�35,000 payout for education blunders

SUFFOLK County Council paid out tens of thousand of pounds in compensation during the last year following failures to deliver adequate services.

The local government ombudsman received nearly a third more complaints from service users about performance in providing education, children's services, transport and highways.

He dealt with 61 inquiries and complaints in 2009/10, compared to 47 in the previous year, 21 of which were settled summarily while 40 were forwarded to an investigation team.

In one case, a complainant was awarded �35,750 following the failure to properly assess the special education needs of their son.

Ombudsman Tony Redmond's report into this, the largest payout, described the error as being exacerbated by the failure to provide appropriate education for the child for a whole year.

The compensatory payment, he said, was based on the cost the council would have borne if the correct placement had started a year earlier.

Six of the decisions made by the ombudsman about complaints were dealt with by way of 'local settlement' – or satisfactory response at council level.

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Half of these were special education complaints, including one regarding an 18-month delay in assessing the needs of a child and the inadequate education provision upon their exclusion from school.

In a similar case, the ombudsman criticised the council's 'initial reluctance to accept its failings' before eventually granting �3,000 of compensation.

A local settlement was also made after a delay in the allocation of a social worker to the complainant's vulnerable and disabled son when he turned 18.

However, almost a third of complaints, dealt with personally by the ombudsman, lacked sufficient evidence of fault by the council and warranted no further investigation.

Training for 'effective complaint handling' was provided for the council last year but response times were still an average of nearly two days late of the 28-day target set by the ombudsman.

Graham Newman, the council's portfolio-holder for children, schools, and young people's services, responded to the report, saying: 'The failures are unfortunate and we obviously never intend to be in such a position.

'But while three or four reports are not ideal, I wouldn't say it is particularly bad when, at any one time, there are about 100,000 children going through the system. I think we would be pretty well saintly if we got everything right.

'It is natural in some cases that the ombudsman will seek to redress the balance and find in favour of the individual over a very large organisation like the county council.

'Regarding school admissions, places are highly contested and we find complaints often arise from parents who have not met statutory limitations.

'It would be very dangerous for us to say here is a class of 30, let's get another three in there.'

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