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‘They are not putting children first’: Parents hit out at crisis in Norfolk’s special needs

PUBLISHED: 06:00 21 December 2018 | UPDATED: 13:52 28 December 2018

Caroline Thorogate from North Walsham believes her two children would get on better in specialist schools. Picture: Neil Didsbury

Caroline Thorogate from North Walsham believes her two children would get on better in specialist schools. Picture: Neil Didsbury

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Parents fed up with “fighting tooth and nail” to get an education for their children with special educational needs have hit out at the authorities.

The stories of families who have fought to get the right support for their children are filled with distress, delays and disappointment.

Around 21,000 children in Norfolk have special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) and that number is on the up.

It has left authorities struggling to catch up, but Norfolk County Council insists SEND provision is a priority - and has pledged to invest in more staff and schools.

Parents in Norfolk have shared their experiences of trying to get the right special needs education provision for their children. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA ImagesParents in Norfolk have shared their experiences of trying to get the right special needs education provision for their children. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA Images

•‘Placements taken away’

Caroline Thorogate’s daughter Amy, 10, has been diagnosed with ADHD and autism while her son Daniel, six, also has special educational needs.

Ms Thorogate, from North Walsham, said both had been found places at special schools – her daughter at Sidestrand Hall near Cromer and her son at Woodfield School in Sheringham.

But both placements were subsequently withdrawn, and an uphill battle has begun to have them reinstated.

“It took a long time to get where I was with them, then the council just took both of the placements away.

They do not put the children’s needs first,” Ms Thorogate said.

“My daughter is really struggling where she is and it is frustrating for both of us.”

“Daniel had a special school ready and they decided to keep him in mainstream. Then he was put back a year to reception and now he is non-verbal. He is suffering from anxiety because he is not in the right environment at the moment.”

Amy Thorogate, 10, with her sister Hannah, 22. Amy has special educational needs and her mother wants her to attend a specialist school. Picture: Caroline ThorogateAmy Thorogate, 10, with her sister Hannah, 22. Amy has special educational needs and her mother wants her to attend a specialist school. Picture: Caroline Thorogate

•‘They are not putting my daughter first’

Sarah* has been fighting for support for her nine-year-old daughter, who has autism.

She previously managed in a mainstream school with support, but went into a downward spiral when she moved to year five and a new school this September.

Caroline Thorogate with her son Daniel, six, and daughter Hannah, 22. Daniel has special educational needs and his mother wants him to attend a specialist school. Picture: Caroline ThorogateCaroline Thorogate with her son Daniel, six, and daughter Hannah, 22. Daniel has special educational needs and his mother wants him to attend a specialist school. Picture: Caroline Thorogate

She struggled to cope with the increased workload and has barely attended school since October, her mum said.

Sarah, from north Suffolk, feels the small school her daughter is currently registered at does not have the space or facilities to properly support her. She is trying to get her a place at the Wherry School in Norwich, a specialist school for children with autism spectrum disorders.

Sarah said: “She is so traumatised that I can’t see her ever going back. It has been a fight. My daughter will now be at home until hopefully I win the appeal and get her into the Wherry School. It is very stressful because I am always worrying about what I should be doing. I have had to ask for a lot of help from friends and Facebook groups. I just want the best for my daughter and want her to be somewhere where she is settled.”

•‘I have not got the energy to fight’

Claire and her husband Mark, from North Walsham, are one of hundreds of families who have had to battle to get the right education for their child.

Their son Paul, 12, is autistic and has a sensory processing disorder and high anxiety, meaning the classroom is often a disorienting and stressful place.

Claire, 43, and Mark, 54, would like Paul to stay in mainstream education but fear budget pressures may cause his current school to stop funding the teaching assistant who helps him day-to-day in class.

“I feel very strongly that everything that my son has had has come at a great personal financial cost and huge stress. I have not got the energy to fight every single day just so he can go to school. He wants to be in mainstream. He is very bright and articulate, and his friends are in mainstream. His high school is wonderfully supportive and they are doing it all with their arms and legs tied behind their back by the county council,” said Claire.

Joanne's* daughter is now being educated at Acorn Park in south Norfolk. Picture: SubmittedJoanne's* daughter is now being educated at Acorn Park in south Norfolk. Picture: Submitted

“The county is talking about investing all this money in new special schools – why don’t we try investing some money in keeping some kids in mainstream?

“I am fed up with having to fight tooth and nail for him to have what every other child without SEN has.”

•‘We were lucky to get the help we did’

Principal Rachel Quick, and chairman of the Wherry School Trust, Barry Payne, in one of the classrooms at the Wherry School in Norwich. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYPrincipal Rachel Quick, and chairman of the Wherry School Trust, Barry Payne, in one of the classrooms at the Wherry School in Norwich. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Joanne* has been told that she and her daughter are among the lucky ones. After struggling for years to get her daughter, who suffers from autism and ADHD, the education she needed, she is now thriving in Acorn Park, a specialist school in Banham.

But the battle left the family exhausted and at times utterly demoralised.

Her daughter, now 16, was behind educationally by the time she went to high school in 2013. When education health and care plans (EHCP) were introduced in 2014, her statement of special educational need was transferred – but took 16 months to be formalised. In this time Joanne says her daughter spent little time at school, often running away during the day.

In September 2015 her high school said she was not suitable for mainstream education and the process of finding a special school place began. She was eventually placed at New Eccles Hall in Quidenham, starting in January 2016.

New Eccles Hall School, in Quidenham near Diss, which teaches children with special educational needs. Picture from Google Maps/Ridvan_1994New Eccles Hall School, in Quidenham near Diss, which teaches children with special educational needs. Picture from Google Maps/Ridvan_1994

Joanne says her daughter had “endless” informal exclusions and suffered abuse from other pupils and within six months the placement had been deemed inappropriate.

“The school said they didn’t want her back so the county council and the school decided they would educate her for three hours a day. She went in for three hours then got excluded,” Joanne said.

“She came home and had a really violent meltdown after which she was admitted to hospital. After that the county council said she didn’t have to go back to the school.”

Joanne says that from September 2016 the county council applied to 20 special schools for a placement for her daughter. Together they visited schools in Cheshire, Derbyshire and Cornwall and her daughter completed trial placements at two schools, but no offers were forthcoming.

In July 2017, a light finally appeared at the end of the tunnel. Acorn Park could offer her a place.

“Since she has been there she has absolutely thrived. They have done everything they can to bring her back into education. She has 100pc attendance and has made huge academic progress,” she said.

“Our social worker said we were really lucky to get the help that we have.”

*Some names have been changed.

Ed Maxfield, Liberal Democrat spokesman for children and young people at Norfolk County Council. Picture: Liberal DemocratsEd Maxfield, Liberal Democrat spokesman for children and young people at Norfolk County Council. Picture: Liberal Democrats

•What is the situation in Norfolk?

Around 21,000 children in the county have special educational needs or disabilities, the vast majority of whom (15,000) are educated in mainstream schools.

Around 6,000 have an education health and care plan (EHCP), a document compiled by the county council available for young people up to the age of 25 which details the support they need in education.

Mike Smith-Clare, Labour spokesman for children and young people at Norfolk County Council. Picture: SubmittedMike Smith-Clare, Labour spokesman for children and young people at Norfolk County Council. Picture: Submitted

This number is 30pc higher than it was a couple of years ago, while the number of referrals for EHCPs received each year in the county has also risen by around a third to 1,000, which is above the national average.

While some children can be educated in mainstream schools with appropriate support, such as specialist resource bases (SRBs), others require a place in a specialist school.

There are currently around 150 children with SEND in mainstream schools in Norfolk waiting for a special school place.

A shortage of places at the county’s 13 specialist schools has led to the council funding hundreds of places at independent providers – some out of the county – with an average annual cost of more than £40,000 per pupil.

Stuart Dark, chairman of the children's services committee at Norfolk County Council. Picture: Norfolk ConservativesStuart Dark, chairman of the children's services committee at Norfolk County Council. Picture: Norfolk Conservatives

The national crisis in SEND education has now been recognised by the schools inspectorate, Ofsted.

In its 2018 annual review the head of the organisation Amanda Spielman described the failings in SEND as a “national disgrace”, with identification of SEND “often late or inaccurate”.

“Something is deeply wrong when parents repeatedly tell inspectors that they have to fight to get the help and support that their child needs,” she said.

A retired school special educational needs coordinator from Norfolk said the increasing number of children requiring support for special educational needs had coincided with a “crisis point” in school funding.

The woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, said: “Many SEND pupils have conditions that are complex and non-curable. They have to learn coping mechanisms. What they require from education is different – they need skills to lead an as independent a life as possible, not skills to pass SATs.

“The bottom line is we don’t have enough special schools and we are failing so many children as we struggle to make humans fit into statistic-shaped holes.”

‘Catastrophic’ delays for special needs education plans

When the government introduced EHCPs to replace the previous statements of special educational need in 2014, it set a deadline of 20 weeks from referral for a plan to be completed.

As of September 2018, just 13.4pc of EHCPs in Norfolk were being completed within this timescale.

For many families the battle does not end there: data from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) shows 100 parents and carers dissatisfied with their child’s EHCP appealed to the county council against them in the last academic year.

Not only does this process induce financial and emotional stress for families, but the costs mount up for the authority too – Norfolk County Council data shows some £412,000 has been spent on tribunals over EHCPs since 2015.

And more often than not, the authority loses. MoJ figures show that, of the 32 tribunals heard in Norfolk in the 2017/18 academic year, 31 (97pc) were won by the family appealing.

The council has forecast a spend of £219,000 on EHCP tribunals in the 2018-19 academic year, in line with the previous year’s total. Some 15 appeals have already been lodged.

Bren Prendergast, a specialist teacher and adviser on EHCPs in Norfolk, said children with SEND required “good quality” assessments which were “specific, quantified and set clear outcomes”.

“The local authority is aware of case law (established by judges in previous cases) which makes it extremely clear that EHCPs must be specific and quantified – yet they continue to use vague terms such as ‘may benefit from’ and ‘opportunities for’,” she said.

“There is so much wrong – children and young people are out of school or college with the local authority blaming others and denying responsibility.”

Mike Smith-Clare, Labour spokesman for children and young people at Norfolk County Council, said the current wait times for EHCPs were unacceptable.

“It is imperative that families receive the care, support and service they have a right to – as at present what is being provided falls well short of the mark.

“Too often families feel they have a fight on their hands every step of the way. We shouldn’t be making it so hard for families who already face enough challenges,” he said.

Ed Maxfield, Liberal Democrat children’s services spokesman at the county council, labelled the delays “catastrophic”.

“It’s a symptom of a system that is teetering on the edge of a crumbling cliff,” he said.

“The council’s leaders have to grasp this problem and give the teams doing the work the resources they need to support families who just want a fair chance for their children.”

Michael Bateman, head of the SEND service at Norfolk County Council, said there had been a big rise in referrals from parents, where families had lost confidence in the school’s ability to support their child or where there was a “difference of opinion” over support.

He added that, even when EHCP referrals were rejected, advice was offered to parents and schools. “There is not a cliff edge when you say ‘no’.”

The £120m future

In the face of a shortage of special school places Norfolk County Council is pushing forward with an ambitious £120m plan to build at least three new special schools in the county in the next eight years, which will provide a minimum of 300 new places – more than double the 130 places currently available.

It will also create an extra 170 places in specialist resource bases on top of the existing 240 in mainstream schools.

Mr Bateman said: “When you look at the contact from parents into our EHCP teams or any other kind of complaint or mediation, easily 50pc of that concern is about specialist placements so we have acknowledged for some time that we need to increase that in Norfolk.”

But he said mainstream schools must continue to ensure their provision for complex needs hit the mark.

“We have to make sure that mainstream schools can meet the majority of pupils’ needs for special educational needs and we know it is a very mixed picture across Norfolk. Some schools are very good and very experienced at meeting special needs and some are less so.”

Stuart Dark, chairman of the children’s services committee at Norfolk County Council, said: “We are investing £120m in new special schools, bases at mainstream schools and in outreach support to help schools be more inclusive.

“We’re also recruiting to our education, health and care plan teams, so that we can reduce the time families wait for an assessment.

“We are not alone in facing pressures in this area. Although we are investing additional money in supporting children in Norfolk, we have also raised the issue of special educational needs pressures and transport costs with central government and I have spoken to the minister directly about this issue.”

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