Child brain injury lawyer: “Something has gone horribly wrong”

We spoke to Claudia Hillemand, part of the child brain injury team at specialist solicitors Bolt Burdon Kemp, about the recent education select committee report on SEND provision

Claudia Hillemand is a child brain injury specialist solicitor who works with families whose children have special education needs and/or disabilities. “The recent report by the education select committee confirms what families, charities, schools, local authorities and lawyers like me, across the country, already knew; our SEND system is not currently fit for purpose,” she commented.

“The report calls into focus the extent to which the government reforms of 2014 – which were welcomed with a sense of hope as focused and ambitious, aiming to offer simpler, improved and consistent help to children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities  (SEND) – have repeatedly let those same people it sought to nurture and support down with a bang. The 2014 education reforms were the biggest for a generation but, sadly, the last five years have shown us that their implementation has been, at best, misguided and, at worst, a disaster.”

Feeling the effects

Claudia has witnessed, first hand, the impact that government underfunding has had on SEND families. “In my work as a child brain injury solicitor, with SEND expertise, I see repeated examples of children and young people being let down by these reforms which once promised so much.

“As the country’s purse strings have tightened, and children/young people with SEND continue to feel the effects, the result amongst families has, quite understandably, been one of despair, desperation and, perhaps most acutely, anger across the nation. The level of frustration, and the seriousness of the status quo  were, most recently, evidenced by a high court action taken by three families of children with SEND, heard in June this year.”

Using one of her recent cases, Claudia demonstrated how SEND children are being failed. “Children with brain injuries, many of whom have a wide range of SEND, are, in some cases, being refused an education and health care plan (EHCP) entirely. In other cases their needs are not being recognised, or they are being denied sufficient provision in their EHCP to enable them to access the curriculum.

“Very recently I successfully challenged a local authority  decision to refuse a four-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, and associated gross motor and speech delay, an EHCP. The idea that my client did not have SEND requiring additional support in school was nothing short of unfathomable.

“My client was fortunate to be in a position to lodge an appeal but so many families find themselves unable to challenge these, often austerity-driven, decisions due to a variety of obstacles, including complexity, time, and money.”

No new dawn

Claudia is highly critical of the current system and believes that underfunding is the key issue . “We are facing a grossly underfunded system which is producing poor decisions, and the playing field for families to challenge them on is not a level one.

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“The Education Committee report projected a £1.2 billion shortfall in SEND funding. There can be no doubt that insufficient funding is a huge part of the overall problem. Local Authorities are stretched beyond our imagination. But is more money the answer?

“We have now had a general election like no other and the Conservative party has secured a comfortable majority in the House of Commons. Their manifesto, which is arguably light on detail, promised £14 billion extra funding for schools, £780 million package in 2020 to support children with SEND and to deliver ‘more’ school places for children with complex needs.

“Whilst this government’s funding pledge may sound impressive on the surface, like so often in politics when we drill down into the detail, all is not what it seems, and indeed this pledge, simply returns SEND funding to pre-austerity levels, when the system was already buckling. We should not be under any illusions; this promise does not mark the dawn of a new day.”

Claudia emphasised the fact that a review must take place now to ensure any extra funding is used efficiently. “Whilst additional funding will always be welcome and can sometimes be the answer, it would be naive to consider money a panacea to this system on the brink of collapse.

“For additional funding to make any meaningful difference to children and young people with SEND the government now need to commit to a prompt, thorough, and strategic review of what is going wrong with this system that promised so much, and why. The education select committee report leaves us in no doubt; something has gone horribly wrong and the time for action is now.

“It remains to be seen if the current and relatively recently appointed education secretary Gavin Williamson will stay in his role following the awaited cabinet reshuffle but in any event, a review must be a priority.  If the government overlook this report, some of the most vulnerable children and young people in our society will continue to be let down. We cannot ignore the far reaching, long term consequences, this ailing system has already had on their ability to reach their social, emotional and academic potential.

“Many SEND charities and parents groups have taken to social media to express concern and dismay that the party with the weakest proposal for SEND is now likely to be in government for at least the next five years. There is a growing sense of discontent and demand for change that is gathering momentum across the country. The results of this election have added fuel to the fire.  This government would be foolish to underestimate the commitment and drive of the families and charities who are fighting for the betterment and change, for they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

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