By the government’s own reckoning over 2000 pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities are not getting access to necessary resources and equipment because of funding cuts. Since 2015 £5.4 billion has been cut from school budgets in England. The most vulnerable have been hit hardest. Between 2014 and 2017 pupil numbers rose by more than 4500, but on average schools lost 5.5 staff members. A lot of those cuts will have fallen on teaching assistants who support children with special educational needs, teaching assistants who are themselves low-paid and vulnerable. A recent report by IPPR North found that SEND funding has been cut by 17% across England since 2015.
Working for the last few years in primary schools I personally have seen a return to SEND classrooms, which remove ‘high-profile’ children from their classes; a single teaching assistant responsible for supporting four children; a teaching assistant splitting their time between four classrooms; a child in KS2 on P-levels without one-to-one support; and an early years class with sixty children, four members of staff and eleven autistic pupils. Pupils with SEND make up 15% of the school population, but close to half of all permanent exclusions are of pupils with SEND. Children in need of counselling face long delays to access provision and a study conducted by the BBC found that children in need of Education Healthcare Plans were waiting for nearly three years in some cases.
Cuts to provision impact on the workload and stress felt by schoolworkers, who must hold together a fraying provision, choosing between giving children with SEND the support they need, or tending to the needs of other pupils in their classes. The suffering of pupils with SEND is compounded by the emotional strain of being under supported in their learning.
Over 1000 councillors in England wrote to education secretary Damian Hinds, urging the government to give schools the funding they need to support schools and meet the needs of pupils with SEND. Responding to the criticism, children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi defended the government, stating that they had “increased high needs funding for children and young people with the most complex SEND from £5bn in 2013 to more than £6bn this year.” What the increase in funding fails to cope with is the 35% increase in demand for SEND provision since 2015. In real terms the increase in funding amounts to a cut because it falls short of meeting demand.
Motion 23, ‘Supporting Special Educational Needs and Disabilities’, and its amendments begin to address some of the problems schoolworkers and students face when it comes to school cuts. Some of the readily-available information is mixed in with more general data on school cuts, so research in to how many students don’t receive enough educational hours makes sense. Supporting industrial action in defence of members’ jobs would prevent the situation from becoming worse and highlighting children who become lost in the system would create further awareness of the problem. Industrial action needs strong divisions ready to organise it, and strong school groups ready to carry it out. The union needs to put resources in to building this on-the-ground strength. When it comes to attacks against vulnerable students, activists need to look for places to start fires, rather than waiting to respond when management starts one of their own through cuts and redundancies.
Fundamentally, the issue of SEND cuts comes down to the coalition and then Tory governments’ attacks on education funding; local authorities, MATs and heads choosing to prioritise children without SEND when it comes to limited funding; and our union, alongside other public sector unions, failing to mount a serious industrial challenge to education cuts. We need a restoration of pre-2010 levels of funding as a starting point to build a truly inclusive education system. Serious industrial action in defence of the most vulnerable students in our education system, alongside political campaigning, is the tool which will give us the best opportunity to reach that starting point.