Interview - Gillian Doherty, founder of SEND Action Campaign Group
Monday, July 8, 2019
SEND Action has recently demonstrated outside the Royal Courts of Justice to support families making a legal challenge to the Government’s approach to SEND funding
THE LEGAL CASE AGAINST THE GOVERNMENT’S APPROACH TO SEND FUNDING WAS HEARD IN THE HIGH COURT LAST MONTH. WHAT WAS THE OUTCOME?
We are still waiting for the judgment to be handed down. Our legal challenge was to the decision-making processes rather than funding levels. During the hearing we presented extensive evidence from schools, disability charities, local authorities and many others outlining the high-needs funding shortfall and the negative impact on children with special education needs and disabilities. Some of the key evidence was from the Department for Education, which is remarkable given the Secretary of State for Education was a defendant.
The defendants’ barrister acknowledged there are concerns about education funding and SEND funding in particular and that there was a pool of young people with SEND who had not been budgeted for in the 2014 reforms. Regardless of the outcome, it was clearly established that there is a problem with high-needs funding. This needs to be addressed urgently and we will continue to campaign for more funding in the run-up to the spending review.
WHY DID YOU SET UP SEND ACTION?
I saw first-hand the difficulty of accessing support. My son Jack has Down syndrome, but when his nursery applied for early years funding for additional support it had already run out. They then began the process of applying for an Education, Health And Care (EHC) plan. Legally this should have taken a maximum of 20 weeks, but in fact took almost a year and a half. When the plan arrived, it did not mention a teaching assistant or specialist teacher and had allocated only eight hours of speech and language support per year.
We had to go to Tribunal and represent ourselves against the local authority legal team. It was an incredibly stressful process, but we won and were able to access the support our son needed. The local government ombudsman has since found the local authority was at fault.
I became aware that such unlawful behaviour was widespread and was being exacerbated by the funding crisis. Most local authorities were struggling, unable to meet their statutory responsibilities despite racking up huge overspends in their high-needs blocks. Thousands of disabled children were receiving no education at all and many thousands more were not receiving the support they needed. Our group joined forces with campaign groups in other areas and SEND Action was born.
WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO ACHIEVE?
This is a human rights issue. Disabled children’s legal rights are currently being undermined, often by those who are supposed to act in their best interests, due to a combination of underfunding and lack of accountability. We want to ensure that all children with special educational needs and disabilities are able to access the support to which they are legally entitled. We want to see imaginative inclusive practice being promoted through national education policy and fully supported with adequate funding and specialist support. We want children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities to be genuinely at the heart and soul of decision-making, so that they can thrive and fulfil their potential.
HAS IT BECOME MORE DIFFICULT FOR A CHILD WITH SEND TO ACCESS CHILDCARE OR A SCHOOL PLACE?
Yes. Both off-rolling and lawful exclusions are on the rise. Children with SEND are six times more likely to be excluded than children without SEND.
The decision from the court is expected in September.