Councils call on government to increase funding after thousands of children with special needs left without school places

Eleanor Busby
Thousands of children with special needs are not in school because of funding pressures, councils and unions say: Corbis

Dozens of councils across the country have called on the education secretary to urgently boost special needs funding as thousands of children have been left at home waiting for school places.

Parents have been forced to quit their jobs – and in some have waited for several years for a place in the right provision – to ensure their child with special needs is supported, experts say.

Local authorities have said they are “deeply concerned” that funding cuts are making it even more difficult to place children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in schools.

A letter – signed by 39 local authorities and education unions – calls for councils and schools to be given more money to make sure that children with SEND get the support they need. “We urge the government to act quickly on this matter,” the letter, which is addressed to Damian Hinds, says.

The number of youngsters with special educational needs, plans or statements has been rising – as has the demand for special school places. Meanwhile, funding pressures have made it harder for schools and local authorities to provide specialist provision to the most vulnerable learners.

More than 2,000 children with complex needs have “no education provision at all” due to inadequate funding, according to the new letter – which is backed by some Conservative-led councils.

Jo-Ann D’Costa Manuel, director of charity Autism Parent Empower, said she knows of parents whose children have been at home for two years while they wait for the right specialist school place.

“When they are left at home on a waiting list, even if they are provided some help, they become wasted years,” she said. “It is hugely wasted time and opportunity for them to progress.”

Ms D’Costa Manuel, who has a nine-year-old son with autism, told The Independent that some parents have resorted to home schooling their children because they feel “failed by the system”.

“A lot of parents are not equipped to homeschool their children. They cannot suddenly become teachers or teaching assistants and know what to do,” she warned.

Some parents have been put in an “impossible position” and have been forced to quit their jobs to look after their children, according to Andrew Baisley, from the National Education Union (NEU).

And in other cases, parents have seen their children with SEND repeatedly being passed between mainstream schools because of funding and accountability pressures on staff, he added.

“I think it is harder to get kids into mainstream schools because there is a massive financial disincentive and there is an enormous accountability disincentive,” Mr Baisley said.

Last month, schools minister Nick Gibb said judging schools on the education outcomes of students they have moved on could help tackle the rising number of schoolchildren being excluded.

It came after special educational needs experts called for excluded children and parents to be protected by a “bill of rights”, giving them better scrutiny of a school’s decision to get rid of them.

Nancy Gedge, a coordinator of special needs provision in a school in Oxfordshire, told The Independent that she thinks increasing funding alone will not solve the problems in the sector.

Ms Gedge, who has a 17-year-old son with Down’s syndrome, said a culture shift was needed to ensure families with children with special needs were treated fairly throughout the process.

“It almost feels like you are being constantly punished for daring to have a disabled baby. It feels like you are constantly dealing with brickbats thrown in your direction,” she said.

The Department for Education announced last month it was allocating £50m for the expansion of special schools – but unions and councils say it “will not solve the long-term challenges” they face.

Nadhim Zawahi, minister for children and families, said: “We want to make sure every child with special educational needs gets the support that they rightly deserve. The high-needs budget for pupils with special educational needs is £6bn this year – the highest on record, with core schools funding rising to £43.5bn by 2020 – 50 per cent more per pupil in real terms than in 2000.

“We are also undertaking the biggest special educational needs reforms in a generation, introducing education and health care plans that are tailored to the needs of individuals and put families at the heart of the process.

“Already, nearly 320,000 children and young people are benefiting from these and we will continue to work to make sure every child gets the support they need to fulfil their potential.”