How special needs families are finding their voice in SEND battle – Katherine Runswick-Cole

LAST week, I ran up the steps of Leeds City Art Gallery to take the microphone to speak at #SENDNationalCrisisRally. Wobbly knees and shaky voice aside, I wanted to be on those steps because the crisis in special needs education and funding not only drives my research as an academic but has also affected my family.

Protests at a rally in Leeds staged over SEND funding.
Protests at a rally in Leeds staged over SEND funding.

It is a crisis that has been a long time in the making and it has been hidden from public view and ignored by politicians for far too long. The hashtag #SENDNationalCrisis basically does what it says on the tin – the aim is to raise awareness of a crisis in education for children categorised as having ‘SEND’ – special educational needs and disability.

Across the country, 28 marches brought together children, young people, their parents/carers, teachers and support workers, and disabled people while members of the national news media looked on. You don’t have to look to far to find evidence of the current crisis. As the campaign headlines tells us:

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Pupils with SEND are six times more likely to be excluded than pupils without SEND.

Protesters at the rally in Leeds over special needs education funding.

Over half of local authority SEND services have failed their Ofsted and / or Care Quality Commission inspection.

The numbers of parents appealing to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal has risen by 80 per cent since 2015. Nine out of 10 parents will win their Tribunal appeals.

Complaints to the Local Government Ombudsman are up by 150 per cent and 87 per cent of complaints are upheld.

The IPPR North found that the total higher needs block funding that supports children with SEND has fallen by 17 per cent per eligible child nationally since 2014/15. In Yorkshire, spending has been cut by 21 per cent.

Professor Katherine Runswick-Cole spoke in a rally in Leeds last week.

Despite these harsh realities for children and families, standing on those steps the sight of a couple of hundred people took my breath away. There was a time when I could not have imagined this protest.

When my son was little, like so many families before and after me, we fought for him to have support in school. As a young child he picked up a host of labels including ‘special educational needs’. As a parent, you go on a steep learning curve. The SEND system is complicated, and deeply adversarial. Meet any parent of a child with SEND and they will tell you that they had to fight. And fight we did.

This was in the days before social media. As a family, we were very much on our own. I would spend my mornings hanging on the phone to IPSEA (a registered charity working to improve the life chances of children with SEND) hoping that they would pick up before the line closed at 12.00pm.

Afternoons were often spent in the local supermarket café with a small group of other mothers desperately trying to work out what to do next. We wrote to our local councillors, and to our MP. But we made very little impact on the rationing of services and support already happening in the early 2000s.

Another banner at the protest in Leeds over special needs funding.

The national marches show how far parent-led campaigning has come from small local groups to co-ordinated national action. A national campaign simply would not have been possible without access to social media.

Campaigns like #JusticeforLB and #RightfulLives, led by families, have demanded action on the preventable deaths of people with learning disabilities and the incarceration and abuse of people in assessment and treatment units (ATUs). Through social media, families are speaking directly and publicly to the politicians in charge and the national media is sitting up and taking notice.

But while social media campaigns may be a game changer for some, they are not a silver bullet. Social media is inaccessible to many, the views of adults with learning disabilities, in particular, are often ignored in online debates.

Disabled children and adults have been through the system, they know what needs to change better than anyone else. If we are serious about changing education and the world beyond school for disabled children, we must not under-estimate the value of self-advocacy and this, too, is under threat from cuts.

And finally if, after last week’s protests, you want some advice, Damian Hinds and Matt Hancock, read your Twitter feed. Our children’s lives, and your political careers as Health Secretary and Education Secretary respectively, might just depend on it.

Katherine Runswick-Cole is Professor of 
Education at the University of Sheffield and the mother of two young adults, one of whom has 
been through the SEND system.