Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families
I am writing to urge you to improve provision for SEND children and young people during and after the current Covid-19 crisis.
1. Provide bespoke guidance for SEND schools that recognises the particular needs and behaviours of SEND children and young people, and acknowledge that this means that they cannot all safely return to the schools and centres they used to attend before the lockdown.
It’s clear from my case work that the Government’s assertion that all children meeting the vulnerable criteria will receive an education is utterly out of touch with reality. The vague DfE guidance issued to SEND schools places Headteachers in an impossible moral, legal and professional situation. They are being asked to decide whether it is safer for SEND children and young people to stay at home with often over-worked, over-stressed families, or come to school and potentially risk contracting Covid-19, or passing it to fellow pupils and school staff.
I have spoken with the Head of Downs View, an SEND school in my constituency which has been rated “outstanding” by Ofsted four times, who feels he has been put in an intolerable position. The guidance shows a complete lack of awareness of the needs and behaviour patterns of SEND children and young people. It also ignores the fact that a high proportion of children and young people with SEND also have other medical conditions that make them even more vulnerable to the virus; for example, this applies to about 25% of those that attend Downs View.
The message from SEND professionals is clear - the Government needs to review its guidance and recognise that it is not possible to safely accommodate all the pupils full time that used to attend school. This leaves thousands of parents throughout the UK in crisis, caring for their disabled children without the support or respite of school. The Government must therefore also guarantee and fund the provision of good quality alternatives for those children that cannot be accommodated at school at any point – including an expansion of respite provided by local authorities and of personal budgets.
2. Increased funding for respite care.
Families that are caring for SEND children and young people have been under unsustainable pressure through the lockdown and, because pre-lockdown provision for children and young people in community settings cannot be delivered, they desperately need additional and ongoing support.
The respite provision available for families and carers was already falling short before the Covid-19 crisis and is woefully inadequate. I know from some of the SEND families I am speaking to that even just having one day of respite from full time caring for a SEND child can make the world of difference, with the situation for families that include children with complex needs particularly grave. Yet there are very few funded overnight spaces available and Personal Budgets have not been increased.
As I understand it, the “additional” funding announced on 19 May is for equipment grants. Although this is welcome, the need for increased funding for safe respite care places and respite care through Personal Budgets cannot be ignored any longer. If we do not support these families, we risk them falling into crisis and requiring extensive interventions.
Your recent guidance says "As part of updating risk assessments, we ask local authorities and educational settings to be mindful of, for example, access to respite and short breaks services, the loss of care from extended family, and the risks to health of caring week round for children and young people with complex needs”. I couldn’t agree more, but local authorities simply cannot do more and more with fewer resources. You are failing SEND children and young people, and their families, if you do not match your ambition with the necessary level of local funding.
The stress and exhaustion of caring for a child or young person with SEND is extreme, and it affects the entire household. Parent-carers tell me that additional resources for counselling for themselves, and for the siblings of SEND children and young people, is also vital.
3. The extraordinary care that people provide in their own homes must be sufficiently valued; families with disabled children should not be living in poverty.
Rightly shining a spotlight on the important work care workers do in care homes and hospitals must not distract you from supporting the carers working 24/7 in their own homes for an insulting £67 a week. It is completely unacceptable that 50% of households with disabled children were living in poverty before the Covid-19 crisis hit, and many more have lost their incomes or had to reduce their hours of paid work in order to care for their children during the lockdown.
Carers Allowance must be increased to reflect the valuable, skilled, vital care work that people provide in their own homes and lift households out of poverty. Carers, including parent-carers, should be paid at a level comparable with a real living wage and they should also be entitled to paid leave from these challenging roles.
4. Review the professional care sector and introduce a strategy to recruit more carers, recognise them as the professionals that they are, and pay them better
A further ongoing challenge, exacerbated by the current crisis is the availability of respite carers who are capable of meeting the needs of SEND children and young people. Parents are competing with one another to get access to a dwindling pool of trained people to support them because very few people want to go into work that is so stressful, exposes them to violence (kicks, punches, scratches from children and young people with SEND are common), and is very badly paid.
Your Government has said it will do more to recognise the value of carers in our society and I am urging you ensure that concrete steps are taken as soon as possible to make the caring profession more attractive, and for this to include caring for SEND children and young people. The Government must also investigate and incentivise specialist training opportunities for care workers who work with children and young people with SEND.
We must listen to what families living with SEND children and young people tell us
I have enclosed a letter from one of the mothers I have been in touch with. This young woman explains the issues affecting her family very clearly, and illustrates all of the matters I have written about above. She is crying out for support to care for her SEND daughter, to save her family from collapse. She feels as though her family is failing, but this family, like so many others all over the country, has been failed by this government.
Thank you for considering all of these points. I look forward to a response, which I will be sharing with the families and carers of SEND children and young people in my constituency.