Dozens of rallies were held in towns and cities nationwide as a 12,000-strong petition was delivered to Downing Street yesterday, calling for action for young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND).
Families from across Yorkshire, gathering in Leeds, spoke of their fears over funding shortfalls and amid claims of a system in disarray.
Many determined young people, some in wheelchairs or speaking with the assistance of a family member, made their way onto the stage to share personal stories as they fought for support.
And while they were campaigning for radical action, there was a sense of pride as they took their place among the crowds. Because for the first time, campaigners say, their voices are being heard.
“That is all they want,” said Nadia Turki, co-founder of the SEND National Crisis group and organiser of the Leeds rally. “For them, and their families, it’s just one battle after the next.
“It’s relentless. And there isn’t a parent here today that won’t tell you the same thing.”
"I want access to the same education options that my peers get"
Among them is a defiant teenager in a wheelchair, who has painted his own placard to wave.
“I don’t want to be a gardener, of work in a cafe,” 19-year-old Alfie Fox, from North Yorkshire, told the crowd as he was joined on stage by his mother, Kerry, who reads out his words. “But those are the options that are given to me. I’m an artist. I can’t study art.
“I want equality, for me and my friends. I want access to the same education options that my peers get – and I do not. I want people to start listening to us.”
Teenager Jack Zito, standing at the top of Leeds Art Gallery steps, spoke about his seven-month wait to see a trainee psychologist after being diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder.
“I was one of the lucky ones. Some people have to wait years,” he told those gathered for the demonstration.
“I want to change this today. When these young people grow up, we will have a lost generation. We are abandoning our children at their most vulnerable.”
According to the National Education Union (NEU), special needs provision in England has lost out on £1.2bn in funding since 2015, as funds awarded to local authorities have failed to keep pace with rising demand.
Children in Leeds have seen High Needs budget cuts of £20m in the last two years alone, the city council’s executive member for learning, Coun Jonathan Pryor, told The Yorkshire Post.
“To cut that money, as need rises, is having huge consequences,” he said yesterday. “That is not good enough. These are the most vulnerable people. The funding is horrendous.”
Rachel Court, from Morley, is a member of the campaigners’ group Disability Empowerment Action Leeds (DEAL).
Her son, Oliver, has a rare genetic disorder and uses a wheelchair. Now aged 19, she said, his options are narrowing.
“We are just so frustrated,” said Ms Court. “Education has been left behind. Our children have been left behind. I have a younger son, he’s got the world at his feet. Oliver, in comparison, doesn’t.”
The Government has defended its position, with children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi saying: “Our ambition is for every child, no matter the challenges they face, to have access to a world-class education that sets them up for life.
“Funding for the high needs budget is a priority for this Government and we know that councils and schools are facing pressures – that’s why in December we provided an extra £250m up to 2020 to help manage these costs.
“This takes the total amount that we have allocated for high needs funding to £6.3bn this year, compared to £5bn in 2013.”