The issue of SEND has been one of the most reported on educational topics in the news in recent months – but what is really going on?
Over the last few months the educational news landscape has been dominated by stories concerning SEND. This reporting was catalysed by families of SEND children losing a landmark legal challenge to the government’s funding for SEND children. The three families, who were representing thousands of other SEND families across England, took their action to the high court claiming that financial decisions by the government had led to local authorities being unable to fulfil their legal obligation to provide SEND children with a fair education.
Lawyers representing the families said the substantial national shortfall in SEND funding would “blight their [SEND children] lives forever”. However, to mass condemnation, Justice Lewis ruled that the government’s provision for SEND funding had featured “no unlawful discrimination”.
“The decision to take this case to the high court was not taken lightly,” Anne-Marie Irwin, who represented the families, said. “We believe it was the first time that the high court has granted permission for a legal challenge against a government budget decision. We and the families are disappointed by today’s decision but thank the court for hearing the case. How SEND services are funded is still an incredibly important issue, affecting tens of thousands of families, and one that needs addressing.”
Dr Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union was critical of the court’s decision. “Today’s verdict is a huge blow to the families and children involved in this case, and allows the government to, once again, shirk its responsibility for these young people by fobbing them off to severely underfunded local authorities, who do not have the financial capacity to provide the specialist care and provision these families need and deserve,” she said.
Wading through treacle
However, the failure of the court case did not silence the criticism of the government’s SEND policy; instead, further reports echoed the families’ concerns. A few weeks later, the commons education committee released a report which said that the government was raising parents’ expectations of the SEND budget whilst simultaneously cutting it. The committee said that a whole generation of children were being failed, as they were not being given adequate support.
“Many parents face a titanic struggle just to try and ensure their child gets access to the right support,” said Robert Halfon, who chaired the committee. “Families are often forced to wade through a treacle of bureaucracy, in a system which breeds conflict and despair as parents try to navigate a postcode lottery of provision. Children and parents should not have to struggle in this way – they should be supported.”
National Deaf Children’s Society director Steve Haines did not hold back. “This is the most damning select committee report I’ve ever read. Line after line, it shows that the education system for disabled children is completely broken. Parents are forced to become protesters, lawyers and bureaucrats to stand any sort of chance of getting the support their child is legally entitled to.”
In the final debate before the dissolution of parliament, MP for Ipswich Sandy Martin stated that SEND provision in his constituency was ‘failing’. “I believe that there are profound problems in the way in which the county approaches the issue and that there is an underlying belief at Suffolk County Council, and in other related services such as CAMHS, that, somehow or other, the affected parents are just making things up and the problems will eventually just go away,” he said. “I do not know what the answers are, but I do know that SEND provision in Suffolk is failing children and their parents in Ipswich, and that doing nothing is not an answer.”
It seems that SEND children are not only being failed whilst they’re at school; campaigners have also stated that they are being failed by transport to and from school. According to the LGA, SEND children account for 69% of total free home-to-school transport expenditure. Campaigners have warned that councils which are struggling for cash are making ‘ill-considered’ cuts to home-to-school transport and it is SEND children who are being affected most. They say that disabled children have been forced to wait at pick-up points in adverse weather conditions, or are being asked to find their own way to school, when they really need support.
Gillian Doherty, who founded the parents’ campaign network Send Action, said some are being asked to travel for unacceptable amounts of time as transport routes are changed to save money. Others have lost their transport entirely despite still being of compulsory school age, meaning their parents have had to give up work to transport them.
Despite the government announcing in September that they would grant an additional £700m of funding for SEND, and would undertake a review of special needs education, many believe this is not enough; there is a broad acknowledgement that SEND funding, and provision, is in crisis and many campaigners say that there is still a £1bn shortfall in funding that the government needs to address.
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