Pressing the case for special needs education

As promised, following my meeting with local parents, I have written to the Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds MP, highlighting the concerns of High Peak parents about special needs education. My letter includes quotes from local parents and head teachers, as well as detailed case studies.

The following is the text of my letter:

SPECIAL EDUCATION NEEDS PROVISION IN HIGH PEAK

During Education Questions in the House on 25th June, I raised with you concerns about the lack of adequate support for children with additional needs in my constituency.  Over the last few weeks, I have further discussed these issues with schools and families, and I write now to share more detail about the problems as you invited me to do.

The County Council allocates extra funding for special needs but as their funding has been cut by 60% they seem to be giving as little support as possible, delayed for as long as possible.  There does seem to be a difference in the support between authorities and schools report inconsistencies and frustrations when comparing Derbyshire to other neighbouring authorities. For example, a child at Newtown Primary was seen by the Paediatrician in Derbyshire – with evidence to support from school.  A short assessment concluded ‘come back in six months’. The parent, who lives just across the border in Cheshire East, then registered with the GP there.  Similar evidence was provided and the child has been put forward, by Cheshire East, for statutory assessment for an EHCP.

Many parents report that they have been told that the Educational Psychologist funding is extremely limited and that there are other children in greater need so their child would not be referred.  A school confirmed this prioritisation of scarce resource in an example of how Derbyshire differs from other authorities:

“For example, a colleague recently told me that a Stockport education professional wouldn’t believe her when she told them that we have to fund Educational Psychology support. A visit / assessment, write up and feedback costs us several hundred pounds per child, so realistically we have to select two / three children a year to be supported by Educational Psychology.”

Schools are required to spend many hours putting together forms to request support for a child with special needs which is almost always refused so schools tell me they are reluctant to go through the process due to time and raising parents’ expectations which are then dashed.  One Head Teacher told me:

“Unfortunately I cannot send you a refused EHCP as I have not even made a request for one in the past 2 years. This is not because I don’t have children with significant needs but because the advice that I have received which is basically that unless they have significant health needs in additional to educational needs, we are advised to apply for high needs funding through the GRIP process. This is a process particular to Derbyshire which was championed as being quicker and more responsive to children’s needs. However, whilst I welcome the idea, the reality is equally time consuming and it is very difficult to get money through this process. Normally you receive less than is requested. The paperwork involved is significant and these children are no longer included in the statistics as they don’t have an EHCP despite having very significant needs.”

Another Head Teacher also shared their frustration with the GRIP funding model:

“There has been a big uptake for GRIP funding and this has led to (in our experience) huge waiting times to find out whether applications have been successful or not. Also, colleagues have reported inconsistency in approval of requests when forms have been completed following the same protocols. For example, I was successful with an application for a child with a range of challenge and received significant funding (although it still doesn’t cover actual cost of the support he needs) – this has essentially kept a child in mainstream education and given him a change to turn things around. However, we have another child with diagnosed ASD who has required full-time support since he started in EYFS. We completed a GRIP application for him during EYFS that was rejected after several months waiting to find out. It was completed following the same protocols as our previous application. Several months later (after trying constantly to make contact) I was finally able to meet our Lead SEND Officer – who advised on how to re-submit the application. After doing this, we still had no news and I was advised of where to contact to find out progress of the application. Half way through Year One, we were awarded £4.5k – again this a long way short of the funding we need to cover the cost of support. Colleagues regularly report similar delays and inconsistencies. GRIP is reviewed each year, with a view that if funding is still required it usually stays in place. There have been less applications for EHCP as GRIP is always suggested as the best place to start.”

In this context, parents report that when they initially raise concerns, they often feel dismissed and judged, as if their parenting is the root cause of their child’s issues.   This makes it very difficult for parents to ask for support with what is a challenging situation.  Parents report that if their child is performing well academically but struggling with behaviour or having issues at home, it is particularly difficult to get the assessment process underway.  Advice is usually to apply for GRIP funding in the first instance but as this is only available for children at least two academic years behind, it is not applicable in many cases.

When funding is granted through GRIP, schools are reporting that the levels of funding they are receiving fall well below that requested.  One SENCO told me:

“We requested funding of £12,195 in order to provide the supervision required for him, predominantly to ensure his physical safety, as he is at constant high-risk of breaks to bones. Part of his condition also means he is not aware of when he has an injury-staff need to be vigilant at all time. I am sure you can imagine this is an impossible task for a class teacher with a class of 30. The total amount we were granted was £2000. This is woefully insufficient, and amounts to approximately 3 hours of Teaching Assistant support each week.

I am currently completing another GRIP application for a child that was born at 25 weeks, is autistic and has ADHD. She has very complex needs around her diagnosed condition, as well as speech and language delay and problems with gross and motor control. Her current funding is £3170.”

When the need is so great, that the request for EHC support is undertaken, the EHCP process is slow and complex; parents and schools report delays, communication problems and misunderstandings.  The cuts to funding and resulting staff changes at Derbyshire County Council has resulted in some families having to restart assessments.  While the process is ongoing, it is difficult to access support to prevent problems getting worse in the interim.

The final EHCPs are not always accurate and do not reflect the current position.  One family reports that their child’s EHCP states that their son is awaiting a diagnosis; he has had a diagnosis of autism since 2014.  Some families report that major amendments have been made to the draft shared with them which have then been presented as the final plan without discussion.

We are geographically isolated in High Peak and have a shortage of specialist provision it means we have increasing numbers of students struggling to attend a mainstream school that is unable to meet their needs.  One SENCO shared the experience of one of her students for whom the nearest place is Holly House in Chesterfield. This young girl is unable to manage a one-mile trip to school: how is she going to make a 50-mile round trip every day? So, she does not attend school and gets 4 hours a week from a tutor. She is 12.

School holidays create additional difficulties for these families.  There is no provision within the EHCP for support outside of school hours and there is little available locally which is able to offer the specialist support needed.  Several families report that at least one parent has had to give up work in order to provide the care needed as they are unable to access after-school or holiday provision.  This obviously has a negative impact on the family as a whole.

The cases referred to in this letter are merely the headlines from reports I have received from many schools and families in my constituency.  The families and professionals I meet with in my constituency paint a picture of a fragmented underfunded system struggling to offer adequate support to their children.  The parents speak warmly of individual professionals who have tried their upmost to help them navigate the system, but there is an underlying frustration and desperation that marks their interactions with services.  I would like to meet with you to discuss further the lack of special needs provision in Derbyshire and the measures that will be taken to address it.

Yours sincerely,

Ruth George MP

Member of Parliament for High Peak