'Underfunding has got to a crisis point': Protesting parents call for more cash for special needs
PUBLISHED: 18:08 30 May 2019 | UPDATED: 18:08 30 May 2019
Copyright: Archant 2019
Parents and carers of children with special educational needs and disabilities in Norfolk have joined thousands of others around the country in demanding extra cash for vital education services. Bethany Whymark reports.
Families yesterday took to the streets of Norwich, calling on the government to address the "national crisis" in special educational needs funding.
Parents, carers and children attended the march in the city centre along with councillors, teachers and other professionals helping children with SEND (special educational needs and disabilities).
They were among thousands of protesters marching in England and Wales yesterday, including a group in London who brought the issue to the Prime Minister's front door in Downing Street with a petition asking for desperately-needed extra funds for SEND services.
Lynn Millins from Catton Grove attended the march with her daughters Layla, two, and Lily, three, who is autistic.
"Since Lily was very little I have known and been fighting against the system, which has had more cuts and fewer services," she said.
"At such a young age we were aware that her future might not be as bright as it could have been. It is extremely daunting because if it is as hard as it is now, and there is going to be less money, what will it be like in five or 10 years' time to get her the help she needs?"
Danielle Tebo from Thetford came with her nine-year-old son Owen, who has autism. She works with Norwich-based charity SENsational Families.
She said: "The under-funding from central government has got to a crisis point now. Children are being expelled and off-rolled. We are asking them for more money to help these children have a brighter future - because if we don't, we are just setting up problems for later."
Tracey Albrown, from Norwich, is fighting to get the right provision for her nine-year-old daughter Ruby, who has mixed neurological disorders and has not been able to attend school for months.
She said: "Ruby cannot be in a mainstream school. We have applied for a tribunal which has been postponed twice to secure her legal right to education.
"She wants to go to school and learn and she is not getting the education she is entitled to. She is perfectly able to learn with the right support."
Sandy Lysaght, from Great Yarmouth, said: "It is important that children, no matter their circumstances, get a fair education. If a child with special needs requires a bit more, they are entitled to that."
Her daughter Emily, nine, added: "Some of my friends have autism - I don't miss out so they should not miss out."
Bren Prendergast, a specialist teacher and EHCP (education, health and care plan) adviser, led the Norwich march.
She said a lack of government checks on how SEND funding was spent was exacerbating problems in the cash-strapped service. "It is left up to parents to police it," she said. "I end up using the law to secure children's rights through tribunals, but these parents are already run down - they have been filled with broken promises and nothing has happened. A tribunal is always a last resort.
"Local authorities are now saying they cannot fund EHCPs and the service for SEN children. If they are the gatekeepers to the funds and they cannot afford it then the children simply are not getting what they are entitled to."
Neil Powell, headteacher at North Walsham High School, said children with SEN were viewed as an "inconvenient truth" by some.
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"It is frustrating, and I don't think any school would say that funding for SEN is fair," he said.
"Every child has the right to a brilliant education, but with children with SEN an increasing level of funding is often needed to achieve this and it tends to be an afterthought in the school budget."
According to the National Education Union, special needs provision in England has lost out on £1.2bn since 2015.
It says funding granted to local authorities has failed to keep pace with demand for SEND provision.
Children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi said the government had allocated a total of £6.3bn for high needs funding in 2019, compared with £5bn in 2013, after announcing an extra £250m investment up to 2020 in December.
"Funding for the high-needs budget is a priority for this government and we know that councils and schools are facing pressures," he said.
"The education secretary has been clear that we are working closely with the sector as we approach the spending review, we have launched a call for evidence to make sure the funding system is getting money to the right places at the right time and we are revising the SEND code of practice to improve ways to identify and meet special educational needs."
Special educational needs in Norfolk
Norfolk County Council has seen demand for education, health and care plans (EHCPs) for children with SEN rise by around a third in the past few years.
Last year the council approved a £120m investment in special educational needs provision, including at least three new special schools and 170 specialist resource base (SRB) places for children with SEN - a 50pc increase on its current number.
The investment will help the 21,000 children in Norfolk with special educational needs, as well as help the council to make savings.
One of the new schools, a 170-place school in the greater Norwich area for children with social, emotional and mental health needs, will be part-funded by the Department for Education.
In January the council revealed plans to invest £1.5m into its EHCP service as part of the £120m SEN investment after government figures revealed it had one of the worst completion rates for the plans in the country.
A national crisis
Thousands of parents, disabled children and young people took to the streets to demand government action to end the "national crisis" in special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) funding on Thursday.
Campaign group SEND National Crisis delivered a petition with more than 12,000 signatures to Downing Street yesterday, ahead of a rally in Parliament Square.
Campaigners also gathered in 26 other locations across England and Wales, including Norwich and Ipswich, in what they say is the first national action of its kind.
Nadia Turki, co-founder of SEND National Crisis, said: "We can no longer remain silent when our children are suffering for want of adequate government funding.
"We are demanding a necessary change to the framework to ensure workable regulatory controls and to ensure SEND funding is ring-fenced to ensure delivery precisely where it is most needed."