'SEND failure is a scandal - and it's costing lives', says lawyer supporting families

Watch Neil Barbour's interview with Charlotte Middleditch, Nazreen Bibi and Jason Arday

Lawyer Charlotte Middleditch, who supports families as they fight for the education their children are entitled to, reflects on a SEND system which doesn't work for some of society's most vulnerable.

I love my job and I can’t imagine doing anything else. So, why do I wish my job didn’t have to exist? 

I’m a solicitor advocating for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). I work with a team of dedicated lawyers, led by Polly Kerr, a senior associate solicitor at Tees Law, who all have personal experience of SEN as well. This gives us a unique perspective and approach to advocating fearlessly for some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

I was introduced to SEND at a young age.

My family’s battle started 20 years ago; I remember listening at the kitchen door when Mum and Dad wearily discussed my little brother, Jon. He’d long been showing signs of additional needs, only to contract encephalitis (akin to meningitis) at three years old.

By four, he was recovering and relearning to walk but still struggling with his speech. My parents had thought the fight was over when he survived his illness but another battle was brewing.

Concerned by his lack of progress, my parents had asked the council to send Jon to a specialist school where he’d get additional educational support. Their plea fell on deaf ears, and instead the local authority sent him to a wildly inappropriate school without any of the help he needed to access his education and to progress.

As a family, we knew it was the wrong school for Jon, and the experts who assessed him agreed with us. So, my parents appealed to the tribunal for Jon to go to a more appropriate school, and we won; but in the meantime Jon was unsupported in the wrong school.

By this time, he was eight and had lost four crucial years of education - his confidence and self-esteem would be the long-term casualties.

But even then, once we’d secured his place, it wasn’t over.

Every year, local authorities review the support packages for SEN children - known as education, health and care plans (EHCPs); but while they can amend educational provision, they can also remove it. That’s what happened to Jon, and, before he completed his education we’d be dragged into tribunal four times.

Now, Jon’s 25 and he’s just finished an agricultural engineering apprenticeship. That was only possible because we got him to a specialist school that helped him shine in the way we knew he could.

It’s my privilege to support SEN families. I know that before they reach us, they’ll have been entangled with the local authority for months or even years. They’ll be worn down, or battle-hardened and often feel ignored, and betrayed; while watching their child wilt without the support they need to survive, let alone to thrive.

We all know that it’s the local authority’s legal duty to educate our children, and, of course, that includes children with SEN.

But, they’re fundamentally failing our SEN children who are denied the school places, therapies, and resources that are their legal right. It’s a scandal and it’s costing lives.   

It’s been 20 years and so little has changed. It’s our social responsibility to educate our children - to the children as individuals and to the wider community. Early intervention is imperative but is often denied through unlawful application of policies or otherwise through misapplication of the law.

We’re at risk of losing a generation of change-makers and on a human level, simply put, we’re losing lives.

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