Realising the potential of pupils with special needs

12 Aug

In the animal kingdom, the fittest survive whenever the chips are down.   We humans like to think that we are cut above them. However, as reductions in the funding of education have bitten deeper and deeper, the vulnerable – i.e. those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) – appear to be suffering more than most.

A report by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), a think tank, reported in April 2019 on the outcomes of research in the area. The report mentioned that funding for pupils with SEND had fallen by 17% since 2015.  Northern areas, where the reduction was 22%, had suffered more than the rest of the country.  The funding had not only not kept pace with rising demands, said the research, but also been cut back.  The neglect of pupils with SEND from the incipient stages meant that, if these children had received the right support at the outset, they would not, by now, have such complex needs.

It is not all doom and gloom, however. Jack Hunter, the report’s author, said that since 2015, funding had increased by 11% but demand had gone up by 35%.  In North England, funding increased by 8% but those in need of support by 39%.  IPPR North called on government to view support for SEND pupils as an “investment in our collective well-being and a just economy”.  Hunter wrote about the paucity of support: “This is a moral failure, but it is also a failure to recognise the economic benefits of upfront investment in young people’s futures. For example, supporting one person with a learning disability into employment could increase their (sic) income by between 55% and 95%, and reduce lifetime costs to the taxpayer by at least £170,000.”

Nadhim Zahawi, the former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education in Theresa May’s cabinet, demurred and said: “We have increased high needs funding for children and young people with the most complex SEND from £5bn in 2013 to more than £6bn this year. However, we recognise that local authorities have been facing cost pressures on high needs budgets, which is why, in December 2018, we allocated an additional £250m in high needs funding on top of increases we had already promised; £67.7m of this funding has been allocated to local authorities in the north. We have also approved bids for 37 new special schools spread across the country.”

Society can be judged by how well it treats its most vulnerable members.  Our special needs pupils, over the last 10 years, have not been receiving their just desserts because of the squeeze on public expenditure.  Alice Thomson, a Times reporter, mentioned that in mid-May 2019 over one weekend she spent her time crawling under barbed wire, climbing over parapets and wading her way through mud before launching herself into icy water and then running 13 miles through the ploughed fields of Lincolnshire.  Why? With a team of friends, she was taking measures to raise funds to set up a café to enable Cosmo, a 17-year-old Down’s syndrome lad, into work.

Cosmo wants to be a drummer or film producer, albeit, “he is equally happy to serve cakes with friends, who, like him, have Down’s syndrome”.   These friends and Cosmo want to be in work where they will feel valued and contribute to the life of their communities. They are lucky, in that they have Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs).  There are many, many more pupils who are struggling because they have profound special needs but no EHCPs. This is not for a lack of trying by the headteachers and governors of their schools and academies but rather the obstacles placed in their paths by the local authorities, as the latter are strapped for cash.

Oddly enough, children at fee-paying schools, according to Thomson, “are much more likely than those at state schools (and academies) to be diagnosed with learning difficulties, which can mean that they are allowed more time when it comes to exams”. Thomson adds that it is not that the private schools are given special privileges but rather that state schools “are increasingly unable to help children with learning difficulties to navigate the system and prepare for jobs”.

Fortunately, we live in a country where the late Dame Mary Warnock led the charge in 1978, following the publication of her report, to champion the cause of pupils with special needs.  Consequently, we sympathise and empathise with the vulnerable and challenge stereotypes and prejudice against them.   Matt Hancock, the Health Education Secretary, has revealed that he is dyslexic. With support, he surmounted his difficulties and risen to high office.

Many make strenuous and successful efforts to remove stigma and negative labels.  However, many more place obstacles in the way of SEND pupils.  LAs see pupils with special needs as a drain in resources.   They can hardly be blamed because of the severe reductions in resources they receive from central government.  The government, in turn, is doing everything possible to reduce the national debt so money continues to be scarce.

But this is a false economy.  Young people with SEND who do not receive support when they should, grow up with their difficulties firmly embedded. They then must obtain support from government to live.   They are also unable to contribute to the economy by being in gainful employment. They are propped up by taxpayers, i.e. those in work, and become a “drain” on national resources.  Families in which these young people reside, are left to fend for themselves, forced to navitage through a tortuous system to prove that their struggling sons or daughters require help.

Several dyslexic children end up in prison.  Research in the past discovered that over 25% of offenders were likely to be dyslexic, and 85% of juveniles, who come into contact with the court system, are functionally illiterate.

In maintained schools and academies, the proportion of children diagnosed with special educational needs dropped from 19.9% in 2008 to 12.3% in 2018.  This was not because there were fewer pupils with SEND but rather owing to the barriers placed in parents’ ways to secure EHCPs.  And these barriers were erected because of the cost to the local authorities who are “hard-up”.  For instance, it costs over £500 to get an educational psychologist’s diagnosis for a child.  Overworked and stressed parents, who are exhausted looking after their SEND children, don’t have the time and energy to fill out a staggering number of forms to push themselves to the front of queues so that their children receive the help they deserve.

By 2020-21, there will be a shortfall of £1.6 billion for pupils with SEND.  Thomson mentions that “children with dyslexia, dyspraxia, Asperger’s and Down’s Syndromes or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are once again seen as disruptive troublemakers and a distraction rather than part of the class requiring specialised help”.

Fewer than 20% of people with learning difficulties are in employment, according to the charity Mencap. If given a chance, they could shine.  There is some good news, however.   At Foxes Hotel in Minehead they are recruiting staff with Down’s syndrome. Also, the BBC and civil service are seeking out “neuro-divergent employees”.

Consider this.   In the vanguard of the young army of protestors who have drawn the attention of the rich and powerful to climate change is an autistic, 16-year-old girl, Greta Thunberg.  Autism makes her different, she said, and being different was a gift.  “I don’t easily fall for lies. I can see through things. If I would’ve been like everyone else, I wouldn’t have started this school strike, for instance.”  Her Asperger’s Syndrome helps her make blunt statements (no evocation or diplomacy) and enables her to pay attention to figures.  She refuses to be flattered with false words and promises by “important-sounding adults”.

This is unsurprising.  Albert Einstein, the physicist, Steve Jobs, the computer whizz-kid and Apple creator, James Joyce, the Irish writer, Charles Darwin, the naturalist, and Emily Dickinson, the American poet, were autistic.

There are 700,000 (circa) autistic people in Britain – one in 100 of the population. One in 10 has an extraordinary skill. This is because of their intense focus on detail.  Several have extraordinary memories and they concentrate better than you and me.  However, only 32% are in paid work; 77% would like to work but employers will not risk taking them on.  The latter make decisions to hire based on potential employees’ social skills.  Autistic people perform poorly in these. Prime reasons are that they have difficulty with eye contact and cannot make “small talk”.

Forty-one years have passed since the Warnock Committee published its report, Special Educational Needs: Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Handicapped Children and Young People.  Much has changed for the better since then, but it is apparent that much more needs to be done to realise the potential of young people with special needs to help them succeed and thrive.   They need to be viewed by many more of us as a resource rather than a drain in resources.

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