Inclusion Now 57

Not Back at School

Many outside the Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) community were shocked by BBC’s Panorama 7th September programme on the fight for education faced by disabled children and their families. But for those within our community this was not news.

Many outside the Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) community were shocked by BBC’s Panorama 7th September programme on the fight for education faced by Disabled children and their families. But for those within our community this was not news. ‘The tip of the iceberg,’ was a phrase that came up frequently in response to the programme.
The first half of the Panorama programme focussed on the trauma and distress caused not just by Covid-19 and lockdown, but the withdrawal of vital support. Without this, many Disabled children struggled to access education remotely. Their physical and mental health deteriorated, and they and their families became increasingly isolated.

The second half of the programme investigated some of the obstacles families face in accessing the provision to which their children are legally entitled. Two of the parents featured in the programme were solicitors. Yet even they struggled to navigate the ‘system’. What hope then for everyone else? Families entering the arena to access support for their children face a battle of epic proportions, weighted against them from the outset. What is truly shocking is the widespread, routine unlawfulness they encounter.

The SEND system is often presented as the problem. It has been described as ‘a treacle of bureaucracy’ and a ‘postcode lottery’, where only ‘sharp-elbowed parents’ can succeed. In fact, the real problem is lack of accountability, individually, locally and nationally. The absence of strategic national oversight of SEND is particularly staggering.

Far from elbowing others out of the way, parents go out of their way to provide information, support and advice to other families. They address imbalances of power, knowledge and resources by making other families aware of their rights and the support available to them. Few of them are paid for this. They do it because they care and because they want Disabled children to succeed.

Something is badly wrong when parents are forced to resort to complaints and legal action to uphold their children’s rights. More than nine out of ten complaints about Education, Health and Care plans (EHC plans) were upheld by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman last year. More than nine out of ten SENDIST appeals were won by families.
What they win is the right to an appropriate education for their child. What these families often lose along the way is precious family time, years of education, mental and physical health, savings and relationships.

Local authority reports frequently refer to SEND provision as a ‘burden’ on their resources. It’s an appallingly deficit-laden narrative that undermines equality, inclusion and the right to education. If they lack the funding to meet their statutory duties, then they need to take this up with the Government and evidence their difficulties.

Despite endless reviews, reports and inquiries nothing seems to change. There’s a sense that these ‘problems’ are too difficult, intractable and expensive to solve. Complexity has become an excuse for inaction and worse.

Last year the Education Select Committee completed its SEND inquiry and published a highly critical report. Instead of acting on its recommendations, the Department for Education embarked on its own SEND review. Then everything went quiet. The process and who is involved in it remains shrouded in mystery.

We were assured just a few weeks ago that the review was still happening but that it would be delayed, in order to factor in learning from the Covid-19/lockdown experience. Then this week we were told that it would be delayed until next year due to Department for Education resource being diverted into its Coronavirus response.

Given the disproportionate impact of Covid-19, lockdown and school closures on children with SEND, it seems extraordinary that rather being prioritised they are being shuffled to the bottom of the pile.

The faults in the SEND system have not changed in the last six months, but the cracks have opened up. The gap between what should happen by law and what happens in reality is growing steadily wider. It’s easy to blame Covid-19 as the catalyst, the earthquake that has caused the system to collapse, but the problems existed long before Covid-19.

In any case, this was more of an uncontrolled explosion than a natural disaster. From May to July 2020 the Government relaxed certain duties on local authorities under the Coronavirus Act 2020.Previously local authorities were under an absolute legal duty to deliver the provision in children’s education, health and care plans, but under the new legislation this was temporarily reduced to a ‘reasonable endeavours’ duty. This decision was not taken in the interests of Disabled children, but to protect local authorities from legal action.

All this happened in a context where most local authorities were already falling well short of their legal obligations. What came next was no surprise. Many Disabled children saw their provision dramatically reduced or removed entirely. Without support from teaching assistants, specialist teachers and therapists many struggled with work that often wasn’t differentiated, or that they simply couldn’t access.

Since the beginning of August EHC plan rights have been back in force. The government made it clear that the expectation was that ALL children would return to school in September. Yet we are receiving reports of Disabled children and Young people who are still unable to access education, refused admission to school, offered part-time timetables or denied the provision in their EHC plans.

Disabled children are being turned away by schools that say they cannot safely meet their needs due to insufficient space, staffing and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Among the children being refused admission are those with tracheostomies and other medical needs, those with personal care needs and those who can’t comply with social distancing requirements.
Others are being admitted but on significantly reduced timetables.

Of those children that are in school, many have seen their provision reduced to what is deliverable in the context of Covid-19 protocols. Of course, all EHC plan provision should now be back in place, but this isn’t the reality.

While many schools have legitimate concerns that need to be supported and addressed, there are also signs that Covid-19 is being used as a new excuse for “off-rolling” (more accurately described as unlawful exclusion). We have already had reports of home learning being used as a punishment.

Our partners at Special Needs Jungle have launched this survey to understand the experiences of Disabled children and Young people returning to education this term. It will help to evidence the main obstacles to return so that we can lobby for them to be addressed.

The first step towards putting SEND right is acknowledging the gap between political rhetoric and reality, listening to Disabled children and their families and recognising their experiences as facts, not feelings. The second step is to take action to address that gap. Not all children are back at school. Now what are we going to do about it?

By Gillian Doherty