What’s been said?
On 12 February, Sir Vince Cable MP introduced a Westminster Hall debate on Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Funding. Debates in this venue do not propose legislation; rather they provide opportunity for MPs to highlight matters which concern them. Given the increasing number of families who are turning to home education because schools are unable to provide a suitable education for their SEND children, it was inevitable that HE would feature in the debate.
It is worth noting first though that some very helpful facts were highlighted about the current strain on SEND provision. In his opening speech Cable stated that the SEN system now caters for “about 1.2 million people” which is “up by about 0.5 million since 2014.” (It is unclear whether these are figures for England or the whole of the UK.)
Later he rhetorically asked why there are problems with the system, and why there has been rapid growth in demand. In his answers he identified the 2014 Act which had extended entitlement from 18 to 25, which was “a progressive step, but nobody thought about how it would be paid for.” He also cited medical advances which have reduced mortality around the time of birth, along with “more successful early intervention and diagnosis,” all increasing demand.
In contrast, he pointed to the reduction of funding for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services and arrangements by which schools have to meet a significant part of the additional costs of provision for children with behavioural problems.
Comments on HE were mixed in tone. Cable had only just begun his speech when Dr David Drew (Lab/Co-op, Stroud) interjected, highlighting the increasing number of parents of SEND children turning to HE and concluding, “That cannot be a good thing.” Cable’s response was to agree that HE “may be inferior.”
Justin Madders (Lab, Ellesmere Port and Neston) was more understanding, acknowledging that the number of SEND children without a school place has increased from 776 in 2010 to 4,050 today. Recognising that off-rolling is taking place, he asked, “Are parents being forced down that route because they have no real choice?”
Luke Pollard (Lab/Co-op, Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) also recognised that the struggles with SEND support is driving more parents to opt for HE.
Replying for the Government, Anne Milton Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, agreed that unmet needs are a significant cause of the increasing percentage of SEND children being taught at home. Cable’s final contribution on the topic was to thank the Minister for accepting that the rise in HE was obscuring the size of the problem with unmet SEND needs.
Most speakers in this debate acknowledged that SEND provision is now high on the list of reasons why their constituents contact them. For one speaker, however, these issues have had a greater impact. Sir Edward Davey (LibDem, Kingston and Surbiton) gave the Minister a list of four recommendations he would like to see implemented.
He then added, “I speak not only from the experience of looking after my constituents and their children, but as the father of a special needs child who has attended two special schools, and who we now educate at home.” [Emphasis added] His son John, born in 2007, was reported in 2015 as being unable to walk or talk and at the time his father said, “No one will write off my disabled son.” It is good to know that amongst MPs there is at least one parent who understands why more and more families are choosing to home educate.
Why does it matter?
The quickly rising number of HE children has frequently been reported to alarm wider society but the tide is turning, as we noted recently. Despite the Children’s Commissioner’s intervention, attention is being given to the factors driving that increase, along with a recognition that more and more parents are refugees fleeing a failing state education system.
It is good therefore to see politicians debating the needs of many families who are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with what the state is able to provide. One word of caution though – this debate was about funding. There are other important issues which need addressing if the government is to improve its SEND provisions and the way it treats families whose children struggle to fit into schools.
Secondly, Cable is the leader of the LibDems, the party which last year adopted a policy calling for the national curriculum to be imposed on all home educating families, and for compulsory registration and monitoring of all children who are being educated outside a registered school. Four of the speakers in this debate, including Davey, are members of that party. One of them, Layla Moran, stated after the policy was agreed that she believed it could be removed “during the next conference.” It wasn’t.
What can I do?
If you are a parent who has chosen to educate your child at home because schools have been unable to meet their educational needs, contact your MP to follow up on this debate. If your MP took part in it, that is even more reason to write to them, or meet with them. Press them not only for better funding, but for a more constructive response from the system when children really cannot cope in school.
Additionally, if your MP is a LibDem, whether or not they spoke in this debate, remind them of the need to change the policy they adopted last year. Their next conference takes place in York, from 15-17 March. They need to be pressed to submit an amendment calling for the policy be dropped out of respect for parental responsibilities. After all, their roots are in old-fashioned liberalism.