Families fight government in court over 'chronic underfunding' for special needs

Families with children who have special educational needs and disabilities (Send) and their supporters have staged an emotional demonstration outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London, before a legal hearing challenging government funding cuts.

They were there on Wednesday to support three families, from Birmingham, East Sussex and North Yorkshire, who have put their names to what has been described as a landmark case against the education secretary, Damian Hinds, and the chancellor, Philip Hammond. It will argue that the government’s Send funding policies are unlawful.

It is the first time the government has been taken to court over Send funding, which has come under intense scrutiny amid growing complaints from families that their children were losing vital educational support to which they are entitled.

Lawyers representing the families will argue that central government funding cuts to local government mean councils have been unable to fulfil their legal duty to provide education to children with Send. The judicial review hearing before Mr Justice Lewis is expected to last two days.

Standing before the courts, families and young people with Send described their experiences of the system. Mary Riddell, of Great Barr in Birmingham, is one of those named in the action. Her daughter Dakota, 10, has a number of conditions including cerebral palsy, global development delay and muscle disorders clonus and dystonia.

Riddell told supporters she had had to fight for every single provision for her daughter: “The fight is real, exhausting, mindblowing. I’m here today to fight for what is right and to fight for my daughter’s rights. Local authorities are so chronically underfunded, there’s no way they can meet demand.

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“The situation as it is cannot continue or else Dakota and a huge number of other vulnerable children will ultimately lose out. We feel like our concerns have been repeatedly ignored on this issue and we hope this action will ensure the government finally sits up and pays attention.”

Also bringing the case are the families of 15-year-old Nico Heugh Simone, from Robertsbridge, East Sussex and 14-year-old Benedict McFinnigan, from Scarborough, North Yorkshire. McFinnigan, who has post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and chronic insomnia, has not been in mainstream school for about two years and is now attending a pupil referral unit for less than three hours a day.

Heugh Simone, who has autism, anxiety and other related conditions, requires special support to remain in mainstream school, yet his family say they have repeatedly faced issues with East Sussex county council over the cost of his requirements.

His mother, Lorraine Heugh, said before the hearing: “We feel like we have been left with no choice but to take this action. We are hopeful the high court will recognise the national emergency that is being created by the lack of Send funding and order action to be taken to redress this issue.”

Among those addressing supporters was Jo Campion, the head of the National Deaf Children Society’s campaign against cuts. She said: “The situation is becoming completely intolerable for families across the country. Funding is being cut year on year and the specialist teachers these children rely on have been savagely cut back.

“This needs to be a massive wake-up call for the government. They need to act immediately to stop this crisis spiralling out of control. If they don’t, an entire generation of disabled children will have their futures stolen from them.”

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Also supporting the families outside the court was Tom Shakespeare, a professor of disability research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He said: “I think it’s shocking and not very well known what’s happening in our country for the most vulnerable of people. Somebody has got to stand up for them.”

In response to growing pressure from families, education unions and local authorities, the education secretary has announced a review of Send funding and has called for evidence. Ministers have also indicated it would be addressed in the spending review later this year.

The high court previously rejected cases brought by families of children with special educational needs against Hackney and Surrey councils. The government’s case at the high court is being made by Sir James Eadie QC. The families are represented by Jenni Richards QC.

Anne-Marie Irwin, a public law specialist at Irwin Mitchell acting for the families, said before the hearing: “So many families are desperate to know that their children will be able to get the support they require to access an education, yet so many councils at the moment are resorting to budget cuts, which puts that under serious threat.

“Our clients in this case simply feel that enough is enough and want the government to reconsider the level of support it is providing to local authorities on the issue of special educational needs.”

Gillian Doherty, the founder of the campaigning group SEND Action, 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.

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“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.”



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