Column: Sheffield campaigner Chrissy Meleady on delays in school places for children with special educational needs
The build-up to children and young people returning to school has been an anxiety-inducing time for students and families in Sheffield, not least because many students have been out of school for months, presenting difficulties of adjusting to a school return in a pandemic.
Along with this is the need to balance the risks of Covid-19 with the issuing of changing guidance and directives from Government and the need to give due regard to unique individual needs and requirements for children, young people and families.
Adding to this is the Government’s threat of issuing sanctions upon parents/carers, including fixed penalty notices in line with local authorities’ codes of conduct for non-attendance.
This translates to parents/carers being fined £60, then rising to £120 if they do not or cannot pay this fine within a 21-day period, followed by them being prosecuted and issued with a maximum fine of £2,500, which can be accompanied by a jail sentence or a community sentence.
This occurring, as concerned parents/carers are pointing out, despite the Government guidance, informing that Covid-19 risk mitigation and risk management requirements for students does not need to be enforced nor implemented for Disabled children and young people in schools and in certain modes of transport too.
A Judicial Review - Letter Before Claim - was issued to the Prime Minister by Sheffield parents, supported by parents/carers nationally on the directive for full school return and the aligned threats, as well as Government failings to have proper due regard to diverse individual needs and family circumstances.
A shocking state of affairs has also been prevailing for numerous children and young people, including Disabled children and their families in this city and wider afield, who have been left up to the wire and in instances beyond the wire, bereft of having any school allocated to them for September.
Some children and young people were sited previously in schools wholly unsuited to their SEN conditions and SEN requirements, resulting in harm and detriment being caused to them and necessitating that they should relocate to other schools more suited to their needs and requirements.
Others have not been on school rolls, awaiting the designation of a school placement and others appealed admission decisions, as their first choice of school was rejected and they were allocated schools not of their preference, nor appropriate to meet their SEN profile and SEN provision requirements.
Applications for school placements made by families and others were submitted in many cases well before the Covid-19 lockdowns were announced.
Excuses for children and young people not being given placements up to a few or even a couple of days before these students are supposed to start school, along with others not having had a decision made yet, has been, that arising from Covid-19, Local Authorities’ SEN and Admissions staff capacity has been reduced along with decision-making opportunities. Families however note that staff have been working from home in many instances, cutting out the need to travel, and freeing up more time to work on cases.
The excuses are not acceptable to families, who hold concerns that underlying the procrastinations is not a matter of capacity but rather one of seeking to force the hand of desperate parents/carers to compel them with only days to go to send (against their wishes) their children to schools that are not linked to their preferences, or alternatively for parents/carers to send their children to schools that do not meet their child’s Special Educational Needs profile nor needs.
There is also a strongly-held belief by families that the late issuing of decisions may well be a means of propelling parents/carers to home-school their children for their safety, welfare and best interests, thereby removing them from schools’ rolls altogether.
The extensive delay in decision making has caused immense worry and suffering to children, young people and families. Some children with additional needs have been resorting to self-harming.
All of the above has necessitated my intervention, in order to draw public spotlight on to what is happening.
Editor’s message: Thank you to all who support local journalism with a print subscription. The events of 2020 mean trusted, local journalism is more reliant than ever on your support. We couldn't do it without you. Please subscribe here https://www.localsubsplus.co.uk/ so we can keep campaigning on your behalf. Stay safe.