Schools funding crisis fails vulnerable children

by Rachel Lyon, Waltham Forest Socialist Party and SEND worker

Schools face a special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) funding crisis, a £1 billion shortfall in funding. The £730 million budget increase announced for 2021-22 won’t touch the sides, and will see council SEND budget deficits continue to grow.

Since the 2014 Education Act introduced the change from ‘statements’ to ‘educational, care and health plans’ (ECHPs) to determine what funding is given to meet children’s needs, the number of children entitled to funding has seen a 25% rise.

We are told that schools can’t cope with these demands, but surely the answer is to request the government for more money? After all, the government bailed out the banks in 2008, and big business throughout the pandemic. We need an immediate injection of funding to wipeout council SEND budget deficits.

Labour councils like ours in Waltham Forest, east London, should refuse to make cuts, spend what is needed to meet children’s needs, and demand the money from the government. This stand could help mobilise demonstrations of parents and staff and be the start of a campaign for a fully funded education system accessible for all children regardless of their ability or need.

In March, in partial admission of the crisis, the Department for Education announced £100 million of ‘safety valve agreements’, or bailouts, for the five local authorities with the biggest SEND budget deficits, but under strict conditions of these councils making further cuts.

Waltham Forest Borough Council has a £7.97 million deficit and did not get a bailout. Our borough has decided to cut 10% from the budget for those children who have a band E or F ECHP. Our borough has the highest number of children with an EHCP, and statistics show there will be a 25% increase each year.

Waltham Forest’s own SEND ethos states: “Children and young people with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) will achieve well in early years, at school, at college and lead happy and fulfilled lives”

It should read: “Prepare for a lifelong battle for your child’s rights in education”. The reality is that a child’s EHCP plan is treated as a wish list, not a legal document. Under budget pressures, and without the same level of scrutiny as schools under direct local authority control, academies can be a law unto themselves, with high exclusion rates amongst SEND pupils.

As an education worker I am inundated with horror stories of children being excluded, not because of their challenging behaviour, but because of the lack of experienced staff and adequate training in schools.

Initially it was hard to hear parents make formal complaints that their child was not getting the 1:1 support on their ECHP, but this is now a regular complaint. I think it should be mandatory for all schools to provide a sensory room, training, provision and essential therapies.

In 2020, two families, alongside many witnesses, took Waltham Forest Borough Council to the high court to legally challenge the 10% reduction in band E and F funding. The families argued that this level of funding doesn’t meet ECHP requirements.

The courts found that the council has a legal obligation to meet assessed needs and the priority to regard the ECHP as a legal document, but failed to find that the council has acted unlawfully. The campaigners correctly point out that the councils actions are both unethical and unjust.

We need to unite whole school communities to fight for the funding young people deserve, and to fight school job cuts. We need councils to refuse to pass on cuts, and demand the funding from government. We need to address the disastrous effect of academisation for SEND children.

Parents, education workers, trade unions and young people need to stand together in opposition. This should include standing in the local elections for 2022 with a position of no cuts. Our community needs a voice!

There is never a good reason to make cuts to education. Our children deserve more and shouldn’t pay the price for Covid. The disadvantages SEND children face are already huge in this capitalist society, they don’t need more!