Families whose children are disabled or have special educational needs are not the only people to have suffered over the past six months. But the lack of access to schools and other sources of support has been particularly tough for many parents whose lives are already more pressured than most. Now the signs are that the autumn will test them further, with research suggesting that 20,000 pupils at special schools may not be able to go back for health and other reasons. Headteachers and parents fear they have been “forgotten about”.
What makes this situation all the more serious is that special needs was already in crisis. Last October the education select committee published a review of the system introduced in 2014, and called for a “culture change”. It argued that the process of assessing needs had become overly adversarial, with families pitted against councils in a struggle over inadequate resources. Complaints had reached record levels, while local authorities were spending large sums on defending their decisions at tribunals (£40m in one year alone). After several decades of policies aimed at inclusion, segregation is once again increasing.
This week the committee’s chair, Conservative MP Robert Halfon, admitted that bureaucracy has displaced children as the heart of the Send system. The story told on BBC Panorama of a father who was offered £100,000 by Kent county council in a dispute over care for his two autistic sons, if he would agree to leave the area, is unusual (Kent has said it thought the family wanted to move away). But it is symptomatic of a wider breakdown.
Councils need more money. The extra £700m allocated last year is not enough. More than 250,000 children have an education, health and care plan (EHCP) – the legal document that replaced what used to be known as a statement. Five times as many receive some form of Send support at school. For children with profound and multiple difficulties (boys and girls who once upon a time might have been written off, or institutionalised) a care package can cost up to £45,000 a year. To force families to jump over hurdles and through hoops, at their own expense, in order to access the help to which they are entitled, is wasteful and wrong.
The select committee gave the changes contained in 2014’s legislation the benefit of the doubt, calling them the “right reforms” done in the wrong way. This is questionable. What is certain is that the best thing that could happen right now is for ministers to listen to their critics, and make a series of adjustments. These include standardising and simplifying paperwork across councils, completing a promised review of the Send code of practice, boosting training for staff and streamlining joint Ofsted and CQC inspections.
More generally, the secretary of state, Gavin Williamson, must step up and own the problem. By creating a new system and not funding it properly, ministers put councils and families in an impossible position. Now Mr Williamson must take the case for new funding to the Treasury, and find ways of providing more active oversight. As with children in care, special needs provision is an area where, if outcomes are to be improved, the different arms of the state must get better at working together.