This week is Learning Disability Week. It’s an opportunity to renew our call for a society in which people with learning disabilities are included, supported and equipped with the skills they need. That starts with education.
More than 440,000 children with a learning disability receive some extra support at school. More than 75,000 of these have a legal right to support known as an education, health and care plan (EHCP).
EHCPs were a revolutionary new idea, championed by Sarah Teather, a Liberal Democrat minister in the coalition. She brought in ambitious new duties on local councils to support children from the point they are diagnosed up until the age of 25.
But Sarah’s ambitions are not being realised. Why? Because local councils are strapped for cash. Children with special educational needs or disability (SEND) are at the forefront of the school funding crisis.
The SEND holy grail
Schools must stretch their existing budgets to provide extra support for children with less complex learning difficulties such as mild dyslexia. Yet financially struggling schools find that teaching assistants and other support staff are often the easiest to cut. The staff there to work with children with SEND – those friendly faces – are going and gone.
By contrast, funding for EHCPs is ringfenced. So, when the school can’t provide support, parents turn to EHCPs in droves. It’s become the SEND equivalent of the holy grail, but it was only ever meant for pupils with the most complex needs.
The result is that we have a system that favours the “tiger parent” – the parents who keep pushing to get their child an EHCP and have the money and skills to go to court if their application is rejected. That’s deeply unfair.
But now EHCP funding is under threat, too. The number of pupils who have one is up by a third since 2015, but the funding has increased by just 6 per cent in today’s prices. Councils need an extra £1.2 billion to bring funding for EHCPs per pupil back up to 2015 levels.
'Not my problem: your problem'
Meanwhile, the Conservatives have created an accountability culture that’s pushing down children with SEND. Rather than promoting an inclusive education, the high-stakes testing regime encourages schools to off-roll pupils with high needs. They are sent to costlier, sometimes unregistered, alternative providers, which often aren’t the best places for them to learn. Kids with SEND are increasingly victims of this “not my problem: your problem” culture.
The consequences of this? Parents are losing trust in schools and councils to deliver for their children. Almost 2,400 children with a statement or an EHCP are now home-schooled. Shockingly, 2,000 school pupils with high needs are not educated formally at all.
As a former teacher, I know how the right support can have a transformative impact on the life of a young person with a learning disability. But these are opportunities that we are denying the next generation.
That’s why Liberal Democrats are committed to the funding boost to fulfil the ambitions we set out in coalition.
By giving substantial new funding to cover the costs that schools pay to support a pupil on an EHCP, we can free up their budget to provide support to pupils with SEND who have less complex needs. This would be a huge investment on top of the cost of reversing school cuts since 2015.
Changing the culture
But it’s not just about money. We need to change the culture in our schools so that there is never a reason to view pupils with SEND as a burden. In a high-stakes exam world, many teachers feel compelled to game the system, focusing their efforts on those children who can make easy progress or move from a grade 3 to a grade 4.
We should be rewarding teachers for investing in all their pupils, not ignoring – or, worse, off-rolling – those who need additional support.
This is why we’re calling on the government to stop publishing league tables in their current form and to scrap Ofsted, replacing it with a schools inspectorate that will support, not scare, teachers.
Let’s look to build an education system that enables children with learning difficulties to flourish. These children are an asset to society, not a burden. Let’s give them all the best start in life.
Layla Moran is the education spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats and a former teacher