‘Education is a right’: Parents of children with special needs launch legal fight to get government to fund school places



Families of children with special educational needs who are being denied school places because of swingeing funding cuts have taken a legal challenge against the government to the High Court in person.

A campaigning group of parents say councils are so starved of funds they are unable to meet their legal obligation to provide education and support to young people with special needs and disabilities (SEND).

They joined campaigners and supporters for a demonstration outside the Royal Courts of Justice ahead of the hearing challenging the government.

The crowd chanted “education is a right, we shouldn’t have to fight” and “no ifs, no buts, no education cuts” as they held placards that told the stories of SEND children who felt hopeless.

Funding cuts to SEND are being challenged locally across the country – but this is believed to be the first time that parents have taken direct action against the government.  

One mother belonging to one of the three families at the heart of the case told The Independent that she is “constantly stressed and worried” as she battles to get the support her child needs.

Lorraine Heugh, mother of Nico Heugh Simone, who has autism, still does not know whether her 15-year-old son will be given a funded place in a college next year, despite winning multiple tribunals.

“It has had an immense impact on the family,” the mother from East Sussex said. “It is not something that parents want to do but we feel backed into a corner. We feel like we have no choice.”

The landmark case, believed to be the first time the government has been taken to court over SEND funding, is also being brought by the families of Dakota Riddell and Benedict McFinnigan.

Kirsty McFinnigan said her 14-year-old son, who has post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and chronic insomnia, has not been in mainstream school for two years amid cuts.  

Supporters of three families taking the government to court over special educational needs funding cuts came together

She said: “So many councils across the country are struggling and it is shocking to think the government has simply taken no action at all – the current situation is just not working.”

Speaking at the demonstration on Wednesday, Mary Riddell, mother of Dakota, who has cerebral palsy, global development delay and muscle disorders clonus and dystonia, called for urgent action.

Her nine-year-old has had transport support which ensured she could get to school withdrawn. “Local authorities are spread so thin that they are not giving the services needed,” she said.

The parents, who have formed the group SEND Family Action, are calling on the Department for Education and the Treasury to increase the funding to local authorities.

They will argue that the government’s approach to funding SEND is “unlawful” and their children are being failed by the system.

Group founder Gillian Doherty, founder said: “The message to Philip Hammond, to Damian Hinds and to our next prime minister couldn’t be clearer – they must take urgent action to provide the support disabled children need and to which they have a legal right.

“This is the 21st century, in one of the richest countries in the world. Our children are being failed by a system in a tailspin. It’s appalling that parents have had to take their own government to court to try to resolve this crisis.”

Tom Shakespeare spoke to the crowds gathered outside the Royal Courts of Justice

Standing before the courts on Wednesday morning, Kevin Courtney, general secretary of the National Education Union, showed his support for the legal action and added that funding cuts were “damaging” children’s education.

Speaking about the thousands of SEND children without a school place, Mr Courtney said: “It is absolutely shameful in the fifth richest country in the world. It is completely unacceptable that we are in this position.”

Analysis from the National Education Union this week revealed that more than 8,000 young people with SEND are awaiting provision for a school place.

Tom Shakespeare, a professor of disability research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, added: “These actions that we are protesting are in violation of human rights. Disabled children do not have human rights in this country.”

The hearing, which is being supported by charities Mencap and the National Deaf Children’s Society,  is expected to last two days.

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In August, parents of children with special educational needs won a landmark case after taking Bristol City Council to the High Court over £5m cuts to the SEND budget.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The government’s ambition for children with special educational needs and disabilities is no different to any other child – we want them to enjoy school and achieve to their full potential. 

“This is why we are investing significant funding into supporting those with more complex special educational needs – high needs funding totalling £6.3bn this year.

“It would be inappropriate to comment further until the judicial process has concluded.”



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