SEND cuts campaigners in London tell their council: See you in (the High) Court

With Ken Barlow, Waltham Forest SEND Crisis

Parents being forced to throw themselves into the legal system in order to secure basic rights for their disabled children is a sad reflection of just how broken the system is right now. As depressing as it may seem, I do believe it is something that we as a community should show our support for. These parents, alongside all of their regular caring responsibilities, are taking on David versus Goliath level battles on behalf of all of us. If they didn't, how else would those in charge of making (illegal or unethical) decisions ever actually be held to account?

Today we're hearing from Ken Barlow, parent to two boys, one on the autistic spectrum. Ken reports on how two families are taking Waltham Forest Council to court over its cuts to Education Health and Care plan (EHCP) funding. The outcome of this court case will affect hundreds of children in the borough, but could have implications for many thousands more in other areas depending on the ruling of the Judge.

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Taking Waltham Forest Council to the High Court over brutal cuts to SEND funding by Ken Barlow

On July 29 and 30, a High Court judge will rule on whether Waltham Forest Council’s brutal cuts to EHCP banding are lawful. On this decision rests the educational future of hundreds of children and the financial health of the most inclusive schools in the borough. In short, the stakes could not be higher.

The case will be heard as a two-day, ‘rolled-up’ hearing. This speeded-up procedure is an acknowledgment by the court that this is a matter of the utmost urgency – the changes are due to come into effect in September – and that a full hearing should be listed as swiftly as possible, rather than following the usual two-stage process of first considering whether to grant permission to go to judicial review. One welcome side effect of the pandemic is that the hearing will take place via Skype for Business, meaning members of the public will be able to attend remotely.

SEND families unite

The case is being brought by legal firm Irwin Mitchell on behalf of two local families who have struggled to get the support their children need. Sadly, similar challenges in securing funding and educational support are faced by many in the borough. It is for exactly this reason that, confronted with cuts to services already pared down to the bone, Waltham Forest SEND Crisis was born. Ours is a grassroots organisation whose origin can be traced back to February 2018, when a handful of exasperated parents met in my front room to listen to representatives from Hackney SEND Crisis, as well as lawyer Steve Broach – well known to Special Needs Jungle – on mobile speakerphone. Hearing it was possible to change things, that the status quo didn’t have to stand, was inspiring.  

Since them we have grown in numbers, buoyed by the growing national SEND Crisis movement. We now consist of some 350 local parents and supporters committed to fighting for the support our children need and deserve. Each of the actions we have initiated – from petitions to crowdfunding to demonstrations outside the town hall – has both raised the profile of the campaign and brought us closer as a group. 

This court case is the culmination (or rather, latest chapter) of many months of gruelling, sometimes dispiriting, but ultimately worthwhile and necessary campaigning. Win or lose, the immediate prize is implicit in the very word ‘hearing’. Regardless of the outcome, this is an opportunity for these two families – and by extension, the scores of families that find themselves in similar circumstances – to make their voices heard.

Cuts, cuts and more cuts

We believe that Waltham Forest Council’s proposed cuts to SEND educational funding – which include 10% cuts to top-up funding for the majority of children with EHCPs in mainstream settings – will, if allowed to come into effect, have a potentially devastating financial impact on schools in the borough. The consequences will be felt not just by children with additional needs, but all children.

Moreover, the decision to implement cuts was arrived at through a protracted, confusing and ill-conceived consultation that we believe was conducted with the sole intention of balancing the Council’s budget, rather than taking as its jumping-off point the actual needs of children. All this comes amid a context of brutal cuts to other services affecting SEND children and their families (including early years intervention, portage, and hospital and home teaching); ongoing issues regarding non-specific and unquantified EHCPs (thereby denying families the legal protection and enforceability such plans are supposed to provide); EHCPs attached to inadequate levels of funding; delayed or non-existent annual reviews; and a chronic shortfall in the provision of occupational therapy and speech therapy.

Essentially, we are faced with a situation where children with complex needs will be forced out of mainstream schools and sent to special schools. However, these special schools themselves have capped numbers and reduced funding. This is a recipe for widespread school exclusion and the institutional neglect of some of the most vulnerable children in Waltham Forest.

The spark that lit the fuse

When, two years ago, the Waltham Forest SEND Crisis campaign took its first faltering steps, we encountered resignation amongst many parents. ‘There’s no point complaining,’ we were told. ‘They won’t listen. Things won’t change.’ In many ways, such fatalism is unsurprising – the last thing a parent of a child with additional needs wants to do is waste what little time they have talking to a brick wall.

When the initial consultation on cuts to banding levels began, its outreach was perfunctory, with rumours rife that the proposed cuts were a ‘done deal’ and that the Council was working on the assumption that ‘no one would make a fuss’. Many schools appeared to regard the outcome as a foregone conclusion, and were planning for a reduced budget as a consequence – a situation exacerbated by the fact that the cuts were slated to come into effect during, rather than at the end, of the school year. 

If Waltham Forest Council were relying on ground-down parents to acquiesce without a fight, however, they were sadly mistaken. Instead, it was the proposed cuts – and the perceived contempt shown to parents in the consultation – that ignited the fire of resistance. The consultation was extended multiple times as the Council scrabbled to dampen blowback it had little anticipated.

The initial proposals, which involved a swingeing 40% cut to one of the key banding levels, were shelved in favour of lower, but more widespread, cuts. The date for implementation of the new banding levels was pushed back to the start of the following school year. Meanwhile, local awareness of the issues at stake has increased exponentially thanks to local newspaper coverage, social media engagement, an open letter to the Leader of the Council signed by almost 2,000 people, and a successful crowdfunding campaign that enabled the two families involved to bring their case. Regardless of the judge’s decision, we can take heart from considerable impact the campaign has had to date. Perhaps even more importantly, our campaign can offer hope to other parents across the country involved in similar campaigns, just as we took inspiration from (amongst others) Hackney SEND Crisis.

Every ending is a new beginning

Our belief is that you should judge a society on the way it treats the most vulnerable. Taking away our children’s access to vital treatment, support and education risks destroying their lives and those of their families. To those parents now part of the Waltham Forest SEND Crisis campaign, the discovery that a local authority can and would be willing to deny the support a child desperately needs and is entitled to by law has come as a shocking wake-up call.

Crucially, this is not simply about children with additional needs. By stripping away teaching assistants (an inevitable result of funding cuts) and allowing children with special needs and disability to go unsupported in our classrooms, the learning of all children will be jeopardised. Sadly, this is not a lesson that Waltham Forest Council appears to have taken to heart. It has recently conducted a consultation on a new banding framework to be applied to families entering the EHCP system from September, with proposed funding levels that fall grossly short of the need to which they are attached. The fight goes on…

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About Ken

Ken Barlow

Ken Barlow lives in Walthamstow and is father of two boys, the youngest of which is on the autistic spectrum. He is one of the founders of Waltham Forest SEND Crisis (Facebook: Waltham Forest SEND Crisis; Twitter: @SENDCrisisWF)

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