Parents of children with special educational needs attempting suicide as schools lock them out, report suggests

Eleanor Busby
Local authorities are failing to find secondary school places for children with special needs: Getty

Parents of children with special educational needs (SEND) have attempted suicide amid a battle to secure school places and adequate support for their offspring, a report from a cross-party group of MPs has found.

Some families have been forced to give up their jobs, sell their belongings and remortgage their homes amid a “failing” system, the education select committee found after an 18-month inquiry.

MPs heard “countless examples” of schools off-rolling, excluding and discouraging parents from sending children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) to their schools – which has left some pupils waiting years for an appropriate school place.

The government’s reforms are repeatedly failing young people with SEND as families have been “thrown into crisis” and have been forced to “wade through a treacle of bureaucracy” in a system full of conflict and “despair”, the damning report concluded.

Parents currently need a combination of “special knowledge and social capital” to navigate the system and even then they are often left “exhausted” by the experience, the report says.

Evidence from families to the committee’s inquiry mentioned stress, anxiety, depression and suicide attempts linked to efforts to receive adequate SEND provision.

Penny Hoffmann-Becking, a parent and member of SEND Family Voices, told the education select committee: “I feel that many parents I speak to are living in a constant state of anxiety.”

The government recently pledged an additional £700m for children with SEND in 2020-21, as well as a review into SEND funding in England.

But the cross-party group of MPs has warned the extra funding will fail to make a difference unless there is a “radical” change of approach in the system.

Conservative MP Robert Halfon, chair of the committee, said: “Many children with special educational needs and disabilities are being let down day after day. Many parents face a titanic struggle just to try and ensure their child gets access to the right support.

“Families are often forced to wade through a treacle of bureaucracy, in a system which breeds conflict and despair as parents try to navigate a postcode lottery of provision.”

He added: “Of course, extra funding for SEND announced in the spending round is welcome but the truth is that more cash will fail to make a difference to children with special education needs unless there is a radical change of approach throughout the system.

“The Department for Education (DfE) cannot continue with a piecemeal and reactive approach to supporting children with SEND.

“Rather than making do with sticking plasters, what is needed is a transformation, a more strategic oversight and fundamental change to ensure a generation of children is no longer let down.”

The committee is calling for powers for the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman to investigate complaints about schools, as well as a more rigorous inspection system for SEND.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union Naht, said: “We have been warning for a long time that the picture facing schools supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities is unsustainable.

“Not only are budgets at breaking point, there have been severe cuts to local authority health and social care provision. Schools and councils have been left struggling to meet the needs of our most vulnerable pupils.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “No child should be held back from reaching their potential, including those with special educational needs.

“That’s why we recently announced a £780m increase to local authorities’ high needs funding, boosting the budget by 12 per cent and bringing the total spent on supporting those with the most complex needs to over £7bn for 2020-21.

“This report recognises the improvements made to the system over five years ago were the right ones, and put families and children at the heart of the process.

“But through our review of these reforms, we are focused on making sure they work for every child, in every part of the country.”

Read more

Parents of children with special needs lose fight against government