‘This is a right, not a luxury’ – Parents march through Ipswich to protest against special needs cuts
- Credit: AMY GIBBONS
Families from across the county have shared their heartbreaking stories of children in crisis as part of an impassioned march to protest against government cuts.
The march, part of a national movement to secure better support for children with special needs and disabilities (SEND), started from Endeavour House, home of Suffolk County Council (SCC), at 10.15am this morning - and continued through the Cornhill on to Christchurch Park.
Dozens of parents, carers and children gathered for the event, described by organisers as a "peaceful protest", with many sharing their stories of extreme hardship at the hands of what they claim is a failing system.
The march was intended to protest against national cuts, but also gave a voice to those who felt they had been failed by the county council.
Speeches were given by representatives for both the administration and the opposition, as politicians from across the spectrum turned out to call for change.
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The council said it had offered to meet affected families ahead of the march and that offer remains in place.
It said it will continue to drive "rapid improvement" in the SEND service as demand continues to rise in Suffolk.
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'Public pressure does work'
Sandy Martin, MP for Ipswich, said the problem is "primarily the fault of the government".
"The cuts to school funding, the cuts to educational funding as a whole, and the way in which the responsibilities and powers of educational authorities have been split up makes it very, very difficult for any authority to actually find young people the provision that they need," he said.
"We have far too many children and young people in this county who are not getting any educational at all, which is just completely unacceptable.
"I actually think the county council here in Suffolk is doing worse than other counties, but it's not primarily the fault of the county council - it's primarily the fault of the government."
When asked his reaction to SCC's SEND service becoming the first of its kind in the country to fail a re-inspection by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission, Mr Martin said: "I think they haven't got enough people working on special needs in the county council in order to get the provision that will actually work for young people."
He added: "Public pressure does work. Let's carry on campaigning until we get the provision we need."
'This is a right, not a luxury'
Jack Abbott, SCC's Labour spokesman for children's services, education and skills, said both the government and the county need to "start putting children and families first".
"It's really, really clear to me that the biggest issue facing us - particularly in Suffolk - is SEND and its provision, or rather lack of it," he said.
"I'd like to say I'm really sorry for all of those parents who have waited weeks, months, even years for their EHCPs. I'm really sorry for all those families who have had to cart their kids hours away to school, sometimes even in Norfolk or further afield. I'm really sorry you feel like sometimes you have to battle for months and years, spending thousands of pounds on tribunal processes, just to get the support you and your family deserve.
"I think we need to have a massive culture change. We need to start putting children and families first. This is a right, it's not a luxury."
Chris Chambers, deputy cabinet member for education, also joined the march to show solidarity with affected families.
He said: "Suffolk children with special educational needs do not get a good deal from the government on funding.
"We're funded less than half of the top funded authorities. They call it fairer funding and it couldn't be further from the truth. Children in Suffolk deserve better.
When asked what he would say to those parents who have had a bad experience seeking support from the council, Mr Chambers added: "There's been a huge increase in special educational needs cases and that's for various reasons. It's something that we desperately want to get right, but these things take time. We are adamant that we will get it right in the end."
'It's been utterly horrendous'
Ann Jillings was marching with her 13-year-old son Daniel, who is completely deaf.
She said: "My son is at a mainstream school with support but it wasn't an easy journey to get there. It does show with the right support deaf children can achieve well, but it's just sad that so many parents have to fight for that support.
"It's a worrying picture for the future when we're seeing services for deaf children being cut and the number of teachers of the deaf dropping quite drastically."
Katie Anderton was marching on behalf of her 13-year-old son Charlie. She believes he has Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA), a type of autism disorder, but hasn't been able to get a formal diagnosis.
She said: "I'm here today because I have been trying to get support for my son since he was around two years old. He's now 13. I've still got nowhere close to getting any form of diagnosis for him.
"I am now pretty confident he has a form of autism called Pathological Demand Avoidance. Suffolk don't recognise that, but Norfolk do. So trying to get any form of diagnosis - autism or otherwise - has just been such a long battle.
"Going into a school where everything is a demand, that is massive for somebody who has PDA - but they contain it. At home it's like a Coke bottle has been shaken up. You take the top off and it explodes.
"It's really been horrendous, utterly horrendous. My children now are teenagers - for a long time they couldn't live together because of the violence.
"I've gone through the whole cycle of: you're not strict enough, it's your parenting, do this parenting course... I've done all of those things. I've beaten myself up 100 times.
"Over the past year he has been out of school, so I have been fighting with the education authority because they need their tick box for his attendance.
"The system needs to change. There needs to be more understanding from professionals of the current research into the different types of autism. Parent blaming isn't helpful to anybody."
What does the government have to say?
Responding to the marches taking place across the country, Nadhim Zahawi, children and families minister, said: "Our ambition is for every child, no matter the challenges they face, to have access to a world class education that sets them up for life.
"Funding for the high needs budget is a priority for this government and we know that councils and schools are facing pressures - that's why in December we provided an extra £250million up to 2020 to help manage these costs. This takes the total amount that we have allocated for high needs funding to £6.3billion this year, compared to £5bn in 2013.
"At the same time, the education secretary has been clear that we are working closely with the sector as we approach the spending review, we have launched a call for evidence to make sure the funding system is getting money to the right places at the right time and we are revising the SEND Code of Practice to improve ways to identify and meet special educational needs."
A spokesperson for Suffolk County Council added: "We offered to meet and listen to residents ahead of the march today and that offer remains as we support what the march is trying to achieve.
"We will continue to drive rapid improvement in our SEND service as we recognise this needs to happen as demand continues to rise in Suffolk.
"We would like to thank all the families who have shared their experiences with us and we look forward to continuing to work with residents to achieve positive outcomes in the future."