THE minister for education has joined parents and AMs in criticising “belated” council consultations of “questionable quality” held for parents of special needs children ahead of withdrawing from a Gwent-wide support service.

In October 2018, Newport council announced they were leaving the Sensory and Communication Support Unit (SenCom) – which supports children with visual, hearing and communication needs.

Currently all five Gwent local authorities fund the service, managed by Torfaen Council. But Newport have decided to cut costs by setting up their own service in April, saving £250,000.

Just 170 parent invitations were sent out to drop-in consultation on January 21 and 22, despite the council previously saying 380 vulnerable children would be taken onto their books after the change.

The South Wales Argus has spoken to parents who received invitations after the meetings were held, who say they were concerned about “leading questions” in the sessions and a lack of understanding about their children’s needs.

READ MORE: Newport SENCOM decision criticised by Wales Council for the Blind

Speaking in the Assembly, Torfaen AM Lynne Neagle once again spoke out against Newport council’s decision.

Addressing minister for education Kirsty Williams, Ms Neagle asked: “Would the Minister agree with me that, in order for consultation to be meaningful, it needs to be timely, in a language parents can understand, including minority ethnic parents, and in a format that is accessible to parents who themselves have a sensory impairment?”

The education minister agreed, and in answer to a separate question by South East Wales AM Mohammad Asghar added: “I can assure the Member that I wrote to Councillor Debbie Wilcox, the leader of Newport City Council, back in November, seeking reassurances.

“A response was received from the said council in December, and the council stated that they were confident that they will leave a significant and well-funded service that should be more than able to maintain the current levels of delivery to the remaining four local authorities…

“Newport council are belatedly now engaging with parents of children who use this service, but, again, as we’ve heard from Lynne Neagle, the quality of that consultation exercise is at best questionable, and my officials continue to liaise with Newport City Council over their actions on this particular service.”

READ MORE: Newport City Council defend their decision to withdraw from SenCom

Newport council was asked to respond.

Parents who attended the drop in meetings say they were asked by council representatives to list their children’s needs and detail what support they are currently receiving from SenCom.

One parent was even told the local authority were “not aware” of her son, who relies on regular SenCom support.

Another told the South Wales Argus her invitation to attend one of the January sessions arrived the day after the meeting was held.

“I work in a job that requires you to give advance notice of any holiday, but there’s no way I could have done that,” said one parent who asked to remain anonymous.

“These meetings were held only during or close to working hours and school run times, which is pretty shoddy considering who they’re inviting – parents of vulnerable children.”

READ MORE: Eleven-year-old is latest to raise fears for future after Newport's decision to pull out of SenCom

Most concerning, said parent Amanda Williams, was being asked at the meeting what her son’s needs were, and being told the council were not even aware of him.

“It’s very worrying, considering how late in the day it is,” said Ms Williams.

“They didn’t even know who my son was. They weren’t aware of him or his needs.”

The South Wales Argus has learned that since the meetings in January, SenCom and Newport council have met to share relevant details..

But with less than seven weeks to go until the handover deadline, parents aren’t the only ones who remain unconvinced by the plan.

More than 2,500 people have signed a petition against the decision.

High Court proceedings have been issued against the decision on behalf of nine-year-old Brogan Battersby from Beechwood in Newport.

Wales Council for the Blind have also written to the council on behalf of seven national charities included RNIB, asking them to reverse the decision.