Meet the Norfolk mums helping parents of children with special educational needs
PUBLISHED: 06:45 18 January 2019 | UPDATED: 08:30 18 January 2019
An organisation supporting more than 1,000 families with children with special needs is expecting its services to be fully booked this year as more parents and carers seek their help.
SENsational Families was founded in 2015 by three mums to give peer support and advice to other parents of children with special educational needs.
A report by the EDP last month revealed the “battles” endured by Norfolk parents to secure the right provision for their children with special educational needs – of whom there are around 21,000 in the county.
At the time Norfolk County Council, which oversees this provision, said improving education for children with special needs and disabilities was a priority.
SENsational Families now has some 1,150 members on its Facebook page, and the number is continuing to rise.
“That is crazy for a local charity,” said co-founder Nicki Price. “But because so many public services have gone we are picking up the slack. It feels wrong that the budgets have been cut and you are dependent on three volunteer mums. “At the moment it feels like parents are fighting the county council and fighting each other too, so we try to keep the group as positive as possible.”
Ms Price, 39, and co-founders Lottie Parish and Emma Coe have children with special educational needs themselves so are well aware of the shortages in local support services.
Together they founded SENsational Families in December 2015 and achieved charity status in May 2017.
November 2017 saw their first big funding breakthrough, after they secured a Lottery grant of £170,000 to improve their services.
The charity now offers training on subjects such as anxiety, education health and care plans (EHCPs) and how to handle challenging behaviour, replacing support once offered through local authorities, and will soon be able to offer one-to-one family support.
It also has a bank of sensory equipment including weighted blankets available to loan, and a library of SEN-related books.
But the coffee mornings held in Norwich, where it began – where parents can share experiences and advice – remain as popular as ever and its Facebook group is a 24/7 hive of activity.
Ms Parish, 37, said: “The majority of parents who reach the point where they need to ask for help, they are broken. And it is not something I have heard once or twice, it is far more often.
“It is heartbreaking what some of these parents are going through, they just cannot access the support they need.”
Ms Parish is sceptical about Norfolk County Council’s plans to build at least three new special schools in the county as part of a £120m investment in special needs education.
Both she and Ms Price’s children have places at the Wherry School in Norwich, a specialist school for children with autism spectrum disorders.
But she said the council’s new schools plan is “not hitting the right spot”.
“A lot of the problem is children with high-functioning autism or ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] who need a normal curriculum but cannot function in a classroom. They are the ones who are going to struggle,” she said.
“These children have ‘hidden disabilities’ but the impact on their lives is huge and they do not seem to be getting the support they need. It keeps getting taken away, whereas children with ‘obvious’ disabilities do not have their support reduced.
“The result is schools remove children because they are misbehaving, but that is because the support is not there and child’s reaction is challenging behaviour, then the schools have to exclude them. It is moving the problem, not really solving it.”
Of the estimated 21,000 children in Norfolk with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), 15,000 are educated in mainstream schools with minimal intervention, according to county council figures.
But Ms Price said the reduction in support services for children with SEND including teaching assistants was “unfair” on fellow pupils and staff.
With the extra funding, SENsational Families plans to hire new staff to help deal with its growing workload and fund more training courses for the parents it helps – including online courses for those who find it more difficult to travel away from home. It also wants to run activity sessions in school holidays.
The group is keen to remain independent so will seek most of its future funding from grants and donations.