'My son threatened suicide': Disabled children face years out of school
- Credit: Carrie Cook
Parents say their disabled children face bare-bones school timetables because teachers can’t cope with their needs - but the council has confessed it doesn’t keep track of how many pupils are affected.
As reported by this newspaper, persistent school absence among special needs children has been a problem across the county for years.
But we have discovered Suffolk County Council is failing to monitor how many aren't showing up to class, with parents now demanding it does more to ensure their children have adequate provision while out of school - sometimes for years at a time.
One parent told this newspaper her disabled son has been at home for 17 months due to the council failing to secure him a suitable provider, and is currently heading to college without completing a maths or English GCSE.
She said his health had deteriorated to the point where he is threatening to harm himself.
Meanwhile, a mum with two special needs children said they had missed almost three years of education between them because the council put them in schools unequipped to deal with their needs – and did not offer up adequate alternative provision when their timetables were slashed.
The county council recently reported there are only 24 disabled children without a school place, claiming “increased intervention, better solutions and working alongside families” has helped staff reduce the number of EHCP children not on school rolls.
This is down considerably from last August, when the number stood at 48.
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But campaigners say many disabled children who do have a named school place aren’t actually in attendance because parents claim it is unsuitable - or, if they are, face a heavily-reduced timetable.
Steve Wright, 53 and living in East Bergholt with his two adopted special needs children, said while his 14-year-old son always had a “named school placement” on his support plan, he “hardly set foot in them” – attending some for a matter of weeks.
“My son has had practically no secondary education”, Mr Wright said. “It’s taken the council three years to find him an appropriate placement which we are trialling this week, but we’ll have to go through all of this again when he turns 16 and needs somewhere else to go.”
In January 2019, Mr Wright said he pulled his son out of mainstream school because he was facing constant exclusions and the teachers did not have the support to deal with him.
But in an email seen by this newspaper, the school confirmed it did not remove him from its roll until September.
Campaigners believe because of this problem, the true number of pupils with EHCPs who are not in full-time education is much higher than 24.
“It is not as simple as the council finding a child a school place and then washing their hands of the situation”, said SEND Campaign for Change member Alex Tomczynski, who lives in Rushmere St Andrew.
“The council has a legal duty to make sure all children are receiving the equivalent of a full-time education, nobody else.”
EHCPs are legally-binding documents drawn up by the local authority for children who have advanced special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). In Suffolk, over 6,300 children receive these support packages.
Though the council could not give us an estimate of how many children with EHCPs are not in school full-time because it "does not hold the information", national government statistics show 25% of children with these plans are classed as “persistent absentees”.
Applying the national absence rate to Suffolk, this would work out as 1,575 children potentially missing out on the full-time education councils must provide.
The council said: “Schools are not required to tell us how many children are on a part-time timetable. It is not legal for a school to place a child with a EHCP on a part-time timetable. Where this is used it should not be treated as a long-term solution.
“Once we become aware a school is using a part-time timetable, we work with the school and family to support full-time attendance again as quickly as possible.”
‘SEND reform is not a quick fix’
But with only 561 pupils with EHCPs not currently in regular school attendance accessing the council’s Alternative Provisions service, campaigners say some persistently absent children are likely to be falling through the cracks.
The council said it recognised this was an issue, and was plugging part of a £1.1m SEND investment into “improving the capacity of the council’s ability to respond to part-time timetables for EHCP students".
Rachel Hood, cabinet member for SEND at SCC, said the council was doing everything it could to implement the recommendations offered by the Lincolnshire Review into SEND services carried out last summer, and was making good progress.
She said the council had recruited 26 new people to the team to help achieve this goal, and that 304 additional special school places opened in September 2021, on top of 229 created in 2020 and a further 268 by 2023.
She said: “A sustained amount of focused work is being done to improve the way we deliver SEND services to children and young people and we are committed to making sure we give all children the best education.
“Our SEND provision is undergoing wide-scale reform which is not a quick fix.
“We will continue to deliver effective and timely improvement, which is properly governed and scrutinised.”
But families, nevertheless, claim the council’s failure to monitor their children's education in recent years has been “devastating”.
Anecdotally, parents claim they know dozens of children who have been on part-time timetables for months or even years.
Last week, a Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman ruling centring on this issue was released to the public.
The ombudsman ordered the council pay £2,250 to one parent whose child had been out of school without any alternative provision from February 2020 until July 2021, with the council admitting it failed to monitor him and apologising to the family.
'My son started tearing his hair out'
Carrie Cook, 45 and from Martlesham, said her 15-year-old son Corey had been out of education for 17 months after his Year 10 placement broke down in September 2020 because the school could “not adapt to his needs”.
She said it took the council four months to set him up with lessons through the Alternative Tuition Service – and when it did this was limited to one hour of maths and English a week.
And while Ms Cook said the EHCP she requested for her son was finalised two weeks ago, her heart “sank” when she saw the council named the school she had pulled her son out of as his official “placement”.
“Now we’re in the position where he has five months of year 11 left and no school which will take him,” she said. “It’s honestly devastating.
“The only place which has said it can meet his needs is Suffolk New College. He’s currently on track to go there in September without any GCSEs and two years without formal schooling.
“It's been awful for us. When he was first stuck at home he was so depressed he was threatening suicide and literally tearing his hair out with anxiety.
"He's now suffering from muscle waste due to inactivity. He used to ride his bike to school and do PE, now we can't get him out of his room."
‘I almost had to quit my job’
For Emma Eveleigh, a 40-year-old mum living in Needham Market, the periods when her two disabled children were out of school overlapped.
Both are now thriving in suitable placements, but Ms Eveleigh said it had been an arduous process getting them there.
“I had to bring down my hours at work to take care of both of them when they were at home”, she said. “Luckily my mum lives nearby and could help, but many other parents are not in a fortunate position.”
Ms Eveleigh disputed that the council did everything it could to get her children back into school full-time.
Ms Eveleigh said her son missed the last term of Year 8 and all of Year 9 because of disputes between the family and the council over the details included in his EHCP.
She said he had to make do with a couple of hours a day of maths and English tuition for 18 months.
“It ruined his mental health”, she explained. “He didn’t have a peer group and couldn’t interact with his friends.”
Her daughter was also on a part-time timetable for 12 months, essentially missing the “whole of year six”.
“The council kept saying access was there to a full-time education at the school if my daughter chose to participate, but she couldn’t obviously, because it wasn’t geared up to meet her needs.
"They would only have her in at lunchtimes three days a week because she was too anxious to go to lessons."
‘The system isn’t working’
Parents’ frustration comes as the ombudsman revealed appeals to tribunals over SEND disagreements between parents and councils has risen by 111% since 2013, with research showing over nine in ten appeals are decided in favour of the families.
“The overwhelming number of appeals decided in the appellant’s favour is indicative of a system that is not working”, said Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the local government association’s children and young people board.
Previously, Suffolk County Council has said it does everything it can to avoid going to tribunal and prefers to work alongside parents.
Speaking to this newspaper, its spokeswoman said a new Suffolk Parent Carer Forum has been set up to ensure coordinated working with families, while directors had been meeting with parents in a series of "Time to Listen" events.