The cruelest cuts that jeopardise disabled children’s life chances have become just another day for England’s SEND system

Laycock Primary School is a mainstream community school in the north London borough of Islington. It has a specialist SEN unit that supports deaf children – an unusually large unit, with funded places for 64 deaf pupils.

Over decades, the provision for deaf pupils at Laycock has become a centre of excellence for oral deaf education. Local authorities from across London and the home counties send deaf pupils there. Laycock’s pupils go on to live life well through all sorts of paths – paths that include mainstream and specialist secondary, jobs, apprenticeships, universities, deaf clubs, deaf football, meaningful relationships, the lot.

I know many former Laycock pupils who are adults now. This school gave them a chance to thrive, not just survive, and to be proud of being deaf people in a hearing world. Laycock’s deaf provision is a genuine, award-winning success story. We don’t have enough of those as it is. And it’s now under threat.

Parents of deaf pupils who attend Laycock have reported that many of the deaf provision’s specialist teaching staff are now at risk of redundancy, including some of the provision’s most experienced teachers of the deaf, and several experienced higher-level teaching assistants (HLTA).

Deaf pupils at Laycock can currently attend both mainstream and unit lessons, according to need. But parents have been told that older pupils who attend the deaf provision will be increasingly integrated into mainstream classes, particularly in the afternoon. Parents report that this will happen regardless of individual need. Neither the council nor the school have denied this is happening.

So why is it happening?

As ever, the immediate issues are financial. As ever, that’s largely a smokescreen for deep-rooted SEND organisational rot.

The finances

Financial reporting indicates that at the end of March, Laycock Primary School had a deficit of just under £200,000. It’s not clear why Laycock’s deficit exists. In particular, it’s not clear whether the costs of running Laycock’s deaf provision have outstripped the school’s budget, or whether the school’s deficit has built up for reasons that have nothing to do with deaf provision. But either way, the school’s deficit isn’t unusual. Most local primary schools to Laycock incurred an in-year deficit last year.

Most of the money that funds Laycock’s deaf provision comes from high-needs funding pots that are doled out by local authorities – particularly by Laycock’s home LA, Islington.

A few months ago, I asked Islington about the ‘top-up’ high needs funding arrangements that sustain schools like Laycock. Islington refused to answer, claiming commercial confidentiality. It’s not obvious what commercial confidentiality would apply to routine LA funding of a mainstream community primary. But if Laycock’s high-needs funding followed the national norm, then their deaf unit will have seen little or no increase to per-pupil funding in recent years.

Unlike most LAs, Islington’s high-needs financial position is good. According to their own figures, Islington have run a comfortable surplus for the last two years, they’re not predicting a deficit this year, and they expect to run a surplus in 2023-24. That surplus will be even more comfortable when Islington’s share of a £400m boost to high-needs funding kicks in.

Islington LA clearly wants to make Laycock’s deficit Laycock’s problem to deal with. But Islington has more than £5 million pounds of non-delegated school funding in reserve. And this is a council that clearly feels it has money to burn: published payments data indicates that their SEN cost centre has spent somewhere north of £160,000 in the last year on consultants, agencies, and the occasional barrister.

What’s the impact of deaf pupils?

Specialist support isn’t a bolt-on luxury – it’s vital for many deaf pupils, and particularly for those at schools like Laycock. Islington’s own brand-new SEND Strategy states that mainstream SEN resource bases and units must become a more a vital part of their local offer.

Given the strategic and financial position, it’s hard to understand why Laycock’s deaf provision is on the chopping block right now. So what’s likely to happen if the intended cuts go ahead?

Kids aren’t dessicated learning units. It’s possible that some pupils might cope with the proposed changes – although just “coping” is not an ambition anyone should have for a child with SEND. It’s even possible that one or two might thrive.

It’s far more likely that less specialist support and all-mainstream sessions will make school more exhausting for all Laycock’s deaf pupils, affecting life both within and outside the school day. It’s far more likely that many pupils will struggle to access the curriculum effectively. It’s far more likely that deaf pupils with other types of SEN or disability will find mainstream placements untenable. It’s far more likely that pupils’ long-term life chances will be deeply compromised. It’s far more likely that their mental health will suffer.

And let’s be frank - it’s very, very unlikely that decision-makers are unaware of these risks.

What other deaf provision is out there locally? Very little, and none at all that can do the same job as Laycock’s deaf provision does, at lower cost. There are other mainstream deaf units in London, but they are full. The hundreds of millions of pounds of SEND capital funding that government has doled out to councils since 2019 has barely touched the world of deaf education. Special schools for the deaf are few and far between - but they exist, and most offer excellent education.

However, for LAs affected by the cuts to Laycock, this option will be less attractive than Ebola. It would take only a handful of pupils moving to special schools to wipe out any financial gains that LAs might hope to make from cutting provision at Laycock – and it wouldn’t take many more movements to leave LAs further in the red.

Decision-making oversight?

Who else ought to be in the decision-making mix? In the summer, the Department for Education (DfE) set up a Regions Group. Part of their job is to “lead system regulation, holding local authorities and multi-academy trusts to account for local delivery.”

This includes SEND – but thus far, the Regional Directors have been invisible. It’s unclear whether the DfE Regional Director for London is involved in the Laycock decision, which would have regional implications. It’s pretty clear that she ought to be.

It's also very hard to reconcile what’s being proposed at Laycock with the aims of the DfE’s SEND and AP Green Paper.

One of the better parts of the Green Paper was a proposal to encourage more regional commissioning of SEND provision for complex, low-incidence needs. Deafness is a low-incidence disability; the provision that Laycock currently offers is a great example of how this approach can work in practice.

But nothing will be coming out of the long-delayed Green Paper in a time frame that will affect decision-making about Laycock’s deaf provision. It’s easy to pretend that these delays have no impact, and to say that taking the time to get it right matters more. Tell that to Laycock’s families.

What can parents do to stop the cuts to Laycock?

So if no-one in a position of official authority or influence is willing or able to stop the cuts to deaf provision at Laycock, what can be done?

Assuming that none of the arguments above cut any ice with SEND system leaders – and we’re under no illusion that they will – then families have no palatable choices. They either suck it up, with a strong likelihood that their kids’ life chances will suffer. Or they look to the laaw (and this 2018 post from Steve Broach may be of use.

Pupils who attend Laycock’s deaf provision have an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP). If the pupils’ plans have been written properly, then they will specifically state what quality and quantity of SEND provision their child must receive. The local authorities that send pupils to Laycock’s deaf unit are responsible for securing this provision under relevant parts of section 42 of the Children & Families Act 2014.

Laycock’s parents – who know the contents of their kids’ plans – say that LAs will not be able to secure provision in these EHCPs if the proposed cuts to the deaf provision go ahead.

If that’s the case, then judicial review would probably be an option – and this is a pathway that, at the level of individual SEND cases, has a success rate of over 91%. The near-total lack of public consultation about the proposed changes at Laycock would probably also be of interest to enterprising lawyers too.

If cuts go ahead, what then for children?

If the cuts cannot be stopped, then parents might either suck it up, or they might feel fored to consider other placements where their child’s provision can be met in full – most likely special schools for the deaf. The cheapest suitable local option comes in at around £32,000, but it probably won’t be able to take more than a handful of pupils, with additional transport costs highly likely.

The other alternative is a non-maintained residential special school for the deaf in the South East – with a newly-expanded and modernised primary provision, and a decades-long track record of rescuing deaf children from the consequences of local authority fuck-ups – my own kids included. But this doesn’t come cheap - and for Laycock families, it would almost certainly require their kids to board, or for the whole family to uproot themselves.

If parents request a change to a more expensive suitable placement because Laycock can no longer deliver, it is highly likely that LAs will refuse. This would leave parents in the position, again, of either sucking it up – or of appealing to the SEND First Tier Tribunal. In the last academic year, parents of deaf children were successful in 97% of appeals that reached a full hearing.

These are grim choices. I know exactly how grim, as something very similar happened to my kids only a few years ago.

And if parents choose any option other than sucking it up – parents who, let’s remember, are content with the provision at Laycock as it is – they will be painted as adversarial. But the people who made the original decisions to change the status quo? The people who won’t have to directly experience the consequences of the decisions they made? The people who informed experienced, highly capable staff that they’re at risk of redundancy, and informed them just before Christmas? Those people? They won’t be painted as adversarial.

Deaf children’s future jeopordised— and that’ll cost LAs more in the long run

The situation that’s unfolding at Laycock will corrode the life chances of deaf children. The proposed changes would fatally weaken a bastion of deaf education. This, in turn, would undermine already-fragile deaf communities and deaf identities. It would deal a blow to a cadre of vital specialist staff who have been largely ignored by government for well over a decade.

I don’t expect SEND system leaders to care about that. Their actions and inactions to date show them for what they are. Given a choice between absorbing risk corporately and pushing that risk down to families and frontline professionals, they will usually choose the latter.

But knowing what these leaders value, I do expect them to care that the proposed changes at Laycock will ultimately result in greater long-term expense to the public purse. I do expect them, after three years of chin-stroking over what drives SEND dysfunction, to realise that it would be counterproductive to save a few thousand pounds now at the cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds more, further down the line.

And ultimately, we should all expect that these leaders take basic steps to avoid an entirely avoidable situation. The choice is theirs. For now.

You can find a petition about the proposed cuts to Laycock here

You can also sign an open letter asking government to do something about falling numbers of teachers of the deaf here.

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Matt Keer

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