Voices: SEND parents are being kicked out of the labour market – but we can change this

·4-min read
The economy would benefit greatly from the skills Britain’s SEND warriors have acquired (Unsplash/Priscilla Du Preez)
The economy would benefit greatly from the skills Britain’s SEND warriors have acquired (Unsplash/Priscilla Du Preez)

What has Britain’s shortage of workers – especially skilled workers – got to do with its dismal handling of children with special needs and/or disabilities? More than you might think.

I’ve read umpteen reports, submissions and legal filings in my nearly 30 years as a journalist, and it takes a lot to impress me. The appeal to the special educational needs and disability (SEND) tribunal written by my wife on behalf of our son did that.

She is not a lawyer and has no formal legal training. Yet the document she prepared succinctly set out our child’s history, his experience at school, and our dealings with the local authority. It went on to call upon legal statute and case law in its lucid explanation of why the council’s decision to persistently deny him an Education Health & Care Plan (EHCP) was legally flawed.

It wasn’t a solo effort. It was produced with the assistance of some of the organisations active in the sector; SOS!SEN, Special Needs Jungle, and the Independent Provider of Special Needs Advice (IPSEA). Sometimes this was direct (through speaking to people) sometimes it was indirect (through the material available on their websites).

These organisations and their activities are largely, or wholly, sustained through the efforts of volunteers. My wife has ambitions to join them when she is able. She has picked up a number of new skills as our family’s chief guide through the Special Needs Jungle. Those skills are part of a vast reservoir, without which parents like us would be left eyeless in the bureaucrat desert, slowly being bludgeoned to death by the clubs of unseen council officials.

These volunteers are often full time SEND parents. They are mostly female, but they come from a diverse range of backgrounds. The idea that they are all “pushy middle-class mums” is a nasty slur put about, I’m disappointed to say, by local authorities.

Something else they might find slightly insulting: many would be classed by the Office for National Statistics as “economically inactive” because as full-time SEND parents, caught up in a brutal and dehumanising system, and part-time volunteers, they have very little time for themselves. For the record; the designation means they are neither employed, nor actively seeking employment.

A brief interlude for some economic facts: the number of people in this category overall increased sharply through the course of the pandemic and the labour force correspondingly shrank. Last week saw job vacancies in the UK outstripping the number of people unemployed and seeking work for the first time. While Britain’s deteriorating economy will change the calculus somewhat, it still needs to find a substantial number of workers, and especially skilled workers, from somewhere.

Which brings us back to the tragedy of the current immoral and twisted SEND system. It leaves far too many parents in a similar situation to ours, pushing them up to, and sometimes beyond, their limits (suicides have resulted) as they spend hours, days, weeks on end fighting unequal battles with local authorities and other government agencies.

The torture of families like this, like ours, ought to be reason enough on its own to catalyse root and branch reform.

But a more effective SEND system, one in which local authorities didn’t waste resources fighting against providing the support parents are legally entitled to, could also free up some of this talent to become economically active once again.

The economy would benefit greatly from the skills Britain’s SEND warriors have acquired.

Of course it would require funding, which means central government funding. But if that funding put SEND parents and their children on a better footing, it would start to pay for itself, because some of those who have been forced to give up work might be able to work again.

Maybe not full-time. Caring for SEND kids is always going to present a challenge, is always going to take time, effort and emotional energy. But part-time? Sure.

And those currently part time, such as my wife, might be able to take on more hours, which was her intent before we were became engulfed in a bureaucratic slugfest with a disgustingly cynical local authority. They’ll probably still volunteer. That’s the nature of the SEND beast. SEND parents tend to be emphatic towards other SEND parents and have a strong desire to help. People are always going to need the support of their peers.

But if they can also work – and the right jobs with good employers can sometimes reduce stress – they will be able to pay taxes, spend money, etc.

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Has this even occurred to the government? I doubt it. Will Quince, the minister piloting the SEND review, appeared sympathetic to SEND parents in a webinar with Special Needs Jungle.

But the document that emerged from the Department for Education, as I have previously reported, seems set to increase councils’ power to frustrate progress by imposing more bureaucratic hurdles on parents. Too often the ugly cynicism of central government is a root cause of the ugly cynicism of cash strapped local government.

If I’m right about this, it would be a tragic waste of the potential of both SEND children but also of their fired-up, talented parents.

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