Vince Cable MP: Ministers must properly address the special educational needs and disability (SEND) funding crisis
For every family who does not get the support they need, there is an unacceptable impact for parents and children alike, says Sir Vince Cable MP.
One of the most distressing experiences of MPs’ surgeries is meeting parents who are struggling with the responsibilities of caring for a child with special educational needs, and who have been let down by the services which are supposed to support them, time and time again. A single mum in a small flat with a child who needs constant attention while she tries to look after other children, and hold down a job to make ends meet; a couple who have sacrificed careers, holidays and a social life to care for a child with severe, complex needs, seeing the child growing up to an adulthood of continued dependence while they themselves are ageing and their own relationship is falling apart. There are numerous variations of these.
Of course, there are also happier stories. Stories where support provided in school or via the local authority or health service makes all the difference. But for every family who does not get the support they need, there is an unacceptable impact for parents and children alike.
In theory, we have seen positive developments in recent years. The recognition, embodied in legislation, that we collectively have a responsibility to give the child the best possible start in life, to fulfil their maximum potential, through support at school (and beyond: now, to age 25).
Each child identified as having a special need – physical disability, learning difficulty, delay in development, autism, dyslexia etc – should (in theory) have an education, health and care plan (EHCP), providing health care on one hand and suitable education support on the other. A generation of heads and teachers has grown up committed to ‘inclusion’ where possible and specialist provision where necessary. I notice when I go to good local schools that children and teachers go out of their way to look after, and include, children with learning difficulties who, when I was at school, would have had their needs neglected and misunderstood.
Theory and practice, however, increasingly collide. The cost of special needs education falls on cash-strapped local authorities supported by a complex funding formula including a special needs ‘block’, and on equally underfunded schools (up to £6,000 per pupil). Yet special needs ‘demand’ is rising much more rapidly than the school population: since 2014 by 32% versus 18% (largely because of improvements in diagnosis and understanding of some conditions).
At a human level a painful conflict results between parents who want the best for their children (and have the law on their side) and local authorities who want to do their best but are under financial stress after years of painful cuts. More and more requests for EHCPs are being declined or delayed, and funding cuts have led to reductions in the specialist teachers and educational psychologists who provided expert advice to schools teaching SEND pupils. Rationing has taken the form of foot-dragging over ‘statements’, now ‘care plans’. And attempts to mandate adequate local schooling rather than what parents consider to be superior specialist schools, often leading to tribunals, with additional cost, emotional stress and anger.
These tensions have been simmering for years but are now coming to a head. Some local authorities (like mine in Richmond upon Thames, and neighbouring Kingston) are piling up massive financial deficits as they try to meet their statutory ‘special needs’ duties without the money to pay for them. But across the country, the Local Government Association has warned that the combination of budget cuts and rising demand is leading to children with SEND being turned away from mainstream schools, because councils’ lack the ability to provide extra help to those who need it. And while mainstream schooling will not be the right path for every child with SEND, this decision should always be a genuine choice based on the individual needs of parents and their children, not something they are pushed into because funding is not sufficient to support a child in the setting they choose.
This rapidly developing crisis in SEND funding is why I have sought and obtained a debate on the subject in Parliament on Tuesday. These so-called ‘adjournment debates’ don’t change the world, but they force ministers to account publicly for what they are doing or, in this case, not doing. I want to know how, with the promise of an ‘end to austerity’, ministers are going to fund SEND support properly without causing further damage to schools in general of those who depend on local authority services.
Vince Cable is Leader of the Liberal Democrats and MP for Twickenham.