EDUCATION bosses have spoken of their determination to offer the families of vulnerable children the support they need during the latest lockdown after a report concluded they had been failed during earlier stages of the pandemic.

A Darlington Borough Council meeting heard numerous families “slipped through the net” with very poor or no support being offered to those who had been previously identified as being in need of more help than is available through special educational needs support.

The Darlington Parent Carer Forum report highlighted how all children with an Educational, Health and Care Plan should have been offered school places, but schools offered a range of excuses as to why they could not offer anything other than home learning sessions.

However, the meeting was told online lessons were not suitable for some children with special needs, leaving some youngsters doing nothing unless their parents were able to teach them. In addition, the meeting heard Government guidance had been that schools were to carry out risk assessments which involved families. However, out of 51 families the forum surveyed, only five had been aware that a risk assessment had been carried out on them.

Carla Scaife, chair of the forum, said: “What we heard was if you were at home with the children and you got a phone call from the school that was your risk assessment. But nobody ever told you that was going to be your risk assessment and nobody ever told you it was to be used to decide whether you needed services during the pandemic. Those families might just have needed something really small in the beginning and have now hit crisis because there was nothing offered at the start.”

The meeting was told any of the services working with families, including education, health and social care, could and should have spoken to them about their needs.

Nevertheless, the meeting heard the council had tried to host zoom meetings with families to find out what issues were, the NHS had offered online workshops to help with sleep, sensory strategy and positive behaviour.

Councillors said the report had highlighted a “huge failure” during first lockdown and lessons needed to be learnt rapidly. Cllr Matthew Snedker said it had been disrespectful for risk assessments to have been carried out without people being aware and questioned whether such approaches were part of an ingrained system. He said: “I hope this is the result of a pandemic and national emergency that people fell through the cracks. These are people who need our support and help.”

The meeting heard after the council learnt of how schools had carried out risk assessments action was taken and schools were called, but the assessments had already been done.

Tony Murphy, the council’s head of education, said it was the council’s responsibility to ensure needs identified in the care plans were met and the risk assessments should have been returned to after having initially failed. He said the authority had learnt lessons as a result of the failures.