Feature: Oxfordshire parents campaign for special education improvements

Parents of children with special educational needs are demanding urgent action from Oxfordshire’s ‘inadequate’ county council after 100 families protested outside County Hall at the beginning of this month.

Families are hoping to draw attention to the ‘shameful and persistent failure’ of Oxfordshire County Council (OCC) to provide an education for children with special educational needs. Liz Brighouse OBE, OCC’s Deputy Leader, says the trigger for family’s dissatisfaction is a lack of funding from the government.

brown wooden table and chairs

However, the Department for Education claim funding is already at record levels, as £9.1bn has been distributed to local authorities this year to help.

The protest, held last week, included families laying bags with labels detailing their children’s personal experiences in education. Natalie Stepp, organiser of the protest, said: ‘The most challenging aspect of having a child with special educational needs in Oxfordshire, is having to deal with a council that is persistently discriminating against our children by denying them an education.

‘Children across Oxfordshire are being left out of education altogether or expected to adapt to provision which is inappropriate and causing enormous damage to their mental health. In many cases families are being forced to fight for their children’s right to receive any formal education at all. This is a scandal, and it needs to be stopped.’

In 2019 the National Audit Office accused the government of misjudging the financial impact of its changes to education, as rising numbers of pupils with special requirements, unable to be accommodated in mainstream schools, followed a combination of funding strains and exclusions.

This resulted in local authorities having to break their budgets to fund additional places in special schools, including more independent institutions, the NAO report says. Figures in the document have shown the number of pupils with high needs have increased, but they are being enrolled into private special needs institutions rather than mainstream schools.

The report highlights less students with special education needs were enrolled into mainstream schools in 2018 than in 2014 or 2015 – these are the most up-to-date statistics.

False Hope

Earlier this year, children and young people with special educational needs were said to be ‘at the heart’ of major proposals debated by the county council. Residents had already contributed to plans for the local area, and the consultation took place between January-March 2022.

The aim of a SEND strategy is to improve the educational, health and well-being of children and young people who have special educational needs. They are implemented within local authorities and are derived from the governments SEND Code of Practice.

There were 866 responses with over 90% agreeing on five objectives which include:

  • Improving outcomes for children with special educational needs and disabilities
  • Developing a continuum of local provision to meet the requirements of these children and young people
  • Good physical and mental health and wellbeing
  • Improving post-16 education, learning, employment and training opportunities
  • Facilitating a positive move into adulthood for young people with special educational needs and disabilities

Although, despite setting out guidelines on helping children with special educational needs, Oxfordshire Council is yet to make any progress. Ross Kuklinski, a parent from Uffington, comments: ‘We are not seeing any evidence of positive change. We simply want the county council and schools to treat parents as allies in providing children with an education, not enemies.’

woman standing in front of children

He continues: ‘We want honesty where there are difficulties and limitations in the system, and to be able to have open discussions with parents to find compromises.

‘The council urgently need to end a culture of ableism, reflect on what inclusivity in mainstream means for children with neurodivergence and other disabilities, and stop requiring our children to adapt, mask and change their entire being in order to fit in to an education system that is failing them.’

Goals for the future

As well as engaging in a protest, three parents addressed the local authorities meeting last week. They demanded councillors to take urgent action to end a situation where hundreds of children across the county are being denied an education.

The issues that were raised to the council include:

  • Refusal to accept professional assessments
  • Failure to provide alternative education where children are unable to attend school
  • Complete failure of communication including responding to parents and providing guidance around budgets
  • Failure to comply with tribunal decisions or statutory timescales
  • Failure to support young people in preparing for adulthood
  • Forcing parents to resort to tribunal or judicial review and having to pay for solicitors and barristers out of their own pockets
  • A complaints process that is unfit for purpose

Sharon Jeacock, a mother from Bicester, who has a son that couldn’t attend school due to suffering with anxiety and autism, was offered no other means of educational support. Mrs Jeacock says her son was denied the chance to take his GCSE’s and in 2020 and 2022 complained to an independent watchdog who discovered several faults within the system.

Mrs Jeacock says she has been fighting for ‘six years’ to obtain help for her son. The council apologised to her following the findings from the watchdog, but she said: ‘The number of families in Oxfordshire being failed by this unlawful system is just horrendous, all we want is the council to follow the SEND law of conduct and for our children to be happy, safe and be able to learn.’

The mother from Bicester is part of the SEN group that protested last week and after speaking with her, she says that was ‘just the start.’ The SEN group have plans to merge with other action groups and take their issue to parliament.

Ms Brighouse, who is also the local authorities Cabinet Member for Children, Education and Youth Services has plans to approach the government to gain more funding for the county council. Last month she said: ‘I am appealing to the new Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Keegan, to urgently address the national funding issues facing all local authorities providing SEND services for children and young people.’

She adds: ‘Gillian Keegan must find the money to fund the total accumulated deficit in the budget for SEND children arising from unfunded changes the government itself introduced nearly ten years ago. At the end of March 2022, in Oxfordshire the deficit stood at £29.8m and is forecast to increase to £47.3m by March 2023.’

Social Care Today have reached out to Oxfordshire County Council for a comment on this issue and are currently awaiting a response.

Photo by Ivan Aleksic and the National Cancer Institute


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