23 January 2020
By Sylvia Stanway
I’m an autistic woman and a mother of two very different autistic children. My son is 12 and is autistic with learning difficulties. My daughter is 10 and is autistic with a pathological demand avoidance (PDA) profile.
Both my children suffered in the mainstream system. My son presents very vocally in a behaviourally challenging way when his environment isn’t suitable. My daughter avoids demands and shuts down. She wasn’t considered in need of Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) support by the local authority as she wasn’t causing issues in school. An EHCP is the legal document necessary to obtain access to legally enforceable support. Sadly, she was feeling so anxious that she would hide in the toilets or in a “safe” space in school. Eventually she was unable to attend and was at home for nearly a year until we could secure a EHCP and a placement to meet her needs.
Our son secured a statement under the old system so when it became apparent that his education setting wasn’t working, we were able to move him to an autistic specific school provided by the local authority. This was very successful at first. However, funding cuts have stretched services to the limit and we have had to secure independent educational psychology reports to ensure the provision in his EHCP is robust enough to ensure he’s getting the funding the school needs to support him.
To achieve this, we've had to pay for independent education advocacy and challenge the local authority constantly to follow the law and meet their duty of care for my son and his education. Thankfully his school are supportive.
For my daughter, the local authority resisted providing EHCP and an education setting that can meet her needs. We have had to fight three tribunals and have spent thousands of pounds on independent reports and advocacy.
My daughter became so ill, she has had to have adaptive CBT to deal with suicidal thoughts and recover from the trauma of being in an environment that was inhospitable to her.
Cuts and private provision
Our local authority has suffered such harsh central government cuts that many mainstream schools are unable to support our children. Despite the “inclusive” idea that the majority of Special Educational Needs (SEN) children should have their needs met in mainstream education, underfunding means that our children are breaking. The onus should not be on our children to fit in to environments that damage them. Money has become more important than the principle of what’s right for the individual child.
Over the past few years of austerity and education reform, many SEN schools have been closed. The remaining ones have become so underfunded they struggle to support the increased needs of children that have broken in the mainstream system.
Our local authority has actively commissioned SEN school provision from the private sector. These independent schools are extremely hard to get a placement for your child at. They are expensive, small, well resourced, staffed properly and fit for purpose. Unfortunately, they are entirely necessary in the climate of this broken system. But sadly, many children are not getting access to the education or EHCPs they need as it’s only the parents that can raise funds and have the stamina to fight through policy and have their child’s legal rights enforced.
This means that as a parent of children with SEN, we are subject to the system trying to educate our children as cheaply as possible, not necessarily in the best way for the child.
A mainstream child gets a notional placement fee per year of approximately £4,000. This must cover staffing, equipment and building maintenance costs. If a child has special educational needs the policy of the local authority is that the school needs to find funding out of their pot of notional placement fees to meet that child’s needs. The policy guideline is that once it gets to £6000 being spent on the child, the school can apply for top up funding. This is extremely difficult for schools to achieve; hence they are very reluctant to provide anything additional for a child that costs extra.
The placement fee for a local authority funded SEN school starts at approximately £10,000. However, as the child needs an EHCP to access a SEN school, it will often come with its own budget. The increase in notional funding is to take into account the fact that SEN schools are small and require more staff.
The starting placement fees for independent schools in our area are approximately £40,000. This is because the schools are usually smaller, more specialist, spend a lot more money on environment and staff. They also do a lot of education activities off site.
It’s extremely difficult to get a child placed at an independent school. Even though they have been commissioned by the local authority, and you can’t buy a placement privately. The local authority defends against placement of children due to cost. The benefit to the local authority is that they don’t have the management costs of these schools and for the select group of high need children that secure placement they get good results for their statistics.
A broken system
The government have under-funded local councils so much that they are unable to provide “fit for purpose” education for their most vulnerable children.
They have had to commission private companies at a high cost to do this. The local authority can then justify that they are meeting a provision need, whilst gatekeeping it to many children whose families are unable to fight for it.
Most parents of SEN children would agree “we are not looking for a private education, just what everyone else takes for granted for their kids. An accessible education that doesn’t cause damage, that nurtures our young people”.
Central government needs to fund councils so they can move away from a one size fits all education and provide lots of different settings that teach children the way they learn, rather than expecting children to learn the way they teach.
Properly funded SEN schools provided by the local authority would significantly reduce the need for expensive, independent, private SEN education. It would also prevent parents and children being forced into the privatised system. It will always be necessary for some of our most vulnerable. But it should never be our only choice because our children have been broken by inhospitable school environments.
This blog has been published to coincide with the release of a report from Places in Common on the state of SEND education provision in Birmingham.