THE performance of St Helens Council’s education, health and care (EHC) plans has been commended following "substantial improvements".

An EHC plan is the document which replaces Statements of SEN and Learning Difficulties Assessments for children and young people with special educational needs.

In 2016, only 40 per cent of EHC plans were issued during the targeted 20-week period, which is significantly lower than the regional average of 65.7 per cent and the national figure of 58.6 per cent.

Sharon Fryer, the council’s assistant director, integrated children’s health, presented an updated report to the children and young people’s services overview and scrutiny panel on Monday.

The report revealed from April 2017 to February 2018, 101 new EHC plans were completed. Four of those included in-borough transfers and 10 complete reassessments.

Of these, 70 per cent were completed within the 20-week period, which is below the council’s target of 75 per cent.

The report said that while there has been improvement in the first three quarters in 2017-18, there are a number of issues which continue to impact current performance.

“The total number of statements and EHC plans maintained by St Helens has continued to increase," the report said.

“There will be 834 statements/plans maintained by the local authority by March 2018.

“In St Helens, the combined total has increased year on year since 2010.

"The increase from 2015-16 (20 per cent) has been significant and greater than any year-on-year change reported in recent years. The increase is greater than regional or national comparators.

“At the current rate of increase, we estimate that there will be 1074 children with an EHC plan by 2010. This will represent a 100 per cent increase in children on EHC plans."

Cllr Nova Charlton, ward member for Thatto Heath and chairman of the meeting, said there have been some "substantial improvements" noted in the report.

Eccleston councillor Teresa Sims also praised the progress that has been made.

She said: "I am so pleased with everybody that we have caught up with this. Let's hope we never get in this position again."

Of all the EHC plans issued outside the timescale, 56 per cent were issued before 26 weeks, 30 per cent before 22 weeks, 18 per cent before 21 weeks and 10 per cent was one day late.

There were seven EHC plans that were issued beyond 26 weeks.

Of these, three involved complex safeguarding issues which needed further consideration or specialist assessments before a plan could be issued.

The authority has experience nine complex cases that have resulted in parental appeals to the SEND tribunal.

The report said this is creating “significant pressure” on the team’s resources to prepare and defend these cases.

The report said: “Of the nine cases, eight of these are in respect of disagreement on school places, in six of these parents had requested a placement in an independent non-maintained special school out of borough rather than a local maintained option.

“To address this, we are undertaking a review of our provision for children with SEND in school so that St Helens has a range of high quality educational provision so that children can be educated locally where ever possible.”

The panel also heard that staffing issues is contributing to the struggles of the performance.

A new senior casework manager post was created in March 2017 but has been vacant following an extended period of absence from July 2017 to December 2017.

An initial round of recruitment was unsuccessful, and the post had to be re-advertised.