Parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) have taken their fight for more funding to the heart of Westminster, handing in a petition with 34,000 signatures to the education secretary, Damian Hinds.
They joined forces with teachers, school governors and councillors from all over England, accusing the government of failing to provide sufficient investment for schools and local councils to provide children with adequate SEND support.
The petition was delivered to the Department for Education on Tuesday as MPs on the education select committee, who are investigating SEND provision and funding, heard damning evidence about the plight of families who face long delays as they fight to secure statutory support for their children.
MPs were told councils spent more than £70m over a three-year period fighting parents in tribunal cases, which local authorities go on to lose in almost nine out of 10 cases. The Conservative MP Lucy Allan said: “Is that not the most disgraceful waste of money in a sector that is so squeezed?”
The figure was likely to go up to £100m in December when the latest data would be available, the committee heard. Matt Keer, a father to two deaf children and a regular contributor to the Special Needs Jungle website for parents, told MPs that going through an appeal was “the most emotionally and financially draining thing I’ve ever done”.
Councils, which have been severely hit by austerity cuts in recent years, were also accused of stalling on decisions about care plans for children in order to delay having to fork out money from their budgets. The Labour MP Thelma Walker said parents had told her they had waited so long to have an education and health care plan (EHCP) put in place, which guarantees specialist support, they decided to home-school.
“One parent talked about her child being so vulnerable and so stressed and so distressed that he started self-harming, and she said she just couldn’t face what he was going through because the wait was so long.”
Justin Cooke, from the Ambitious about Autism charity, said a recent survey found 40% of parents had to wait more than 18 months for an EHCP, when it should take 20 weeks. The delays were partly because local authorities had lost expertise, he said, but also to keep money in their budgets. “They will string it out as long as possible some local authorities.”
Jackie Lown, the head of children and young people’s specialist services at East Riding of Yorkshire council, said her authority always tried to reach agreement with parents. It went to tribunal just nine times last year out of 1,800 ECHPs, only when it was felt either the parents’ preference was not in the best interests of the child or would take a great deal of the budget, when there was other provision available.
MPs also heard evidence on exclusions and off-rolling of children with SEND. Cooke told the committee: “It can come down to the ethos of the school, whether they really want to keep those children, or it can come down to the desperation of school leaders.
“Lots of schools are running at deficits. Lots of them can’t pay their teachers or repair their buildings, and they might just think it’s the final straw. They have to make cuts somewhere, and if they can save money by off-rolling some children who they think the local authority can then provide for, they might do it.”