On Wednesday a vital debate took place in Westminster Hall under the title of Special Educational Needs and Disability Funding. The debate was convened by the Liberal Democrat MP for Twickenham, Munira Wilson who is also their spokesperson for Health and Social Care. At the beginning of the debates she stated “My predecessor, Sir Vince Cable, led a debate in this Chamber on this very topic less than a year ago. The fact that I am leading a similar debate today underlines just how urgent and important an issue it continues to be, not least in Twickenham, despite funding announcements from the Government since the previous debate. Since the Children and Families Act became law in 2014, the number of children and young people with statements or education, health and care plans has increased across the country by almost 50%.”
As the debate goes on a comment is made by an SNP MP and part of Munira’s response is “With both schools and councils under serious financial strain, perverse incentives in our SEND funding system start to emerge. Councils expect schools to cough up £6,000 before they will consider a pupil for an EHCP, so headteachers are often more reluctant to send children for a diagnosis.” This seems to be very concerning given that each School receives less money than this for each of their pupils on an annual basis. However the cost implication is not limited to Schools. Munira states later “Richmond SEND Crisis tells me that some families spend £30,000 on tribunals, sometimes remortgaging their homes to do so, and we know that many people cannot afford to do that.“
Sadly there was only one contribution made by a Sussex MP but it was from Gillian Keegan who amongst other matters stated “Special educational needs and disability funding is close to my heart. I have seen first hand the powerful impact that the right school and support can have. My nephew, Joseph Gibson, has Down’s syndrome, and he absolutely loves his school and his friends at St John’s RC School in Chingford…. The percentage of children with special needs in West Sussex is higher than average. The system is under increasing pressure, made more challenging by the complexity of needs, which grows as we get better at diagnosing development needs and doing something to help children develop their potential….My local authority, West Sussex County Council, is receiving £8.3 million more in its designated schools grant—an increase of 10.4%, which is very welcome—yet there is a spending gap of £2.4 million. The council has appealed to the Secretary of State to plug that gap, and I hope the Minister will support that.”
The Minister who responds to these comments and a number of other comment from MPs in all parties is Michelle Donelan who is the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education which is a role she has held since last September. It seems vital as one of the responses to these vital issues that Gavin Williamson is persuaded to come to this group of people and take seriously their concerns. However Donelan stated the following words as part of her response:
“I congratulate Munira Wilson on securing today’s really important debate…. I put on the record the fact that I share her concerns, and stress that the Government are taking action and will continue to do so. Our ambition is for every child, no matter what challenges they face, to have access to a world-class education that sets them up for life, enabling them to reach their full potential… Funding has been raised by several Members, and is extremely important. It is part of our commitment to level up across the country, but I also stress that the issue is about so much more than just funding… We are undertaking a cross-Government review of our SEND provision, and we must ensure that every penny that we spend helps to achieve better outcomes, so that parents and teachers have confidence in the system to deliver for these children…. We must ensure that all funds are spent efficiently and effectively, so that children’s needs are adequately catered for. My hon. Friend Gillian Keegan mentioned that the EHCP process is too burdensome and long, and that people can struggle throughout it. That will also form part of the review….. The hon. Member for Twickenham called for a strategy, but it is really important that we hear what the review has to say before we make our long-term plans, because they must be evidence based, and focused on delivering for these children and young people. I recognise this is not a sufficient answer for those areas that are struggling now to provide the support that parents expect and their children need…. We will also examine the £6,000 contribution that mainstream schools have to put in; that issue was raised by a number of Members, and I know from my own constituency that it can be a challenge for school provision… the SEND review—will be published in the first quarter of this year, so we will then be able to make a strategy and move forward with an evidence base.“
It would appear that the review which she pointed out is due to be published within the next 2 months needs to be treated very seriously by the Government that has enormous power to resolve such matters providing of course that it is serious about doing so. Let us hope that MPs like Gillian Keegan will be willing to challenge it in a meaningful way if it fails to do so!