With Rachel Filmer, SEND Parent
You are unlikely to have missed the furore over the abhorrent comments by the Tory councillors in Warwickshire last week. We shared our disgust on social media along with many other parents. The council has launched an investigation and the councillors have apologised over their “choice of words”, but not the sentiment. But it seems they have embraced the callousness of speak-first-think-later (or not at all) that has become prevalent since Trump and Johnson came to power. It’s like some sections of society have flung open Pandora’s Box allowing the curses of compassionless intolerance and hatred to thrive in public life and beyond.
Parents of children with SEND, especially those in Warwickshire, have understandably protested and complained, but we believe their opinions are replicated across the country. Rachel Filmer is the parent of disabled twins who are autistic and non-verbal, one has visual impairment along with other medical issues. Despite her obviously busy life, she was moved to write her views for us on the issue. Rachel says it’s indicative of the pervasive issue of parental blame and resentment towards funding our disabled children.
Warwickshire councillors reveal growing resentment of disabled children by Rachel Filmer, SEND parent
“Is there something in the water?” Cllr Hammersley asked in a recent Warwickshire County Council scrutiny meeting. The meeting was not about environmental concerns, but rather the “bottomless pit” of spending on one of our most vulnerable groups: disabled children.
The comments that followed, from Hammersley and others, were brazen and alarming. He asserted that special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) weren’t an issue when he was school. Attempts to explain that children with SEND were historically institutionalised were taken as a potential solution: “They must have had better ways of dealing with them at that time. Let’s go back to some of those ways.” Hammersley seems unaware that disabled children and adults are all different and that those with the most significant needs are still subject to some of those abusive and terrifying “old ways”.
Stop the intolerance!
The “old ways” are not so far off, after all. Following public pressure, Bristol recently u-turned on plans to place disabled adults with high care costs into nursing homes, and similar policies in other local authorities have been implemented in the last five years. This warehousing of disabled people, solely due to the cost of providing care at home, damages physical and mental health and their long-term prospects. Somehow, in 2024, the concept of institutionalising disabled people is disturbingly prevalent in our local authorities.
Other councillors, sensing an opportunity, chimed in. Cllr Morgan claimed, “It can’t be the case that, just because demand is increasing, there is a genuine need”. Pondering what could be done differently, despite his evident ignorance of the Education Health & Care Plan (EHCP) process, he suggested “being tougher, asking more penetrating questions, not automatically accepting the plea of a mother saying that little Willie has got ADHD, when in reality little Willie is just really badly behaved and just needs some form of strict correction.” We all know what Morgan means by “strict correction” - restraint and corporal punishment are not only ineffective and dehumanising, but inherently dangerous. Disabled children are already almost four times as likely to experience abuse.
When Morgan asked “Are there any checks and balances on this?”, I heard the hollow laugh of every parent who’s battled through this broken system, where the missing checks and balances are on local authority decision-making, not parents. Nobody claims their child has a disability and gets handed a “golden ticket”, but that’s the narrative perpetuated by politicians and the media.
No, it’s not a parenting issue
Councillor Golby suggested addressing “parenting skills shortages”, as if parents across the country are not already forced onto parenting courses before they can access an assessment for their child. She believes parents are “swapping tips” to “fool” trained medical professionals. She condemns parents “requesting a diagnosis”, despite EHCPs being based on needs, not diagnosis.
With SEND charities and SENDIASS services overrun, it’s not surprising that parents seek support from each other in a system that is complex, bureaucratic and opaque. It’s not to crowdsource a diagnosis for issues that don’t exist, but to try to get the right support for our children who are drowning in a sea of professional indifference. Our support systems are small and fragile. Knowledgeable parent carers are often our only lifeline.
Anyone shocked by these statements hasn’t been paying attention. SEND parents listening to these comments feel a strange mix of rage, exhaustion, fear and even vindication. Increasingly, local and central government resent the burden of our disabled children. We know these comments are made behind closed doors. We are only shocked that our politicians feel increasingly emboldened to express these views in a public forum.
Financial pressures are heightening the poisonous rhetoric
As financial pressures grow, these comments are increasing in both frequency and voracity. Failing children saves money in the immediate SEND budget, and the long-term costs become a problem for another day. Increasingly, other parents view the funding spent on SEND as money taken from their own child’s education, as financial pressures on schools mount up.
The insidious language of parental - usually maternal - blame permeates UK government. Conservative MP Gary Streeter, vice-chair of the f40 school funding campaign group, points the finger at “demand and expectations”. Parents do not have “demands”. Our children have needs, and legal rights. That may seem like semantics, but Cllr Morgan’s comments show the implications of this insidious language.
We want what every parent wants for their child, and what so many take for granted: an accessible education that meets their needs and gives them the chance of achieving the best possible educational outcomes. This is one of the key principles underlying the law on SEND; why are parents being criticised for expecting statutory duties to be met?
Even education secretary Gillian Keegan said last year that parents exploit the “tribunal factor” to get their children into “very expensive independent schools”, creating a “two-tier system”. The fact that 98.3% of LA decisions are overturned at tribunal is stark evidence that disabled children are almost always legally entitled to more than they are given. Having succeeded at tribunal myself, unrepresented against an expensive barrister, I know that the tribunal only upholds the law. The two tiers are parents who have the ability and capacity to appeal, and those who rely on local authorities following the law. If I had to appeal, when my children are non-verbal with substantial delays, what does the system do to children whose needs are less clear but no less vital?
Even those who outwardly support children’s legal rights use language that betrays the same sentiments. “Burden”. “Demand”. “Spiralling costs”. “The SEND problem”. “Parental expectations”. Our children’s potential reduced to troubling figures on a balance sheet. Meeting needs can be costly, but so much of the costs are caused by the failing system. Failing our children costs more overall than meeting their needs, when all costs are considered, but short-term thinking and obfuscation of data fuels the narrative further.
Last month, as a concerned SEND parent and volunteer EHCP advisor, I set up a local campaigning group, BCP Alliance for Children & Schools. We organised a protest against Bournemouth Christchurch & Poole’s proposed entrance into the cost-cutting Safety Valve scheme. More than 2,400 people have signed our petition, and many parents attended our equivalent of this Warwickshire meeting. Several young people and families spoke eloquently of their suffering and trauma within this system. The committee listened, but I am not convinced we were heard.
The councillors of Warwickshire prove that, to improve outcomes for our most vulnerable children, a shift in perspective is needed. Local authorities need to understand the impact of their failures on children and families. True co-production is needed with groups who fully engage with and represent local families. Many parents are abandoning parent carer forums to establish independent campaigning groups, and it’s clear from this and previous incidents that representation within local authorities needs urgent review.
The idea that there is insufficient money is a fallacy. In reality, there is insufficient will. We can afford to invest in our children now, to save more in the future. We should all be demanding this as responsible fiscal policy, even before we consider the human factors and the moral imperative to take care of the most vulnerable in our society. Our children’s futures are at risk when those making critical decisions are this confident in their outdated and dangerous views. We urgently need politicians making these decisions to be educated, informed and compassionate. After all, you never know when that SEND parent, disabled child, or family member is going to be you or someone you love.
Councillors of Warwickshire, you have access to thousands of experts in your county’s SEND system - it’s time to speak less and listen more.
Rachel Filmer is a SEND campaigner and volunteer EHCP advisor in Poole. She has twin boys with non-verbal autism, and works in the NHS as a service user voice lead. She is passionate about SEND law and centring the needs of disabled people.
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- Paula McGowan: We need mandatory autism and learning disability training in education settings to change culture, hearts, and minds
- EHCPs in England in 2023. More plans but only half on time—and more efforts to take them away. Plus our annual LA Hall of Shame
- Is the Government rationing EHC plans?
- Parent-blaming to avoid professional accountability is a human rights issue
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