In every surgery I have held since being elected I have seen parents of children with special educational needs (SEN) struggling to get the support they need.
Without exception, these parents have been dedicated to their children’s future. Many of them have sacrificed their careers to navigate the labyrinthine systems that they often feel have been deliberately designed to prevent them accessing the support that their child is due.
Recently, I met the parents of an eight-year-old boy who has a variety of complex needs, including ADHD, dysgraphia and incontinence problems. He was described to me as a ‘bright boy, a fantastic friend and lover of nature’ but there is no school place in Sheffield for him. He has not been to school for three years.
One mother wrote to me about her son, who is 12-years-old with ASD, Processing Disorder and Anxiety. He’s been out of school for 16 months with no offer of alternative education and his mental health has deteriorated to crisis point as a result.
Another local child has selective mutism as part of his ASD. His school is, in his mother’s words, supportive but frequently uses informal exclusions when short staffed as they can’t provide one-to-one support.
We are normalising the mistreatment and the failings of children with SEN.
A lack of funding is a primary cause of these problems. Sheffield City Council has a deficit of £6 million for the high needs block out of a total £18 million deficit for school funding this year. At the same time, services are faced with huge increase in demand.
This under-funding manifests itself in a number of ways and all of it has a knock-on effect through the system.
Firstly, mainstream schools have less additional and specialist support in place so are unable to cater for children with SEN. I’ve had reports of parents going to look at schools and being explicitly told: this is not the school for your child if he has autism. School funding cuts that have resulted in the loss of teaching assistants, a narrower curriculum, and bigger class sizes have all made certain mainstream schools more hostile environments for children with SEN.
In turn, there are nowhere near enough specialist places to meet demand. And, because there aren’t enough spaces, more and more parents are choosing to educate their children at home, not truly out of choice, but of desperation.
And cuts to local authorities have also left teams so short-staffed that the availability, the quality and the consistency of Education and Health Care Plans is really poor. The length of time that most children, young people and families wait to have their needs assessed and to receive a plan is unacceptable.
But there are other issues beyond funding. Ofsted’s framework and the competitive system of schooling have led to unacceptable levels of school exclusions for children with SEN. In Sheffield, Ofsted found that high levels of fixed-term and permanent exclusions result in children and young people with SEN underachieving.
Good outcomes for children and young people with SEN are also compromised by the widespread use of partial timetables for lengthy periods. At the time of inspection, 70 pupils with an education health care plan (EHCP) and 118 with SEN support were on partial timetables.
Parents rely on teachers to confirm and support their own concerns and help them navigate the system. But teachers are over-stretched and lack specialist training, leading to serious inconsistencies in identifying, assessing and meeting families’ needs.
Parents need clearer pathways and understanding of their rights. They absolutely do not receive clear or timely information about the support that is available for their children and how to access it.
I shudder to think at the amount of unmet need that is out there in Sheffield. It is the Government’s duty to make sure that we have the systems and support structures in place that identify children with SEN as early as possible and put the right support in place.
There is no greater sign that the Government has failed to do that than the fact that 40% of the children in youth custody have SEN.
I meet with the Council and raise individual cases with them on a regular basis but there are so many structural issues that need to change. I’ve raised with Ofsted the need for their inspection framework to be more inclusive, I work with local schools on their exclusion rates and hold them to account when they are too high, I’ve written to the Minister to ask for better support and teacher training and of course I am always lobbying for more funds and places for children with SEN.