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Voices: The teachers’ strike will affect parents of SEND children like me – but I still support it

As if SEND parents – those of us with children who have Special Education Needs and Disabilities – didn’t have enough to worry about, there’s a teachers’ strike on the way.

Now, any sort of disruption to the rhythm of the school day is apt to cause problems, but this is exacerbated when your child has additional needs (if your child is in school at all – some suffer horribly in the school system, but that’s another column). The mere fact of being out of routine is apt to throw certain children for a loop. Clearly, then, there is trouble on the way.

At this point, some might be tempted to respond with: “This is why teachers should go back to work.” Sound about right? But it is not. I don’t blame the teachers for striking, regardless of the impact it is likely to have on my child. I blame the government. It is because of the failings of those in power that teachers are striking. And here’s the kicker: SEND parents need teachers to win.

This is why: It isn’t just that the education unions are asking for what is, in my opinion, a fair pay rise – which would go some way towards mitigating a recruitment crisis that gets worse by the term. They are arguing for a fully-funded pay rise. And that is a crucial point. The Conservative Party have made great play of the fact that teachers are getting 5 per cent, but this ignores the fact that this is (another) pay cut in real terms.

The December inflation figure has just been announced at 10.5 per cent. For the year to that month, food prices rose at a 16.8 per cent clip. Thanks to the deal that’s been imposed, schools are having to find the money for the pay rise outside of their existing budgets, which have already had an inflationary dagger driven into them. When that happens, SEND provision is often the first target.

The result is what Special Needs Jungle (SNJ), a charity that serves as a vital resource for parents, aptly describes as “deep-seated SEND organisational rot”.

I witnessed this in its early stages as a school special needs link governor and member of the finance committee at my children’s primary school. It was being forced, by budgetary constraint, to target SEND support at children with Education Health and Care Plans (EHCPs). These spell out what is required for the child and carry legal force. But securing an EHCP requires parents to clear an extraordinarily high bar.

Councils have displayed remarkable creativity in finding new hurdles for them to have to clear before granting them. They are also apt to fight all the way up to the SEND tribunal run by the Ministry of Justice where they inevitably lose. The most recent MoJ stats (for the third quarter of 2022) found that parents won 96 per cent of the cases brought. There had been a 29 per cent increase in referrals.

Is this any wonder? The more you ignore children’s problems at an early stage, the more they will fester and grow, the more applications for EHCPs will be filed, the more fights will break out, the more (successful) appeals will be the end result. Just imagine being a school special needs co-ordinator (SENCO) faced with having to manage this – an almost impossible situation. Then imagine trying to do it on top of the heavy workload of a classroom teacher. The job of SENCO ought to be a non-teaching position, but the people doing it are increasingly getting dragged back into the classroom. Budgets again. And so the rot grows and spreads.

No, not all SENCOs are good. Get a bad one as a SEND parent and you have a problem. But those that do the job well are like fine wine at the end of a long day, and yes – they get better with age. The trouble is, they aren’t getting older these days; they’re getting sicker. We’ve seen two going off through long term illness at one of our children’s secondary schools in the last three years. And if they’re not going off sick, they’re often getting sacked. Older and highly qualified teachers with senior positions are expensive.

How do you cope with a shortfall when by far your biggest cost – staff salaries – increases without any additional funding? You make those pricey older staff redundant, or manage them out – and then you plug cheap, newly qualified teachers into the gap and hope it will paper over the cracks. (It won’t, by the way. Being thrown in at the deep end without the support they need is part of the reason young teachers are forsaking the profession in favour of jobs at their local Tesco or Costco.)

The open job of SENCO then gets palmed off on to someone without the expertise, or time, to do it properly. SNJ has provided a real-life example of SEND rot in action, highlighting the case of Laycock Primary, a mainstream school in the London borough of Islington and a centre of excellence for the education of deaf pupils. It says many of the specialist teaching staff are at risk of redundancy and parents have been told that older pupils who attend the deaf provision will be increasingly be integrated into mainstream classes. This, obviously, means their needs may not be met, feasibly harming their eduction and impeding their life chances. It is disability discrimination in action.

Education is critical to the ability of disabled people to thrive in an able-bodied world in which even the concept of “reasonable adjustment” is routinely ignored by employers. A world in which one in every two disabled people is out of work and the gap between their rate of employment and that of their non disabled peers approaches 30 per cent.

Education unions have repeatedly raised the issue of funding in schools because the vast majority of their members are good at their jobs and good teachers care about this sort of thing. The strikes they are embarking on will be disruptive to SEND parents and SEND children, but the hard fact is that the lack of fully-funded pay rises for teachers greatly contributes to the problem in the first place. This is why, as a disabled parent and as the parent of a SEND child, they have my unequivocal backing.