For those of us who don’t have children with special educational needs (SEND), we cannot begin to understand what life must be like for those who do. Since being elected as MP two years ago, I have heard from dozens of families who have been driven to breaking point by the lack of support for their children with special needs. The SEND crisis in Suffolk has been described in this paper for many months, but nothing can prepare you for the heart-breaking stories from families who have been left desperate, exhausted and isolated.
I recently joined families and campaigners on the SEND National Crisis March through Ipswich. Funding from central government for education in Suffolk – including for SEND – is woefully inadequate and is largely to blame for the lack of provision. The Conservative Government has taken a conscious choice to prioritise tax cuts for high earners over investing in our children’s education, and Boris Johnson has made it clear he will go further than ever to make sure his rich friends pay even less in tax, if he becomes Prime Minister. I will continue to lobby for the money we need to put children’s education first.
But while national funding is clearly a major problem, there are also issues and failures which were particularly acute in our county.
Following a seriously disturbing report into Suffolk County Council’s SEND provision earlier this year, there have been calls for an Independent Inquiry, a call I very strongly support. Suffolk was the first area in the country to, in effect, fail their reinspection. It is time the County Council stopped marking their own homework and asked for external help.
Just this month, we read that three quarters of children who had been issued with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) had had to wait longer than the 20-week target time to receive them last year. Any delay – in some cases families have had to wait for three years – can be traumatic for the child and the parents, and can lead to potential special school places being lost. There is nothing inevitable in such delays – other counties in the East of England manage far better.
It’s not just the time taken to produce the ECHPs which is at issue. Far too many parents who are worried about their child’s ability to manage with mainstream education can’t get an assessment of any sort. Neither parents nor children can be sure whether they will be able to access any additional help, whether they will be able to stay at their local school, or whether they are in need of any therapy. If parents need an assessment to encourage them to help their children make a success of their existing school, then the sooner that assurance comes the better. And for those children who do need specialist help, the sooner that that help can be provided the less damage will be done to that child’s education and mental health.
Of course, once an assessment has been made, we need the facilities, the staff, and the appropriate schools to put that into action. There are huge gaps in educational provision for children with special needs in Suffolk which urgently need to be filled. Much more should be done to help children stay in mainstream schools and children with special needs must be given appropriate surroundings and support, and parents need to know how to access that support.
Children and young people who are not in education are likely to have deteriorating mental health and are more likely to be exploited by criminal gangs. We need a whole range of provision here in Suffolk so that however severe a child’s needs might be, there is a school or specialist unit which will be able to help them. No child should ever be left without an education.
This is made more difficult by the fragmentation of our education system. I believe we need a coherent, properly funded National Education Service which can make decisions in difficult cases – these cannot simply be left to individual schools. But however it is organised, we do need to make good on the claim that “every child matters” by ensuring that every child can have an education. If the County Council can’t do that, then something is seriously wrong.