Why The Times should be ashamed

You might have heard about an article in The Times on 14 October with the headline ‘Pupils lose out as £400m schools funding diverted to special needs’. It described how ‘children have been losing out’ because money is being ‘siphoned’ off to pay for support for children with special educational needs (SEN). It quoted a head teacher who said some parents saw Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCP) as a ‘golden ticket’.

Quite apart from children with special educational needs being ‘pupils’ too, it painted a picture of sharp-elbowed parents of children with SEN somehow gaming the system to get money at the expense of other mainstream children. The article suggested that the pressure of all of these pushy parents and their needy kids had meant councils had had to raid their mainstream education budgets.

I wasn’t the only one to find this article deeply offensive. It’s been widely shared and disparaged on social media. On 15 October the paper edited the article online and removed the ‘golden ticket’ quote, changing the headline to`Schools ‘struggling to meet cost of special needs support’. It is less inflammatory, but still talks about the number of pupils with SEN as having ‘surged’ and how much money has been ‘diverted’ from mainstream education budgets and the effect that has had on class sizes, staffing and resources.

This is such bullshit. It’s textbook victim blaming. There is a crisis in educational funding because we are years into austerity so there is less money for all schools so there is less support for children who need it. It’s therefore more likely that parents (and schools) will try to get EHCPs for children who need additional support because that will ensure additional funding to pay for the support. Possibly not enough funding or support, but some.

EHCPs are legally enforceable documents that set out exactly what challenges a child has to to learning, and therefore what support the child needs. It may be a teaching assistant for some proportion of the day, or access to specialist equipment, or physiotherapy. It’s all based on professional reports. No parent I know would enter into the process of getting an EHCP lightly – it’s a gruelling administrative process which most parents are doing for the first time.

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Getting my eldest son Ben his first Statement (the predecessor to EHCPs) was one of the most stressful things I have done and culminated in us negotiating every line of the document in the reception area of our local council’s head office because Ben was with us (no childcare) and children were not allowed in their meeting rooms. We got what we wanted, which was for him to go to a Special Needs school which had the expertise to help him communicate. We have been fortunate ever since – he has been at excellent schools and the schools have helped us with subsequent renegotiations of his EHCP. The system works well for him, though of course his school is under financial pressure.

Local Authorities have very little money, so they are trying to work out which bits of EHCPs are essential. It shouldn’t happen, but of course there’s rationing. An EHCP drafted by the local authority might include less of whatever the resource is rather than more. There is often a dispiriting process of negotiation between a parent and a local authority. If they can’t agree, the parent can take it through an appeal process and The Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman is currently upholding (ruling against the local authority in) 87% of the cases it investigates. It has said children with special educational needs and disabilities are being failed by the system designed to support them. This means children aren’t getting the support they need at the right time.

So The Times took a story about children with SEN being failed by the system designed to help them learn and made it into an article about blaming those children and their parents. It took a hugely complex issue and reduced it to dog-whistle headlines and inflammatory quotes.

Let’s be clear – all these children are trying to do is go to school and learn. Their parents are not asking for Ferraris and caviar for lunch. They are asking for their child to be in an environment where they can learn to count and read. It’s not their fault the support costs money and schools and local authorities don’t have enough. That’s the fault of central government, and it’s disgraceful.

I know parents whose children have special educational needs in mainstream schools and it’s almost impossible to ensure they are getting the support they need because schools are under so much financial pressure. It’s inevitable that more disabled children leave mainstream schools, either to go to special needs schools, or to other arrangements which are frequently less than ideal. Or they stay in mainstream schools but are not thriving, therefore requiring more support.

I have two non-disabled children. I think schools are best when they are diverse and inclusive. I want my kids to count and learn, but above all else I want them to be good people and I think you are less likely to be that if you have no sense of neurodiversity, difference and disability. In our family, Max sees children with special educational needs at school and home and that is how it should be. Molly had a disabled friend at nursery as well as a disabled brother at home.

Educational funding is being stripped to its bare minimum and that is effecting all pupils. If you think children with SEN are a drain on the system you are discriminating against children who need support to learn. It will be to their detriment, and we will have failed those children, but actually we’ll have failed all children. The Times should be ashamed of encouraging such a horribly reductive portrayal of a situation which is shameful to those in power, not parents trying to do the best for their children.