Every child has the right to a decent education. On the face of it, a rather indisputable statement. And yet, for the more than 1.2 million young people in this country identified as having special educational needs (SEN), very often this sadly cannot be taken for granted.
From autism spectrum disorders to those with speech, language and communication issues, youngsters facing mild to severe learning difficulties or social, emotional and mental health problems, ensuring their needs are met – either in mainstream schools or special needs settings – can be fraught with complications.
In 2014, there was an overhaul of the UK’s SEN code of practice, during which the education, health and care plan (EHCP) was introduced; a legally-binding document drawn up by the local authority that enshrines a child’s right to provision for their education, health and social care needs. And yet this relatively new regime is widely criticised for being long and complicated, with many only granted after an appeal process.
“A parent may seek out an EHCP for their child if they feel they need a high level of intervention and support to learn and develop, which the school is unable to provide from within its own resources,” explains independent educational psychologist Hannah Morris.
“This new system was intended to make the process simpler, but what seems to have happened is the opposite. And while decisions are made by qualified professionals, each council has its own systems in place as well as individual levels of funding available, making it harder to get the EHCP in some areas.”
While not all children with SEN will need or be eligible for the greater level of support an EHCP provides, without it they’re forced not only to rely on a school’s interpretation of a non-binding set of government recommendations, but in a school’s ability and willingness to
pour its own limited resources – and sometimes ill-equipped and unskilled teaching staff – into helping them.
No wonder then, that parents are prepared to spend thousands of pounds and years of their lives fighting for what is often seen as the SEN golden ticket.
One family – who asked not to be identified – have shelled out around £60,000 over a four-year period on private assessment reports and lawyers, to secure an EHCP for their pre-teen son with dyslexia and ADHD.
Drained not only of money but of time, his mother was forced to give up her job in order to manage the arduous process.
“Before we embarked on this journey, we knew nothing about it, and wrongly assumed our healthcare and education systems could cope and had solid processes in place, in the same way as if you had an illness like diabetes,” she says. “Instead, I have been left totally shocked and demoralised by the huge lack of funding and resources available.”
Despite their application initially being rejected, the family fought back at considerable personal financial outlay, believing unequivocally that without an EHCP, mainstream secondary school would prove an impossible setting for their son.
“While I realise local authorities are strapped for cash, what are families without the financial means supposed to do?” she questions. “There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that without the money, tenacity and intelligence to fight this system, we’d still be without one now.”
Now settled into the mainstream Jewish schooling system, the support imposed by the EHCP means their son is happy, well cared for, calm, and able to learn; things on which his parents were never previously able to count.
“Having a child with special educational needs affects every facet of your life,” admits his mother. “This isn’t what I envisaged parenting to be, but we’ve fought through, whatever sacrifices it’s taken.
“Every day is still a challenge; that doesn’t end with the EHCP, but with it and with the immense support of our family and each other, we are continuing to make life changes to make things ok.”
It’s a story with which chartered educational and child psychologist Dr Michael Hymans – who spent 21 years as a local authority SEN panellist – is only too familiar.
“Seeking an EHCP, or appealing against the contents of that plan, including the named provision, is not only financially draining but also emotionally exhausting,” he says.
“In one case, a mother requested social services take her daughter into care, as the tribunal hearing refused a residential placement for a teenager with profound and multiple learning difficulties, including autism and epilepsy.”
So, are authorities getting it wrong? Latest figures show that in 2016, almost 15,000 EHCP requests were refused nationally; a 35 percent increase on the previous year. In Hertfordshire alone, since 2014, an average of 30 percent of applications have been refused.
“My understanding is that the balance of tribunal decisions has moved in favour of local authorities rather than parents,” states Hymans.“Largely determined by finance and availability of provision in each authority, it boils down to how much they get from the government and how efficiently they use what they have.”
While resources are available to parents unable to pay privately for assessment reports and legal support, an independent does practitioner has more time to provide a full assessment for each child they work with – although it carries a price tag of up to £2,000 a go.
“The way children are seen as a number in this process is totally heartbreaking,” affirms Gianna Colizza, headteacher of newly-opened Jewish independent special needs school Gesher.
“While I accept there are extreme financial pressures at play, these are our children’s futures we’re playing with, and I genuinely feel that if we prioritise their needs early enough, we could combat some of the bigger problems we see in society at large. Plus it doesn’t cost anything to be empathetic.”
The first cohort of children to join the north London establishment in September 2017 came with a wide range of needs, which are met within a highly specialised, person-centred environment by a multi-professional team.
“They are the forgotten children. The ones who are often overlooked, often deemed to be able to manage, often don’t even ask for help. But we owe them far more than that,” she says.
“Children get one chance at childhood and sometimes, with SEN, the status quo fails them. At Gesher, our aim is to help each child to reach their full potential. That may be eventual reintegration into mainstream schooling, but either way, the younger we can positively assist them, the brighter their future will be.”
However, such specialised support comes at a cost, setting families back a hefty £31,500 per annum. No wonder that 95 percent of pupils are funded by the coveted EHCP.
“You simply cannot compare mainstream support to what we offer,” she continues. “We have up to eight children per class and every member of staff is well trained in their field. Our pupils have access to people and equipment that you cannot offer in a mainstream environment. We are not-for-profit but naturally that comes at a price.”
So what does the future hold for children with SEN? “I do not believe it is possible to effectively meet the needs of all SEN children within the current bureaucratic system and limited funds,” concludes Morris. “Future legislation must be developed in close consultation with experts and we need to build on success stories to ensure there is SEN knowledge, understanding and high quality differentiated teaching in every school.
“I would also like to see more additionally resourced provisions within mainstream schools that can work flexibly in supporting SEN pupils depending on their individual needs. “Most of all, I hope children with SEN are able to experience enjoyment and success in their education, where their dreams are nurtured and they are supported to explore and develop their strengths. I hope their education enables them to lead happy, fulfilling lives, participating in society in a way that is meaningful to them.”
Nevertheless, the Department for Education stands by the biggest SEN reform in a generation. “The high needs budget for pupils with SEN is £6 billion this year – the highest on record – and core school funding will rise to a record £43.5 billion by 2020 – the highest ever – and a 50 percent real terms per pupil increase from 2000,” explained a spokesman.
“But we are not complacent, and recognise there is more to do to make sure all children and young people have the right support to succeed, and that families get help to navigate the new SEN system.
“We are working to support families and resolve disagreements earlier. We supported the College of Mediators and the Civil Mediation Council to launch SEND [special educational needs and disability] mediation standards and a voluntary system of accreditation to ensure good quality SEND mediation that families can trust.”
The battle for statementing all makes pretty grim reading for parents dipping their toes into this minefield; like the Corcorans from Borehamwood. Liam, aged three, was diagnosed with global developmental delay after parents Dina and David noticed he was failing to reach his milestones as an infant. Caused by microcephaly, where the head circumference is smaller than normal, Liam’s condition has set the family of five on an emotional rollercoaster.
“My husband has an amazing bond with Liam and gets very upset at the medical appointments,” explains Dina, a speech and language therapist at JCoSS. “We don’t know what the future will hold for him, but at the moment it’s like having a one-year-old in his toddler body.”Keen to secure Liam the best education possible, and aware that he is unlikely to attend Shenley’s Clore Shalom School with his siblings, the Corcorans have recently begun the process of attaining an EHCP to help fund him through a special school setting. “Liam is a charming, smiley three-year-old, but he will get lost in the system if he does not have his education and health needs in a legally binding document,” Dina explains.
“Already it seems a very long and cumbersome process and a challenge to find time to complete the forms while both working and feeling quite out on a limb doing this on our own. It’s quite stressful and isolating, and I just wish I could wave a magic wand and have it all sorted.” It’s unlikely though, with a system based on complex laws and grey areas, to be plain sailing. And even if an EHCP is granted, if the money is not there to execute the recommendations outlined, it’s the child that suffers with patchy, inconsistent provision, leaving their needs still unmet.
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