For many children, the Easter holidays are in full swing. But spare a thought for the more than 4,000 children who have learning disabilities. They won’t be taking a break from school: they’re stuck at home for the long-term, as no local schools can take them.
The number of children with special educational needs in England without a school place has more than doubled from 1,710 in 2016 to 4,050 in 2017. The government argues the budget is protected, but councils point out that it doesn’t take into account inflation or increased need. Local authorities are allocated funds to spend on special needs in both mainstream and specialist schools: many have asked that they be allowed to transfer cash from the main budget to the specialist budget to increase the provision for children currently stuck at home without a place.
Parents have told me of the battle to gain a diagnosis for their children, who are often written off by teachers as troublesome and disruptive, especially in the case of autism. Once they do secure a diagnosis and a statement of needs, they spend just as long attempting to have the provisions their statement requires put in place. Schools are overworked and underfunded, with teachers reporting that entrenched poverty is causing huge problems, and education budgets are failing to stretch to cover basics such as glue and paper. Is it any surprise children with more complex needs are forgotten, when even the bare bones of the curriculum are proving a struggle for overworked, underfunded teachers?
And even those struggling teachers might not be around for long: four-fifths have considered quitting the profession in the past year alone, according to a survey by the National Education Union. Heavy workloads were cited as a major factor, with 40% of teachers working 21 hours or more at home and at weekends in addition to classroom time. Respondents said the strain had affected their marriages and friendships. Who would choose to enter a profession in crisis that offers so little reward for such high stress?
The academisation of schools under New Labour helped the Conservatives bring free schools into being. They said the new model would allow enthused parents to open schools. Instead, most free schools and academies are run by large chains that can outsource their IT facilities, cleaning services and other non-teaching jobs. This slow process of privatisation is lauded as decentralisation, but gives local authorities even less control over education, with the disastrous results that we see.
What can schools do when money is so tight? Some have resorted to renting out buildings, trying to provide extra services which they can charge for, or even hiring out buildings for weddings. The government will say this shows initiative, and “innovative thinking”. I say it is desperation from institutions that should be allowed to focus on their core mission of education, instead of constantly having to focus on balancing the books and counting pennies.
For children with special educational needs to receive the help they need to thrive in education, councils need targeted funding that properly addresses the costs of including children in mainstream classrooms with support, or creating space in specialist schools. But they also need teachers who aren’t so stressed and overworked they can barely complete the standard paperwork that is currently required of them. Exceptional teaching requires more time and space for teachers to address the differing needs of a classroom, with assistance in staffing and funding. Most parents I know are frustrated by the way their schools are forced to work, yet accept that it isn’t the fault of teachers, who are in an impossible position.
In the meantime, families muddle through, with children stuck at home, denied a basic right to a good education, and their parents either forced to take time off work to provide what the state cannot, or forced to impoverish themselves further by turning to tutors. And pity those children: written off, robbed of the social aspect of their schooling, convinced from an early age that the fact they need more assistance renders them too difficult to engage with. This should be a source of national shame.
There have been many alarms sounded by teachers at their conference this week. They have talked of malnourished pupils, burgeoning workloads, declining capacity. All these things are born of an ideology that has pleased politicians but has robbed schools of the ability to truly fulfil their social responsibilities. Ask a teacher. They would like to have that back.
• Dawn Foster is a Guardian columnist