The Guardian view on the special needs crisis: children don’t deserve this chaos


By failing to adequately fund their own policy, ministers have created a destructive standoff between families, councils and schools

A decade after David Cameron’s coalition government overhauled provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities (Send) in England, it has never been clearer that the system is in crisis. A raft of measures designed to appeal to parents, by promising them greater influence over their children’s education, has resulted in a destructive standoff between families, schools and councils – because ministers failed to adequately fund their own policy.

Instead of the choices that were offered, parents of pupils who, for a range of reasons, are not thriving in mainstream classrooms, have been forced to fight for the resources that local authorities must provide to enable them to access education. Long waiting times for NHS autism assessments, combined with delays in issuing education, health and care plans (EHCPs) – the documents that set out children’s entitlements – mean that thousands of families are stuck. Even where plans have been agreed, there are many instances in which pupils do not receive the placement or support that they ought to guarantee. Families are left trapped, knowing that needs are not being met but unable to remedy what can turn into a damaging experience of exclusion from education.

Funding to councils for high-needs provision has increased by more than 60% since 2019-20 – but it doesn’t match the growing need, and the government admits the system isn’t working. Promised reforms are being introduced only in a piecemeal fashion, and many experts believe underlying issues are being ducked. Senior figures have cynically chosen to deflect blame by criticising parents with “the loudest voices” for challenging councils at tribunals.

There are about 500,000 young people in England with EHCPs, and more than a million more with additional needs that do not meet this threshold. The reasons behind the rising numbers are complex. The decision to extend the age range to 25 in 2014 appears to have been taken without sufficient regard to the implications. Meanwhile, a decade of education cuts and school reforms have worked against the rhetoric of inclusion. Underfunded and overstretched schools that are obliged to follow a prescriptive, exam-focused curriculum are less hospitable places to children who are neurodiverse, or who have learning or physical disabilities.

Other cuts have contributed to millions of families being unable to maintain living standards that are a crucial determinant of children’s health and wellbeing. Sharply increased socioeconomic difficulties and inequalities put pressure on communities and schools, and make life even harder for those who rely on additional help. Problems were exacerbated by the pandemic and the weakness of the government’s school-recovery efforts.

Without properly functioning Send provision, the school system is a jigsaw with missing pieces. For families forced to confront these failings, it can feel like a nightmare scenario of unmet need and wasted potential. Years spent on waiting lists are those that children never get back. A 10-year-old who waits a year for an assessment or tribunal decision has been waiting a tenth of their life. But concern about the Send system’s inadequacy should not be limited to those who are personally affected. Children who do not receive the education that is their right will one day be adults, and could be missing out on the skills and experiences that would equip them to build a life and make a contribution.

By The Guardian

SEN News
Author: SEN News

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