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Everything wrong with the school attendance drive: why SEND parents are pushing back

The government has decimated school support for kids with special educational needs - and now it's launched a crass attendance campaign that feels like a direct assault on the parenting skills of already struggling families. 

February 15 2024, 17.37pm

Parents of children with special educational needs (SEND) are furious. They have already spent years dealing with an under-resourced school system and a government perpetually cutting support for their children - but now they are feeling personally attacked.

The perceived slight is an advertising campaign aimed at improving school attendance rates, which have dropped for all children since lockdown restrictions were lifted. It suggests that parents are keeping their children away from school for simple coughs and colds, and urges them to prioritise school attendance above care for minor illnesses. 

Yet seasonal illness is not the cause of high absence rates at all. School attendance is disproportionately low among those who are neurodiverse: SEND children are twice as likely to be absent from school as those with no additional needs. For parents struggling to encourage their child to get into school, due to anxiety or other mental health conditions, the campaign feels like an assault on their parenting skills. Worse, most don’t even have a suitable school place for their child that meets their particular needs. Many are forced to educate at home - whether they want to or not.

The reality for parents of SEND children is that not only are they struggling to encourage their children to attend school, but many cannot find a suitable school for their child to attend.

“It’s not only very insulting to parents, and very gaslighting, but it’s also pretty heartbreaking,” says Kirsti Hadley, a campaigner for SEND rights whose own 12-year-old child, Sonny, has autism, ADHD and OCD has been out of full-time school for more than a year. “This should not be about forcing our children into school like old fashioned truancy officers. We need to ask why our children are so traumatised going to school. We’ve got to adjust it so children want to go to school. It’s madness and completely back-to-front.”

The disconnect between the government message on school attendance and the experience of parents who cannot find a school able to support their child or meet their unique needs sufficiently to attend full-time is so vast that parents are joining together to tell their own stories. “It’s indicative of the way they’ve treated us and the way they’re viewing it all. They’re asking all the wrong questions, therefore they’re putting forward all the wrong solutions,” says Hadley, co-founder of the campaign group SEND Reform England, which was formed last year to fight cuts and rollbacks to services for children with specialist needs at school. This powerful group of parent activists - primarily mothers - is fighting for an education system that offers every child with special educational needs, whether that’s due to disability, neurodiversity or mental health crisis, a school place suitable for their needs. 

The 30,000-strong Facebook page of SEND Reform England receives hundreds of messages every day from desperate parents, many of whom have had to give up work because their children are unable to attend school, or who are on part-time hours. Many more are finding it hard to have their child’s needs accepted either by schools or by local authorities. They are floundering, watching their children slip behind their peers but unsure how to best help them. 

There are 1.6 million school pupils in England with SEND, making up around 17% of the total population - an increase of 9% in just a year between 2022 and 2023. And last year 1.2 million received SEND support while in school.

But that support is incredibly varied: the Conservative government is investing in new special schools, committing to doubling the number of available places from 8,500 to 19,000, but of those children with SEND only 400,000 have an education, health and care plan (known as an EHCP) which legally sets out their rights to additional support. This can include services such as one-to-one teaching time, physiotherapy, speech therapy or any other number of adjustments to make learning easier.

In fact, despite the rising number of children with additional needs the government has actually pledged to cut the number of EHCPs issued by 20% to reduce spending. Meanwhile, cash-strapped local authorities struggling to meet their most basic obligations are now routinely rejecting first applications from parents and schools for an EHCP, forcing families, teachers, social workers and other support agencies to fight in court - just to ensure a child’s basic rights to an education. Millions of pounds of public money are now being spent on pushing back against these parents in court, despite an abysmal return: 97% of initial judgements are  overturned in the parents’ favour. 

Kathryn, 34 from West Yorkshire and a co-founder of SEND Reform England, has three children, two with additional needs. Her younger children, now aged seven and five, were both diagnosed with autism at the age of three and both now have a place at a specialist school, but it hasn’t been an easy journey for the family.

“The local authority tried and tried to get them into mainstream [school] to, in their words, ‘see how they get on’, even though reports everywhere stated that the children were non-verbal and don’t communicate through speech or sign language. My almost eight-year-old is aged only nine months, developmentally,” she says. “With my younger daughter, if she was verbal without a doubt it would have been so much more difficult to get her diagnosed but as it was a second time round [for me] I knew my rights. Not a lot of parents do. There’s going to be a whole generation of children not being educated at all, or we’ll have a generation of mental health problems.”

Less likely to feel safe

For parents, it’s not just teaching and learning that is being lost, but the social development of their children too. “I don’t feel like children’s mental health is taken seriously and I don’t think they're looking at the bigger picture at how this is going to affect a whole generation of kids. It’s just money-orientated,” says Kathryn. 

She is right to be concerned. A report published by the Children’s Commissioner last year found that children with SEND are less likely to feel safe, and over a third either often, always or some of the time feel lonely. It crucially made clear that many children are languishing without the level of support they are right to expect. “The time it takes to receive support, the thresholds for that support, the need for a diagnosis rather than receiving support on the basis of need and the quality of support available are too variable,” it confirmed.

The professionals most often involved in making sure that support is in place are educational psychologists, employed by schools and councils. The number of funded training places for these roles has been cut by the government despite demand for their services being at a record high. In December, EPs took part in a nationwide strike aimed at greater recognition of their work and the government’s withdrawal from funding their services.

Dr Jen Wills Lamacq, an educational psychologist, sees the results of this retrenchment of government support for SEND children every day - particularly the pressure to reduce EHCP statements, which professionals like herself are responsible for drawing up. It manifests as children failing to reach their potential, even from a very young age. “With any need a child has, it’s always easier and better to prevent and support from the start rather than fix something once it’s got out of hand. The message that people are hearing is you have to let it get bad. It’s so depressing for people who work in education, it’s horrible for the parents and harmful for the child. I’ve had parents say to me it’s like watching a train crash,” she says. “It just feels so short-sighted and so wrong headed.”

If money was spent on preventative work within schools, for example increasing the number of speech therapists, there would be less demand for ECHP certificates with expensive legal requirements further down a child’s journey - and, parents say, less chance that pupils would be spending significant time outside school or being home schooled. But what is being proposed instead is to simply raise the bar for qualification for an EHCP. 

״Most children would like to be happy in school״

The situation has now got so serious that even Conservative MPs are challenging their own party’s rhetoric on the issue and pushing for the Treasury to invest more in children with SEND. Along with Labour MP Clive Lewis, Conservative Robin Walker, chair of the education select committee, took part in a SEND Reform England reception in Westminster in January aimed at winning the argument over increased funding. He told The Lead that together with other cross-party MPs he was fighting for another £4.6bn for SEND provision. 

“The big challenge is how to persuade the Treasury to keep putting more money into high needs given they will say ‘where is the evidence that it’s making a difference’?,” he says. For Walker - despite the concerns of parents, which he heard in person at that Westminster event - one of the metrics of success must be attendance rates for SEND children. “The key challenge is to make sure that money gets spent effectively and where it’s most needed. There is a real case that there may need to be even more money invested where it’s most needed.”

Campaigners were buoyed by attendance at the event - more than 80 MPs turned up, many admitting that SEND support was one of the most common issues to be raised in their regular constituency surgeries. But for Kirsti Hadley, change is about more than just numbers and investment figures but finding a way to offer hope to children like her own. 

“One of the things I’ve been talking about with MPs is the wellness economy. [I said] you judge the success of the country on its financial health, but we should be judging it on the wellness of our population. So many people are unhappy and poor and mentally unwell, you can’t say that’s a successful country,” she says. “I think if you look at the education system through a similar lens it’s all about attendance and attainment but it’s not about their happiness and mental health. It’s about bums on seats.”

Dr Wills Lamacq, meanwhile, shares the parents’ concerns about the government’s messaging on attendance rates. “Without the support to get their needs met school becomes a very overwhelming negative place for some children with neurodiversities such as autism or ADHD,” she says.

“I’ve never met a parent who willingly keeps their child off school for a runny nose. Most children would like to be happy in school. The idea that you can fix the attendance problem by shaming parents is wrongheaded. It just doesn’t work.”

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