenges facing our council at a time of national difficulty. At present, we face significant problems concerning SEND that require us to work as a team and take collective responsibility as a council and a wider system.
"We’re proud to have secured extra funding for SEND and fought to save transport services for SEND families when they were under threat. We recognise there is still more to do.
"Unfortunately, the Liberal Democrats have shown they aren’t interested in working together and instead simply want to score points and pass blame. We therefore have no option but to leave the coalition. We’ll continue to support and fight for Oxfordshire residents from opposition.”
Labour’s Cllr Duncan Enright said Cllr Brighouse had secured extra funding to provide education and health care plans faster and for more children.
"Three special schools are being built and four new children’s homes provided thanks to Labour leader Cllr Brighouse. The Education Commission Cllr Brighouse commissioned provides some much-needed suggestions for improvements. However we know the problem is with the whole system, not just county services. The Health and Wellbeing Board oversees work between the NHS and other council services, including SEND. The Board is chaired by the Leader of the County Council, Liberal Democrat Liz Leffman. She sits at the head of the system.“Instead of being asleep at the wheel, Liz Leffman should have used her role to hold the Local Partnership to account. She has failed to take any responsibility or provide any leadership on tackling these important issues.
"Labour calls on the Liberal Democrats to take their responsibility seriously, instead of passing the blame to Labour members who work harder than anyone to improve a system crippled by 13 years of austerity and cuts by the Conservatives, supported by the Liberal Democrats in coalition for five years, during which £119m was cut from Children’s Services in Oxfordshire.”
Cllr Leffman said improving services for children with special needs ‘must come before political advantage’.
“Ofsted’s judgement of our performance is clear, concise and pointed to areas where we need to improve performance. Although this is challenging within the current funding formula from the government at Westminster, other councils have demonstrated what can be achieved."
"I am therefore deeply disappointed Labour have decided to leave the Fair Deal Alliance rather than make the changes in leadership that are needed to improve these vital services.
"I will be taking immediate action to ensure strong and effective leadership is put in place to improve the County Council's support for children with Special Educational Needs and rebuild confidence with parents."
The OFSTED report identified systemic failures over a long period. OCC has accepted the shortcomings and committed to action to improve the experience of children and families.
Cllr Leffman said since the report was released, several parent groups from across the county had called for Councillor Liz Brighouse’s resignation.
The LibDems and Greens proposed a cabinet reshuffle to the Labour group, suggesting Mrs Brighouse take an alternative cabinet post.
"However, Labour have instead chosen to pull out of the Oxfordshire Fair Deal Alliance,” said Mrs Leffman.
Green Group Leader Ian Middleton said: “These are serious issues we need to resolve with a new approach which will inevitably mean a new person in the Children's Services Cabinet role.
"It's disappointing the Labour group did not agree with that but it's now time to put politics aside and get on with the job of ensuring Oxfordshire's children get the support they so desperately need"
Cllr Eddie Reeves, leader of the Conservatives, said: “Labour and the Liberal Democrats have failed to run services for our most vulnerable children. OFSTED's report is utterly damning, particularly when its conclusions are set against its last inspection in 2019.
"I tabled a motion in December 2022 and an opposition budget in February 2023 to specifically address this vital issue. These proposals were rejected by Labour and Liberal Democrat Councillors. I now call on them to set party politics aside and work together to restore SEND families' confidence in the Council. They are all that matters."
- (The LAP comprises OCC and NHS Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire West (BOB) Integrated Care Board (ICB) who are jointly responsible for the planning and commissioning of services across education, health and social care for children and young people with SEND in Oxfordshire. The partnership also includes Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust and Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.)