At the last SEND Crisis meeting in November, parents vowed to continue the fight to bring special educational needs and disabilities matters out of the shadowy fringe and make the educational futures of children with additional needs a national concern. Since then we’ve had a change of government with an outright majority for the cut loving Tories and many are now wondering what can be done. Parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities are invited to a meeting on the 25th of January. Please join the THMs SEND parents Facebook group for more information about the meeting.

The meeting in November was a great success, bringing many famillies and professionals together and giving them a voice. Please read the below summary for an update on the campaign so far.

SEND Parents write a £12 million invoice to the Department of Education and call for a cross-borough march before cuts to the Support for Learning Service and Behaviour Support Team are finalised by Tower Hamlets council.

Oaklands Secondary school assembly hall was full to bursting with parents, school staff, union members and special educational needs professionals on Tuesday 19th November. Cabinet member for Children, Schools and Young People, Cllr Danny Hassell, responded on behalf of the council regarding proposed cuts to EHCP (Education Health and Care Plan) ‘top-up’ funding for schools, and a 40% cut to the Support for Learning Service and Behaviour Team.

Some 8,000 children with SEND attend Tower Hamlets schools, and 3,000 of those have EHCPs, which set out statutory obligations to meet a child’s needs.

Parents and politicians queued up to sign the invoice, and to have photos taken holding ‘Vote for Education’ placards, after hearing that the council’s overspend of the High Needs Funding Block is projected to reach £12m next year.

Mayor John Biggs sent his apologies, but MP candidates including Apsana Begum (Poplar and Limehouse Labour candidate), and Rushanara Ali  (Bethnal Green and Bow Labour candidate) were in attendance – to listen to parents and children talk about their experiences (no candidates spoke).

First up to speak was Amanda Elliot from SEND Crisis Hackney who described how parents took the council to court. She explained how they fought their campaign under the weight of everything from severe cuts to Educational Health Care Plan’s (EHCPs) top-up funding to the proposed removal of EHCPs altogether. They recently lost a judicial review but have won some concessions. Amanda finished with a motivational call to join the national fight for SEND provision, to elevate what was once a fringe issue to a matter of national concern.

Photo by Mark Wilkinson

Support for Learning Services

The next person to speak was Iqbal Hasan,  a profoundly deaf young man who had experienced early years support at the specialist deaf unit at the now closed Overland Nursery. Iqbal sung praises for the Support for Learning service that gave him the individual attention he required throughout his education. He is now doing a BA in design at the prestigious University of the Arts London.

Iqbal concluded:

‘Every child deserves this support. Without the support I received I would not be where I am now. I was devastated to hear about these cuts. Every child deserves this support, it’s their human right’

A standing ovation for Iqbal left an awkward silence as parents found their words. When they began it was as if the floodgates had opened. So many heart wrenching stories. Each parent giving others the courage to tell their child’s story.

Photo by Mark Wilkinson

No Place for Children to Learn

Michelle, a teacher, described how she gave up work to look after her child with cerebral palsy and vision impairment for his first 3 years. She explained that he should now be starting school, but again she’s had to give up work because he was turned away from two schools. Now having found an inclusive place, they’ve waited months for the school to be ready.

‘It’s not right. He should be in school, there’s no reason a 4-year-old can’t be included’

Her partner described the anguish of having no options for your child…

‘You want to give them their best, but the window of opportunity is closing in on them already at 4 years old. What’s going to happen when he’s 14? What options will we give him as a society?’

While some of the parents attending were finding a place for their child in education for the first time, others had been through it already. Many parents described a deep regret at not understanding what they were meant to put on paper in order to get the help their child needed. Words in an EHCP such as ‘would benefit from’, can mean vital support is withheld by schools already in financial crisis.

Another parent spoke of first learning what autism was when her son was diagnosed, and later her fears that the support would not be there for him to attend college and achieve the outcomes needed for an independent life.

A common question was that if our schools can’t afford to be inclusive, what kind of society will our children grow up into? How can parents feel any reassurance that their child will be okay when they are no longer there to fight their corner.

One of the concerns about the proposed cuts for some parents is a move to only support children with EHCPs (statutory only support). Ending early intervention work was seen as a damaging and short-sighted

Another mother described how her son who has dwarfism hasn’t been given an EHCP. She talked movingly about her fears for him in the playground, with limited supervision.

‘The playground equipment is reflective of a world not purposed for him. The school doesn’t have the funds to put an extra person on staff to ensure his safety. They aren’t set up for his challenges. He’s four years old.’

Throughout the meeting, the recurring theme was that resources for SEND in Tower Hamlets, a borough with the highest level of child poverty in the UK and a higher than average percentage of children with SEND, are already overstretched. Even those proficient in bureaucracy are fighting for dwindling resources.

Another recurring comment from parents was that although the function of the Support for Learning Service (SLS) and Behaviour Team is to help children access an inclusive education, they also provide a lifeline for parents.

Photos by Mark Wilkinson

Another Vital Services for Deaf Children to be Lost?

Husna, mother to a deaf child, describing how overwhelmed she was at first as she came to terms with her son’s hearing loss, spoke of the confidence the service gave her to communicate with him and to pass her Level 2 BSL (British Sign Language).

Justin, father of a child with severe Cerebral Palsy spoke up about feeling  ‘ostracised’ and excluded as a parent of a child with SEND.

‘It’s tough, and these services help and support you as a family, it means there is someone there telling you it is going to be okay.’

He explained that cuts to services are cuts to the community,

‘It rips it out of the family.’

Our Council’s Response

Cllr Hassell struggled to give reassurances and said that the additional £7m one-off payment recently provided by central government was earmarked to pay for new EHCPs allocated to children over the next year, although the council has £20m in general reserves, education reserves have been eaten up by the council’s SEND overspend, which amounts to £7.5m and is projected to reach £12m next year.

Cllr Hassell described writing letters to newspapers and said he would continue to lobby central government, and work with other boroughs and to fight for more funding regardless of the outcome of the general election. However, he refused to make any specific commitment to further action.

These words, from a Labour councillor, in a majority Labour council, were met with anger. A woman described the public consultation that took place over the summer, and criticised the council for

‘Sugar-coating these cuts…. We need some honesty. We need you to actually fight this’

The expectation that parents to do all the leg work continued to be questioned as the meeting drew to a close. Parents of children with additional needs already have so much on their plate.

The power of this meeting with other parents in the borough willing to campaign for SEND and help children realise their full potential was palpable.

Alex Kenny, East London’s NEU executive, made a rallying call to campaign against school cuts during the general election as cuts to education will only impact SEND provision further.

SEND Parent, Niru then suggested that attention on the election might distract from the cuts impending in Tower Hamlets, and that we shouldn’t let this election decide the fate of our children.

‘Why don’t we march? Whatever happens – immediately after the election? From here to the Town Hall!’

A Whatsapp group was initiated among the crowd and promises made to continue to fight for the vulnerable children of Tower Hamlets together. Danny declined to commit to support the march, but NEU indicated solidarity with parents – this was a meeting organised by the education union and parents. Finally a photograph was taken with a £12million invoice for £12m for the Department of Education.

SEND Crisis Tower Hamlets is now organising an action and discussing when they will deliver their invoice.  We will show whoever is in power that our children’s human rights matter.

SEND Crisis Tower Hamlets