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'Sit up and listen' - March for vulnerable children amid special needs 'crisis'

PUBLISHED: 07:30 11 May 2019 | UPDATED: 15:09 13 May 2019

Councillor Jack Abbott, Labour spokesman for education, is supporting the protest  Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Councillor Jack Abbott, Labour spokesman for education, is supporting the protest Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Archant

Parents and carers from across the county are set to march along the streets of Ipswich to call for urgent improvements to Suffolk's failing special needs service.

Co-organiser Dr Annie Clements, who founded Suffolk-based support service Autism and ADHD Picture: ANNIE CLEMENTSCo-organiser Dr Annie Clements, who founded Suffolk-based support service Autism and ADHD Picture: ANNIE CLEMENTS

The march, which is part of a national movement to secure better support for children with special needs and disabilities (SEND), will follow a route from Endeavour House, home of Suffolk County Council (SCC), to Christchurch Park on Thursday, May 30 - with protestors set to gather from 10.15am.

It has been described by organisers as a "peaceful protest" that aims to highlight the struggle faced by vulnerable young people amid cuts to key services across the county.

One of the organisers Hannah Kent, whose seven-year-old daughter has special needs, said she was extremely concerned "no one seems to be doing anything" to help families in crisis.

The 36-year-old claimed she had to "fight the council" to get appropriate support for her child, suffering "many sleepless nights" as she read up on the law to ensure she knew her rights.

Parents and carers across the region recently launched an urgent plea to fix the failing special needs system Picture: ARCHANTParents and carers across the region recently launched an urgent plea to fix the failing special needs system Picture: ARCHANT

"There are an awful lot of parents not in a position to do that," she said.

"Who is fighting for them? That is what really, really worries me."

Mrs Kent said the march was about raising awareness of the system's failings, especially among those who "can't comprehend that this world exists".

She claimed the council's decisions are "all about money", with a lack of early intervention allowing cases to spiral out of control.

The march will pass through the Ipswich Cornhill Picture PAUL GEATERThe march will pass through the Ipswich Cornhill Picture PAUL GEATER

As a result, parents are often left with nowhere to turn.

"They are not listening to the parents - the ones who have got the insight into how they can improve their system," she said.

"I have tried to express some of my concerns to the council - they just palm you off. It was just passed back to someone else.

"We have got no ability to speak to management. It is not for want of trying.

"I hope that we get a good turnout because I want them to sit up and listen."

'It will be parents' voices that shift change'

Co-organiser Dr Annie Clements, who founded Suffolk-based support service Autism & ADHD in 2013, said she was keen for the march to bring families together.

"There are a lot of parents that are now saying enough already - we cannot carry on like this," she said.

"They feel that they are not being listened to. This is an opportunity to allow those parents to think: 'Actually, we can all come together and make something happen here.'

"We are here to give families a voice."

Dr Clements, who has a grown up son with severe autism, added: "Families are dealing with the same issues I was 25 years ago.

"We have always had times when social care has wobbled and health has wobbled, but when all three go down - that's when you start to see a real problem.

"We have got a generation of children who are being failed. It is like a perfect storm, I think that is what makes it feel so scary."

Dr Clements said the impact on vulnerable children often "ripples out" - affecting families, teachers and support staff alike.

"Schools are being asked to provide more and more but they have not had the money to support them," she said.

"We have got schools having to make teaching assistants redundant - we have got some schools where there is one teaching assistant working across two or three classes. This affects the emotional wellbeing of staff.

"Families are really struggling to hold it together. It's really quite upsetting for us to see that."

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She said a shortage of funding from central government had contributed to the problem, with new policies often failing to make substantial change.

"The change is not happening fast enough," she said.

"It has felt a bit like putting sticky plasters on things. There is motivation for it to change but there needs to be money coming from central government as well.

"I don't think we have ever seen the likes of this. It is a struggle for everybody and that is very sad for us to see.

"No one is choosing to be in this situation. It is stuff that is happening to them rather than stuff that they have done."

While Autism and ADHD used to deal predominantly with home-based issues, Dr Clements said 85% of cases are now related to problems within the education system.

She encouraged all affected families to come along to the protest, even if it is only for part of the march, or to meet other like-minded people afterwards.

"It will be parents' voices that will shift change," she said.

"They are a very powerful group of people - maybe they don't realise that they are.

"I am really hoping that we get a good turnout. It's about feeling empowered."

'Enough is enough'

Jack Abbott, SCC's Labour spokesman for children's services, education and skills, is supporting the protest.

He said: "It is no secret that Suffolk's SEND provision is in crisis with hundreds of families being failed by the system.

"Despite becoming the first authority to fail a SEND revisit, little has changed at Suffolk County Council, so it is of huge credit to these families who are saying, 'enough is enough'.

"I hope that those in power, both locally and nationally, will finally listen to these families and give them the support they desperately need."

A spokesman for Suffolk County Council and the East & West Suffolk CCGs said: "People have a democratic right to protest as long as they do it in a lawful and responsible way."

A Department for Education spokeswoman added: "We have increased spending on high needs from £5billion in 2013 to £6.3billion this year but we recognise the challenges facing local authorities and in December provided an extra £250million up to 2020 to help them manage high needs cost pressures. We have also provided councils with an extra £100million funding to create more SEND places in mainstream schools, colleges and special schools.

"Our ambition for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) is exactly the same for every other child - to achieve well in education, go on to college or university, and to live happy and fulfilled lives."

Parents working together

It is not the first time parents and carers have teamed up to call for change. In March, dozens of families across the county shared their harrowing experiences of seeking SEND provision in Suffolk, as the council came under fire for failing to take urgent action.

Their faces were splashed across the front page of the EADT, united by the message: "We must be heard".

And in April, a campaign was launched calling for Suffolk's under-threat children's centres to be spared from closure.

What's next for Suffolk's SEN service?

Earlier this month it was announced education bosses had "no plans to use intervention powers" in Suffolk, despite the SEND service becoming the first of its kind in the country to fail a re-inspection by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission.

It meant that the Department for Education (DfE) and NHS England got involved, but, following a first meeting in London on April 29, the DfE said it did not plan to formally intervene as the service had an action plan in place that should ensure rapid improvements. A full action plan is to be published and a follow up meeting organised in the next six months, most likely in September.

The failure came as a blow to council bosses, who came under fire last year when it was revealed SCC was facing an 18% increase in demand for SEND places.

It prompted a task force to be formed, which came back with a £45m plan to create 828 new specialist places at both new and existing schools.

Meanwhile, figures published by the National Executive Union (NEU) in April suggested that 93% of all education authorities in the country had lost out on SEND cash - with Suffolk short by £2.1m since 2015.

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