Without exception, these parents have been dedicated to their children’s future. Many of them have sacrificed their entire careers to navigate the labyrinthine systems that often seem deliberately designed to stop them from accessing the support they need.
In Sheffield, some children have been out of school for months and even years because there is not enough suitable SEN provision available locally. More and more parents are choosing to educate their children at home, not truly out of choice, but of desperation.
Recently, I met the parents of an eight-year-old boy who has a variety of complex needs, including ADHD, dysgraphia and incontinence problems. He was described to me as a ‘bright boy, a fantastic friend and lover of nature’ but there is no school place in Sheffield for him. He has not been to school for three years.
One mother wrote to me about her son, who is 12 years old with autism spectrum disorder, processing disorder and anxiety.
He’s been out of school for 16 months with no offer of alternative education and his mental health has deteriorated to crisis point as a result.
Another local child has selective mutism as part of his autism spectrum disorder. His school is, in his mother’s words, supportive but frequently unable to provide the one-to-one support he needs.
These families are the tip of the iceberg and I shudder to think of the amount of unmet need that is out there in Sheffield.
Many parents simply do not have the financial resources, the time, or specialist knowledge to dedicate themselves full-time to fighting their way through a broken SEN system.
A lack of funding is a primary cause of these problems. Sheffield City Council has a deficit of £6m for the high needs block out of a total £18m deficit for school funding this year. This funding crisis manifests itself in a number of ways and has a knock-on effect through the system.
Funding cuts have resulted in the loss of teaching assistants, a narrower curriculum, and bigger class sizes, which makes mainstream education less manageable for children with SEN.
I have had reports of parents going to look at schools and being explicitly told: this is not the school for your child if he has autism.
At the same time, cuts to local authority funding have left council teams short-staffed. As a result, families are having to wait an unacceptably long time to have their needs assessed and to receive a support plan, if indeed they ever receive one. But there are other issues beyond funding.
In Sheffield, Ofsted recently found that high levels of exclusions result in children and young people with SEN underachieving.
The use of ‘isolation booths’ in schools can also be particularly distressing and inappropriate for children with SEN.
Parents rely on school staff to help them navigate the SEN system but teachers are over-stretched and lack specialist training.
Consequently, there are serious inconsistencies in schools identifying, assessing and meeting families’ needs. Parents are not receiving clear or timely information about the support that is available for their children and how to access it.
All of this leaves us in a totally unacceptable situation – a terrible indictment on our education system that the children who need the most support are ending up with none, and these failures in the SEN system have long-term consequences. There is no greater sign of Government failure on this issue than the fact that 40 per cent of the children in youth custody have SEN.
I regularly raise individual cases with Sheffield Council but the entire system needs to be overhauled.
Ultimately, it is the Government’s duty to make sure that we have the structures in place to identify children with SEN as early as possible and put the right support in place.
That is why I have repeatedly called on the Government to fund SEN, to reform Ofsted so it places a higher priority on inclusion, to train teachers on SEN, and for the rights of families and children to be much clearer.
Young people with SEN have bags of potential and are capable of achieving great things if given the right support.
It’s a tragedy and a disgrace that so many of these children are being badly let down and held back by our broken system.
Louise Haigh is Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley.