OFFICERS trying to deal with huge numbers of applications to give children extra support are "on their knees" as Oldham struggles to transform its services for youngsters with disabilities and learning difficulties.

The council is currently working through the fallout from a damning Ofsted inspection at the end of last year into its special educational needs and disability (SEND) services.

Chiefs now are aiming to have improved enough by November so that the government and NHS England agree that monitoring visits and monthly updates can cease and the council can "get them off our back".

To do this they are focusing on five key priorities; making sure they are operating within the law, implementing effective leadership, improving the quality of support plans, developing an ‘ambitious’ transport policy and reducing exclusions and school absences.

But a meeting of the borough’s health and wellbeing board heard that a number of significant issues remain a challenge to raising the standards of the service.

The quality of education, health and care (EHC) plans, the special needs assessments carried out by councils to establish what support a child requires, are "not great", Merlin Joseph, interim director of children’s services, told members.

And she added that staff in the SEND department are drowning under their caseload and numbers of new applications.

“We know the quality of the plans is not great but we’re looking at the annual review process to be the meeting that will ensures the plans are of quality,” Ms Joseph said.

“Currently the budget is significantly overspent so we do need to be mindful of that.

“This is a challenging area in that there isn’t sufficient support in the family of schools to support SEND across Oldham. What we’re finding as a consequence is that we have high numbers of requests for education, health and care plans.

“Statistically across the region, nationally, we would be an outlier.”

She said that caseload was around 80 plans per worker, and they get approximately 40 requests ‘per week, per month’ leading the team to struggle to complete the plans.

“But because of the volume that’s coming through the door, staff are actually on their knees and so we’re recruiting over and above the structure to deal with that,” she added.

“And that’s because we haven’t got the early help and the support systems within the schools, within the locality to support SEND in the levels we would need it to be.”

More staff will be recruited as a ‘priority’ to try and get to grips with the mounting requests.

She said it would take them seven years to raise the attainment levels of SEND pupils to one pc above the national average because they were starting from a "particularly low base".

Ms Joseph added they are ‘galvanising’ headteachers and making sure they were legally compliant and could provide enough support to try and avoid permanent exclusions and absences.

They have also reviewed transport plans to make sure they are "robust and safe", and now the aim is to promote independence for children and young people, she said.

“There is evidence that Oldham partners have and are continuing to put in place key elements of change which should in the longer term lead to improvement,” she said. “I think that’s quite positive.

But Noreen Dowd, strategic director of joint commissioning at Oldham CCG told members she was concerned they were "chasing the ball and forgetting the overall game".

“If we had the SEND children and parents in the room today, what would they say about us?,” she asked.

“It’s taken us a while to get ourselves into this unfortunate situation, it’s going to take us a while to get out of it.

“When we hear that the quality of plans isn’t great, that really worries me when we say things like that.”

Majid Hussain, chair of Oldham’s CCG, told members that during the update his confidence in the service had increased, but then started to reduce again.

“The first thing I say is that we had a mountain to climb when inspectors turned up and I think it’s important that we acknowledge and recognise that,” he said.

“Words like struggling, behind – it scared the hell out of me. We need assurance that we’ve got a grip on this, not just to correct that what went wrong but to proactively manage going forward.”

The borough’s chief executive Carolyn Wilkins responded: “The reason we’re rated amber is because we’re not there yet.

“We’ve done a huge amount of work and a huge amount of learning and we’re in a significantly better position that we were even a couple of months ago.”