In the fragile landscape of our education system, the quest for inclusivity and equality is a journey fraught with challenges. This blog post delves into the importance of Special Educational and Disability (SEND) Education in the UK, told as a personal story by our writer, Charlotte Bateman. Charlotte got the opportunity to discuss the SEND Crisis with, Amy Skipp, director of ASK Research.
Eighteen years ago, my mum and dad fought to secure me the right to an equal education. I had just lost my vision at age four- a very traumatic time for the whole family- and I was due to enroll at a mainstream primary school in Hertfordshire. Unfortunately, instead of helping us, the local authority nearly ruined everything, pushing my parents even closer to the edge.
Back then you had to fill in a document called a Statement of Special Educational Needs. This was to apply for support funding. The document took months to put together, and mine contained hundreds of pages written by doctors, outlining the severity of my eye condition. Despite this, to my parents’ disbelief, I was granted just 14 hours a week.
It made no sense. Bleary-eyed, my dad began spending hours after work writing letter after letter. He submitted a Freedom of Information Request to Hertfordshire County Council. He went to see our MP at the time, Peter Lilley. He even started the process for appeal. Then, just before the appeal hearing was due to take place, my parents received a letter from the local authority. It said they were sorry; they hadn’t realised I was totally blind. Why? Because they hadn’t read the paperwork.
What we experienced was hardly unique in 2005. Parents of SEND kids all around the country were fighting to get educational support. It wasn’t until nearly a decade later that the Government finally admitted the system was not fit for purpose. As a result in 2014, statements were replaced with Educational Health and Care Plans (EHCs) in a move to make the process less bureaucratic and more straightforward.
One would like to assume things have improved since then. However, in 2023, the SEND crisis is worse than anyone could have ever imagined.
Earlier this month it was revealed that the Government had signed a covert deal, “targeting at least a 20 percent reduction in new EHCPS issued”. The move which is designed to slash council deficits, comes at a time when the number of children with SEND has never been higher.
There are two main reasons for the recent increase in need. Firstly, Covid which saw delays in medical diagnosis and sparked an explosion in mental health issues among children and young people. Meanwhile, the rising cost of living has caused parents, particularly those of SEND kids, to rely even more on the education system for support. In a new analysis of special schools, there was a 30% increase in the number of kids coming to school hungry. The study, conducted by ASK Research, also showed increases in the number of kids who did not have appropriate clothing to wear and kids who did not have a suitable learning environment at home.
It’s not just families who are suffering financially. ASK Research found in a separate analysis that schools are facing enormous in-year budgets as both their running costs and the need for provision soar. Almost half of primary schools and special schools (at 49 and 48 percent) and two-fifths of secondary schools (at 41 percent) had an in-year deficit for 2021-22. When it came to predictions for 23-24, many said they expect the situation to get worse and they have already proposed cuts. Between 40 percent and 60 percent of all schools plan to cut learning resources while 30 percent said they will cut TA support.
And if that wasn’t worrying enough, Amy Skipp, Director at ASK Research, explained that some schools are in danger of crossing into illegal territory: “We found a third of special schools are planning to cut their core offer. If you don’t know what that is, the core offer basically covers everything the school legally has to provide to meet a child’s EHC needs. “Right now, special school heads are in an impossible position where they haven’t got any money, they have loads of kids with loads of needs, and they’ve got a choice. Either they go further into the red and keep meeting those children’s legally required needs. Or, they try and balance their budgets by cutting the core offer which is potentially illegal.”
For SEND pupils, the core offer tends to focus on independent living. This could be teaching children how to use public transport or how to do a food shop at the supermarket. It could also include facilities like hydrotherapy pools for children with mobility issues.
Amy says there is a huge lack of understanding when it comes to how vital these specialist services are.“People might think a hydrotherapy pool is just for splashing around and playing in, but it isn’t at all” she explained. “As well as socialisation, these pools provide many children with a soothing environment that allows their muscles to relax and enables them to move around more freely without a wheelchair or walking frame. If you’re cutting that sort of thing, it potentially means that further down the line there’ll be increased costs because that child is going to need more or different physio. They will also need more self-regulation, more socialisation, all the things they get from their hour in the hydrapool.”
Another major consequence of cuts is the impact it could have on children’s preparation for adulthood.
Amy continued: “Take going to the local supermarket for instance. You might think ‘Well why does it matter if you stop that? Kids don’t need that as part of their education?’. But actually for SEND kids, learning to live independently is critical and so when we are cutting these things that seem like nice little soft additions, we know it will have a detrimental effect on the life chances and life outcomes of these children. And increase the state’s cost further down the line because they’ll need more help as adults.”
This is something I can certainly agree with. After I was granted the right support at school, I learned how to walk with a white cane. In secondary school, I was taught basic cooking skills and how to use customer assistance at my local Sainsbury’s. Then, in 6th form, my mobility officer Tracy gave me the most valuable lessons I ever received in my whole education. I had decided by this point that I wanted to be a journalist and I had secured my first work experience placement at The Mirror newspaper. During the months prior, Tracy took me on the train once a week so that I could learn the route to the offices in Canary Wharf and practice using passenger assistance. She did the same when I got my next placement at The Telegraph in year 13. She even helped me map the layout of my first-ever office after I became an apprentice reporter at Sky News aged 18. While I had a lot of other support to achieve this, I don’t think I would be anywhere near as confident, assertive, and independent if it wasn’t for those extra services. So I can’t begin to imagine how hard it’s going to be for the current generation of SEND kids. Our Government cannot cut 20% of new EHC plans. Our kids with SEND cannot be left behind and forgotten for the sake of balance sheets. They are children, not numbers, and they deserve to be treated as such.