Children with special educational needs being ‘denied an education' due to funding crisis

ITV News Social Affairs Correspondent Sarah Corker reports on the growing financial black hole faced by English councils and how it is leaving children with special educational needs without the help they need

Parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) have told ITV News that they "feel completely let down" and "gaslighted by a broken system that’s weighted against them".

Extreme financial pressure on cash-strapped councils means some pupils with additional needs are being denied vital help.

A joint investigation by ITV News and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) reveals the true scale of the SEND funding crisis; the financial black hole facing councils in England has exceeded £1 billion.

New data also shows that thousands of vulnerable children are travelling hundreds of miles to get to school, while others are not getting any education at all.

Sophia's story

For 14 months, Sophia Jaques from Leeds was effectively locked out of the education system as her mainstream primary school could not meet her needs.

At the age of eight, she was diagnosed with pathological demand avoidance (PDA), a profile on the autism spectrum.

As time went on, she became increasingly distressed at school and the meltdowns at home more severe.

"She was in such an extreme state of anxiety and upset every morning, unable to go to school, not wanting to be autistic," her mother Leanne Jaques said.

"It just got to the point where I could not put her through that anymore."

Ms Jaques eventually gave up her job as a teacher to care of her daughter. The family had a "real fight" to get the council to agree that Sophia could take up a place at an independent school with a dedicated autism resource.

Just weeks before a tribunal hearing in court, the local authority conceded.

Such is the shortage of special needs provision, the family described getting the placement as like "winning the lottery" and "life changing" for Sophia, who is now 11.

There are trade-offs though.

The pair have to travel hundreds of miles every week to and from school, as there is no suitable provision in their local authority area.

Drawing on her own experience, Ms Jaques has set up a community interest company to support other families navigating a system they say often feels weighted against them.

“You get a lot of parent blaming - because they don’t see it (the distressed behaviour) in school, they think it’s something going on at home. That’s just heart breaking when families are crying out for help,” she said.

What does the data tell us?

This is a pattern being repeated up and down the country, according to Freedom of Information Requests to local authorities in England by TBIJ.

  • At least 43,000 children with special needs are in schools outside of their local area, while nearly a third are travelling long distances in private taxis on their own.

  • More than 100 children were placed in excess of 200 miles from where they live. The furthest distance between a child’s home local authority and their school is around 650 miles from Tameside to the Shetland Islands.

  • These journeys generate a huge expense for the councils and are exacerbating the funding crisis.

  • The SEND deficit for councils in England hit £1.3 billion in March, an increase of more than £450 million in a single year.

  • Evidence suggests some councils including Derby, Bury, York, Hillingdon, Merton and Kingston, are attempting to cut costs by introducing measures that could make it more difficult for children to get support, or to reduce or remove the help they now receive.

Sam's story

Julie Rae from East Sussex has been locked in a constant battle with her local authority for years to get the right level of support for her son Sam.

Sam was diagnosed with autism with a PDA profile, ADHD and severe anxiety at seven. By the age of 11, going to a mainstream secondary school had become too traumatic; he’d spend the entire day with his head buried in his hands on a desk, unable to cope.

“He’d become very distressed. He’d be crying, he’d be screaming, he’d be hitting himself because he couldn’t physically get into school. His mental health really deteriorated,” Ms Rae said.

Sam has been out of education for six months, and his learning, for now, is watching science videos online.

He has dreams of becoming an astrophysicist and working for NASA. Ms Rae told ITV News that there is a place at an independent school for pupils with autism or dyslexia where Sam could thrive and achieve those ambitions - but says the council won’t pay for it.

Sam Rae was diagnosed with autism with a PDA profile, ADHD and severe anxiety at 7 Credit: ITV

She believes schooling decisions are being made based not on what is best for Sam and other children, but on what is deemed as best "value for money".

The council, which initially argued Sam did not have learning difficulties at all, concluded in an assessment that his needs could be met by mainstream education.

Twenty-one councils already reject one in every three assessment requests.

Some, including Julie’s local authority, East Sussex, turn down almost half.

Ms Rae is appealing that decision at tribunal. As a single mum, that’s a process that is costing her thousands of pounds and pushing her into debt.

What is the response from councils?

An East Sussex County Council spokesperson said: “We are unable to comment on individual cases.

“Mainstream schools are well-equipped to support children and young people with a large range of SEND and are able to access additional support for individual children where this is required.”

The government’s SEND Review is currently out for public consultation.

An extra £2.6 billion will help to create much needed new special school places over the next three years.

But reforms could take years, and many councils say they are already in an impossible situation.

When asked why some councils are making it harder for pupils to get vital support, the Local Government Association told ITV News that "no council will be wanting to raise thresholds, but the extreme financial pressure is probably meaning some are making decisions for reasons they may not necessarily choose to".