Families of children with special needs are joining forces to fund legal action against local authorities in England that are cutting budgets, after the teaching union said children who could not be supported were being taken out of schools.
Alicia McColl, whose 14-year-old son Kian has autism, raised £2,600 via the crowdsourcing website CrowdJustice to help pay for a judicial review of Surrey county council’s proposals to cut its special educational needs and disabilities (Send) budget by £20m. A similar challenge is under way in Hackney, London, watched closely by parents across the country who are also witnessing cuts.
The backdrop to resistance is the growing financial crisis facing councils in England after seven years of austerity and large cuts in government funding of local authorities.
McColl, from Farnham, said Kian was fortunate to have a good education, health and care plan (EHCP) and a place at an independent special needs school, but added: “I’m very aware that the support can stop at any point. If they cut funding at an annual review they can remove support.”
Among the provision under threat is transport for children with special needs, speech and language therapy, and teaching assistants who provide one-to-one support that can help keep children in mainstream schools. There is also widespread concern about the patchy introduction of ECHPs, which replaced statements for children with special needs and are often too vague to be effective.
Julie Forsyth, of Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, said her 20-year-old son, William, who has autism and is in the first year of a two-year performing arts course, had been told he would be unable to progress into the second year.
“They are cutting these placements to save money. He has made progress, and now they just want to take that away,” said Forsyth, who has three children with autism. One of them, Amber-Rose, eight, has autistic spectrum disorder and has been out of school for two years. Her school said she needed two-to-one support, but the local authority refused to fund it so Forsyth had little choice but to educate her at home.
“For so long I’ve been trying for my children. It’s just become worse and worse and worse.”
The parent-led action follows the success last year of the Fair Funding for All Schools group, which highlights budget cuts in schools and played a prominent role during the general election campaign.
McColl said parents of Send children from across England – from Cornwall to Lincolnshire and Leeds – had been asking her for advice. A march in London is planned next year.
Earlier this week, the National Education Union (NEU) said Send children were increasingly at risk of being excluded because budget cuts meant they were not getting the necessary support. Government figures show that more than 4,000 Send children were awaiting a school place last year, more than double the number of the year before.
Among them is Rowan Winchester, six, from Worcestershire, who was diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum and has been out of school for more than a year.
His mother, Tracy, said: “There’s a general picture out there, because the schools are not getting the funding they need, it’s easier to deny the need or off-roll the child discreetly, or exclude them. As a family it’s horrendous managing this.”
Her friend Susan Tracey, with whom she runs a parent support group, also educates her son Tom, eight, at home. He has autism and complex learning difficulties and is currently unwell with severe anxiety. “These kids cost more money. There’s no quick fix. It always comes back to money,” Tracey said.
Gillian Doherty, who has a four-year-old son with Down’s syndrome, is part of the Hackney Special Educational Crisis campaign group. She said: “There’s an incentive [for schools] to get rid of kids with Send because your results go up and your costs go down.”
Hackney parents have already won a significant victory against their council, which backed down on plans to change Send funding arrangements, but they are continuing to fight proposals for a 5% cut.
As the council cuts are introduced, demand is going up. For example, in Surrey there has been a 26% increase in EHCPs issued to children in the last two years. An NEU survey of 900 staff working in schools in England found that half of respondents’ schools had cut support for Send children this year, and nearly a third had cut Send posts.
One Sheffield primary school staff member said: “Highly vulnerable children are now in mainstream classrooms without the significant support they need or the trained staff. These children are now at high risk of permanent exclusion.”
Another in a Bristol primary school said: “We have a huge number of pupils with social, emotional and mental health needs or autism and we cannot support them properly … For a child that we used to be able to claim an extra £5,000 to meet their needs, we can now only get £1,001 as a maximum.”
The Department for Education says the budget for Send pupils is the highest on record – £6bn this year – with core school funding set to be a record £43.5bn by 2020.
Anne-Marie Irwin, of the legal firm Irwin Mitchell, which is acting for affected families in Surrey, Hackney and elsewhere, said: “We are increasingly seeing families and campaigners working together to bring challenges, and using platforms like CrowdJustice to raise the funds needed to do so.
“The groups are able to pool resources and time to act quickly, which is essential in budget cut cases. Children rely on these services and their families feel strongly that if the cuts were to go ahead it would be seriously detrimental to their children’s lives.”