I had special needs help in school. But the doors that were opened for me are closing
Without support, I would have floundered. The squeeze on school funds today means children’s potential is being squandered
Anyone watch the Tory leadership debate on Tuesday night? Miserable spectacle though it might have been, something of wider interest did slip through the cracks. Amid the verbal jostling to determine who the biggest, bounciest Brexit boy in the room was, the five leadership candidates were forced to account for cuts to services for vulnerable children, including special educational needs and disability (Send) provision.
This is not a new issue. Last month, parents, teachers and pupils held protests across the country, decrying what they termed a “national crisis” in provision for pupils. And as someone who personally benefited from Send provision as a child, it is a matter of great concern to me.
I was diagnosed with autism at the mercifully young age of four (if you’re diagnosed at a young age, an advantage that many women and BAME people don’t get, you’re in a position to access and benefit from support much earlier in life). Prior to my entering compulsory education, my parents had to fight tooth and nail with our intransigent local authority to implement the support I would need in school. The council argued that such support would unfairly label me and thus stunt my development, as if, by some bizarre postmodern magic, refusing to acknowledge my needs would make them disappear.
Thankfully, my parents won out and I was granted a SEN statement. This legally binding document spelled out my needs and allocated money towards meeting them. For example, my statement mandated 25% extra time in exams so as to account for my slower processing ability, in addition to allowing me to take tests in a separate room, as I found the presence of other pupils too distracting to work.
Later on, my statement enabled me to attend a mainstream secondary school with a designated provision for children with additional needs, the only one of its kind in my town, even though I lived outside its catchment zone. This not only offered a physical space for pupils who had trouble socialising to go during breaks, but also specialised staff (who I honestly cannot credit enough) who would liaise with other teachers and provide one-to-one help in classrooms when required. I do not wish to paint the previous system as perfect (it most assuredly wasn’t) but without that support, I would have been left floundering in a deeply flawed education system that would have been unable to accommodate me, let alone be in a position to have acquired a master’s degree in politics or write this piece.
I left compulsory education just after the Conservatives took power in the 2010 general election, so I narrowly escaped the numerous cuts and “reforms” that would mar the subsequent decade. The most obvious change in terms of Send provision has been the replacement of the statement with the education, health and care plan (EHC). Designed to be more comprehensive, these plans cover one’s health and social needs in addition to education up to the age of 25 (whereas a statement was purely educational in focus and only went up to age 16).
While it might sound sensible to roll these areas into a single plan, the all-encompassing approach starts to fall apart in the face of swingeing budget cuts. Funding for EHC plans are not separately allocated for individual pupils, being instead determined by both the school and the local authority in question. However, according to the National Audit Office, government funding for local authorities has decreased in real terms by 49.1% between 2010 and 2017/2018. According to the National Education Union, funding for Send provision in England has decreased by a staggering £1.2bn since 2015. This comes at a time when the number of children with EHC plans has, as of January 2019, increased by 34,200 (11%) from 2018, placing an additional strain on schools and local authorities. Other services that EHC plans would hinge on, such as Sure Start centres and mental health provision, have also been severely cut.
The cumulative effect of these reforms has been devastating. There are multiple reports of academies restricting the admission of children with EHC plans, prompting calls for a judicial review of cuts to Send spending. Research from the London School of Economics has also found that 26% of pupils with additional needs transition to a different school between preschool and reception as opposed to 18% without. Some parents are having to send their children to schools at the opposite end of the country, far from their family and community. Disruptions like this can prove incredibly distressing to Send pupils.
Children with additional needs are more than capable of attaining the same level of success as their peers if those needs are adequately catered to. Already we are starting to see a wave of prominent autistic people enter the public arena, such as climate activist Greta Thunberg, alongside a global and ever-growing neuro-diversity movement. How will the newer generation of children, who were denied the same level of support afforded to people like me, fare when they leave education? How much potential is being squandered in the pursuit of economic efficiency? By denying them the support they need to stay afloat in an already deeply flawed education system, Send pupils are having their futures stolen from them.
Which brings me back to the Tory leadership debate. Before devolving into a discussion about tax cuts versus public spending, the five remaining candidates fell over one another to praise service providers for vulnerable children and offer empty promises of increased funding. Michael Gove was the only one to signal anything even vaguely concrete by way of protecting funding in real terms for individual children. Given he was the architect of the mass academisation of the schooling system during his tenure as education secretary, however, I’d only trust him as far as I could throw him. No, these men represent a party that has, through successive cuts to vital services, all but shut down the possibility of subsequent generations benefiting from the opportunities I had.
• Gerry Hart is a politics master’s graduate and a former subeditor for Newcastle University’s student newspaper, The Courier
By Gerry Hart