The children with special educational needs left without a school place, a month before term starts

Parents of children with special educational needs say they are being left behind by the schooling system - with some still unsure if they will have a specialist place this September.

The National Autistic Society says 70% of parents had to wait six months for their child's needs to be assessed, and half had to wait over a year.

And as demand increases, supply is creaking.

Families who have been left in limbo have told ITV News Anglia that they feel the clock is ticking on their children's future, while they are left with unsuitable offers.

According to the Department of Education, there were 473,300 children and young people with Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans in January 2022, up from 285,772 in 2018 - a rise of 65%.

At the same time, SEN places have remained largely static, forcing some schools to take on more pupils than they are supposed to.

Special schools are reportedly oversubscribed

Figures obtained by the newspaper Schools Week show that over half of special schools had more pupils on roll than the number commissioned by their council. This was a 15% rise from 2017-18.

Samantha Booth, a senior reporter at Schools Week, said: "At the moment headteachers and parents are just left waiting, as the system is getting worse and worse and parents are having to fight for help.

"I think any help would be welcome as long as it's evidence-based and isn't going to impact parents even more trying to get help for their children."

It means places are at a premium, for those who often need help the most.

Noah Carden has struggled to get a suitable school place for this September. Credit: ITV News Anglia

Charlotte Carden's son Noah is autistic, and has an EHCP. But he does not have a specialist place - meaning he will have to stay on at his mainstream school - which his mother said was not appropriate.

Ms Carden, of Northampton, said: "We're now are heading towards September, Noah's still going back to his current school that he's had for the past couple of years which is a mainstream school - the same school that has said that can not meet his needs.

"It's frustrating, and it angers me that Noah is going back to an environment that causes him anxiety. He's not getting the level of education that he needs or that he deserves.

"His needs are not being met - he won't be getting his needs met until he's in an environment that is right for him."

The problem is not just about the number of places. There is also the question of whether a school place will be appropriate for a child with additional needs.

Across Northampton, Lauren Bunting cares for her two daughters, who both have additional needs. Her youngest, five-year-old Connie, is Autistic and has a diagnosis of pathological demand avoidance (PDA). She has a place in school but cannot go because the setting is not appropriate.

She said: "Children with PDA present quite differently from other children with autism.

"They need a very different approach, they need a lot of autonomy and they need to feel like they have a lot of control over what they're doing, and they need a lot of choices and things. Most of them don't fit very well into a school environment.

"If we keep pushing the wrong place it's just going to keep putting her off more. We're just teaching her we can't trust these people.

"We drag her into a school and we're teaching her they won't meet your needs, they won't listen to you, they don't care."

Laura Bunting and her daughter Connie, who is struggling to get a suitable school place. Credit: ITV News Anglia

The pressure on local authorities across the country is increasing. West Northamptonshire Council is building a new school in Northampton, and there are plans to offer around 500 specialist places in the coming years, but numbers of applications have risen by 50% following the pandemic.

Councillor Fiona Baker, lead for education at the council, said: "This has obviously been a challenge for the council, and we haven't got the places that we need for children at the moment. We've put together a more creative plan to try and provide these.

"The number that don't have a school place at all is quite low - some have part time places. It's really down to not having enough special educational needs places."

The council said it was planning to take over empty classrooms in mainstream schools to try to provide more spaces.

Ms Baker said the government needed to do more to help cash-strapped local authorities, adding: "This is a national situation, it's not just West Northamptonshire."

The government said councils were responsible for local provision, and that their SEND review would create a more inclusive system and increase value for money.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “We are putting unprecedented investment into the high needs budget, meaning it will be worth £9.7bn by 2023-24, as well as creating tens of thousands of new school places for children with SEND or who require alternative provision over the next three years.

"We are also providing new guidance and research to help councils target their funding effectively so that young people in their area are supported.”

But charities say action is needed right now.

Tim Nicholls from the National Autistic Society said: "Frankly we've seen the same statistics that we hear day in and day out about the experiences of autistic children for years now.

"This isn't a new problem - this has been going on for absolutely years, so it's down to the government who've pledged to reform the send system to actually fix these problems, for good."

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