MP Rob Halfon calls for immediate frontline funding to help repair special educational needs system

  • Watch Elodie Harper's report for ITV News Anglia

The chair of the education select committee has called for immediate funding to clear the backlog in the special educational needs (SEN) system, as families opened up about their agonising waits for help.

MP Robert Halfon said the problem was being compounded by a lack of frontline staff, and that change was not happening quickly enough, as his committee scrutinised the government's plans for SEN provision.

Meanwhile, parents of youngsters with special educational needs have explained how in some cases they have had to give up their jobs simply to fight for a suitable school place for their children.

It comes days after ITV News Anglia revealed exclusive figures which showed that councils across the East have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds fighting legal battles against parents, only to lose 95% of the time.

A special hearing took place to listen to experts on the subject. Credit: ITV News Anglia

Following Tuesday's hearing, Mr Halfon said he was doubtful that new government plans - which suggest measures including a national standard and a simpler process to get an educational health and care plan (EHCP) - would solve the problem quickly enough.

He told ITV News Anglia: "The legislation will take at least a year to get through both the House of Commons and House of Lords and all the consultations, so I do think the government do need to take measures now, particularly having a neutral advocate that will help parents navigate through the treacle of bureaucracy that they have to face."

The committee also heard from Ali Fiddy, the chief executive of Independent Provider of Special Education Advice, who criticised the government's plans.

She said: "No one should underestimate the significance of the proposals in the green paper, and the extent to which they are going to entail a complete overhaul of the current SEND framework, to the detriment of children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities.

"I don’t think that is fully grasped. I think it’s about having to read between the lines and I think it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing."

Rachel Midgley fears her daughter will never get back to school as the wait for help continues. Credit: ITV News Anglia

Families waiting for an EHCP - the plan agreed by professionals, parents and schools which sets out the provisions which must be put in place for children with additional needs - said the delays meant school were not getting the funding they needed to help children.

Rachel Midgley is one of those struggling parents. She said she had been left with no choice but to leave her job and home-school her autistic daughter who was not coping at school.

Nine-year-old Ava was diagnosed last year with autism, suspected pathological demand avoidance, and a sensory processing disorder. Credit: ITV News Anglia

The single mum-of-two, from Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire, has waited more than 20 weeks for a care plan for nine-year-old Ava.

She hopes the plan will finally allow Ava to get a place at a special educational needs school, or give her old school the funding to be able to provide her the extra support she needs.

"It's been an absolute nightmare", she told ITV News Anglia.

"As it stands I haven't even received a draft. I know there's delays with educational psychologists, but Ava's assessment was done in December.

"We're nearing June now and it was supposed to be finalised and completed in early May. So we're just stuck.

"It's had a huge impact on Ava's mental health, my mental health and her brother's mental health.

"The longer this goes on, the harder it's going to be for me to get her back into any form of education - and that's the really sad part of it."

Across the East of England, the number of applications for education, health and care plans has risen by 28%. At the same time, the number of special school places remains almost unchanged.

Councils in the East are currently spending hundreds of thousands of pounds fighting legal battles with the families of children with special educational needs, only to lose almost every time.

The exclusive figures obtained by ITV News Anglia show that in the last four years councils in the East of England had more than 1,000 appeals lodged by parents unhappy with their child's education health and care plan.

MP Dan Poulter says improvements need to be made immediately. Credit: ITV News Anglia

In Suffolk, the average wait for a plan is around 24 weeks, but many are waiting longer. The MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich said this needed to be improved immediately.

"There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in Suffolk and we can do better than this - we need to do better than this - because we’re letting down families at the moment", said Dan Poulter

"It is particularly those children, in my experience, in more deprived parts of Suffolk in Ipswich and elsewhere who are waiting the longest, and we’ve got to get this right for the benefit of those children."

Consultations on future plans finish at the end of June. Legislation is then expected to be set out by the end of this year.