Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

“Thousands” of families being failed by SEND system

Roughly a quarter (24%) of parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) described the support in their area as poor or very poor, according to a new survey.

Under a third (30%) said the support they were receiving was ‘adequate’ while just 42% described it as ‘good’.

In an interview with ITV News, Polly Kerr, a lawyer who represents families fighting for their children’s access to education, said “thousands” of families are being failed by the SEND system.

“I don’t think there are the resources available, or the school places available, to be able to effect change now. It’s going to be like moving the titanic,” she said.

Parents having to cut back on spending on children

The polling, which was conducted by Opinium on behalf of ITV News Anglia, included responses from 500 parents. It found widespread discontent with the SEND system, with some families racking up significant debt while fighting for support for their child.

In total, one in five people had to go through the legal system to get provision, and over a third of those spent more than £5,000 in the process.

One family interviewed by ITV News Anglia spent nearly £70,000 on legal fees while trying to get a place at a specialist school for their son Zac, who is blind and autistic. Suzanne Hollinshead, Zac’s mum, said their family home is now at risk of being sold.

These financial pressures have been exacerbated by current cost of living pressures, with roughly three in five (61%) parents saying they have had to cut back spending on support for their children.

Some have chosen to rely on private, paid-for support, but one in 10 are borrowing to fund it, and one in four are dipping into their savings.

Government must take responsibility to improve SEND system

The polling also revealed that most families are experiencing long waits for healthcare appointments, with 81% saying they had to wait more than three months to be seen by a doctor and half (50%) saying they had to wait more than a year.

Education, health and care plans (ECHPs) are not always helping families to get the help they need, with a third (32%) saying their child was not getting the support they are entitled to.

Families now want the government to act, with 51% saying they think the government should take responsibility for improving the system in their area.

Reforms are long overdue

Disability charities have a similar message for the government, and say that reforms to the SEND system are long overdue.

Sarah White, head of Policy at national disability charity Sense, said: “Many parents of disabled children already face financial hardship, due to having to work fewer hours to provide care or needing to power specialist medical equipment such as feeding machines. The cost of living crisis has therefore had a devastating impact on many of these families.

“This financial crisis can often be compounded for those who are also navigating challenges in getting the support they need for their children. That’s why Sense wants to see a reformed SEND system that delivers the support children need, so that families can live their lives.”

Tim Nicholls of the National Autistic Society echoed similar thoughts. He said there is an “unacceptable” lack of support in mainstream and specialist schools for autistic children.

“It’s vital that the growing need for autism specific support is met, and it’s equally important that all teachers and school staff receive mandatory autism training to improve understanding of autism in all schools,” he said.

Send Improvement Plan does not go far enough

Last week, the government published its long-awaited SEND Improvement and Alternative Provision (AP) Plan, which promises to invest in training for thousands of workers and additional specialist school places.

There will also be new national SEND and AP standards and guides for professionals to help them provide the right support in line with the national standards but suited to each child’s unique experience. This is alongside additional funding which is increasing to £3.5 billion in 2023-24.

But disability charities fear that the new plan “may write off another generation of autistic pupils” through delayed action and proposals that fall short of tackling the key issues.

Jolanta Lasota, Chief Executive of Ambitious about Autism, said it is concerning that the government “has no intention of scrapping proposals that deeply worry many parents – such as tailored lists, national funding bands and mandatory mediation.”

NAS says it is also disappointed that the government has stopped way short of implementing its recommendation of mandatory autism training for all school staff.

“Ultimately, the plan is not nearly enough and lacks the substance needed to fix a SEND system which is failing autistic children and families. The government must do more – we won’t accept a world where autistic children miss out on an education, and families are left exhausted and on the brink of crisis,” said Tim Nicholls, Head of Influencing and Research at NAS.

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