It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and I thank Sir Vince Cable for securing this debate, and all hon. Members who have spoken today. Children and adult learners with special educational needs and disabilities are being failed by this Government. Competition instead of collaboration has harmed our education system, and the fragmentation and marketisation of education has left gaping holes in provision, accountability and support. The crisis in our education system of recruitment, retention and cuts across the board is impacting everywhere, but nowhere more starkly than in the arena of special educational needs and disabilities.
That view is shared by an army of parents, carers, children, learners, schools, colleges, universities, teachers, healthcare professionals, local authorities and a number of cross-party groups in the House. The reforms that led to this shambolic and damaging situation are rooted in the early years of the coalition Government, and summed up well by the then Education Secretary, who stated that the aim was to remove the “bias towards inclusion.” In other words, it was a move no longer to consider special educational needs as an intrinsic part of every learning environment—even though that has been proven to improve learning outcomes for disabled and non-disabled learners alike—but to start treating them as an add-on.
It is little wonder that in 2016 the United Nations expressed concern that for the first time in 25 years, more children with special educational needs and disabilities are being educated outside the mainstream, and that the Government have developed a dual education system that unnecessarily segregates children with disabilities to special schools, rather than providing for them sufficiently in mainstream schools. The following year the United Nations stated that this Government were guilty of
“grave or systematic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities.”
The cultivation of that hostile environment has had dire, lasting effects on children and learners with SEND. The rushed reforms introduced in the Children and Families Act 2014 have created a postcode lottery of variable provision, and many children with SEND continue to be let down. During the passage of that Act, Labour Members warned that unless the proposed reforms were properly funded and proper demographic modelling carried out, the reforms would fail—and fail they did.
“too disjointed and too inconsistent”.
That inconsistency comes from the lack of adequate funding. Schools have had £1.7 billion cut from their budgets since 2015. In a recent survey by the National Education Union, 94% of respondents confirmed that the cuts were having a negative effect on the support that schools are able to give to SEND pupils. The £365 million announced in December 2018 to help local authorities create new places or improve facilities for SEND pupils is a one-off cash injection, not the sustainable funding that people are crying out for, and it does not close the shortfall in local authority funding for SEND support that the Local Government Association identified at £472 million.
Recent steps to ring-fence SEND funding represent an inflexible policy, as the strict rules mean that only 0.5% of a school’s overall budget can be transferred to the high needs block. The policy isn’t working, as evidenced by the 43 local authorities that have appealed, asking for it to be relaxed to meet their local need. Can the Minister explain why a large majority of the successful appeals have been in Conservative-led authorities? This is a toxic combination of a misguided policy direction and savage cuts across the board to health and other support services. A recent survey from the National Association of Head Teachers found that 83% of heads are not receiving any funding from health and social care budgets to support pupils with SEND statements, and 94% have reported that they are finding it harder to resource the support required to meet the needs of pupils with SEND than they did two years ago.
The best intentions, will and desire of parents, local government, teachers and health professionals to do the best for learners with SEND are not being matched by the Government. In 2017, more than 4,000 children with SEND were left without a school place. Nearly 9,000 children have had their existing statement or education and healthcare plan taken away from them—not because they have moved school or have left school, but just because they have been denied the support that they were previously deemed in need of. The number of children with SEND statements in alternative provision has increased by more than 50%, and the number of children facing fixed-period, permanent or even illegal exclusions remains disproportionate compared with their peers. They account for half of permanent or fixed-period exclusions.
Some are lucky enough to get a plan, often at the end of a difficult and fraught process for them and their parents—a point made articulately by my hon. Friends the Members for High Peak (Ruth George), for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) and for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard)—but many of those plans are flawed or substandard. Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission found that access to therapy for children in adolescent mental health services was poor, and progress was minimal in implementing a co-ordinated service for those with SEND.
After the SEND reforms, the number of costly appeals against education, health and care plans rose to more than 4,000, and the number of tribunals almost doubled to 1,600, but that is likely to be only the tip of the iceberg. As my hon. Friend Vernon Coaker noted, many parents do not have the time, energy, financial support or the opportunity to navigate that difficult legal action. The fact that almost nine out of 10 appeals are successful at tribunal confirms that there are serious flaws in the system.
It is not just children who are being short-changed. College principals have also warned the Government that support for learners over 19 is now being met by already stretched college budgets and is completely unsustainable. Some 16 to 19-year-old students with SEND are being charged up to £1,500 a year for their transport. Since 2015, university students have been required to pay a £200 contribution towards the cost of essential equipment for their study.
Behind all those statistics and figures are children and learners who just want access to education, which should be a fundamental right for all, no matter who they are, where they are from or what their circumstances are. Hopefully, when the Minister answers my points and those that other hon. Members have made, she will explain why, under her Government, that fundamental right does not apply to those with special educational needs and disabilities.