Newcastle MP challenges Staffordshire’s new Education Secretary over Special Needs
Newcastle-under-Lyme’s Labour MP Paul Farrelly has called on new Education Secretary Gavin Williamson - himself a Staffordshire MP – to personally sort out the crisis in special needs schooling and ‘discriminatory differences’ in performance across the County.
The exchange came
as the Government finally unveiled planned spending increases for schools,
before a key Brexit vote in the Commons yesterday.
For over a year now, Mr Farrelly has been pursuing the underfunding of special needs education locally with the County Council - and a situation where in his Borough and neighbouring Staffordshire Moorlands families are faring much worse than elsewhere.
‘Special needs education is in crisis across the country,’ Newcastle’s MP told the Commons. ‘But in the County we share in Staffordshire there are also woeful discrepancies between different areas regarding vital Education and Health Care Plans.’
‘So, when is the Secretary of State going to step in and act in the interests of children with special needs in our County?,’ he said.
Local authorities have a statutory duty to complete so-called EHCPs for children with recognised special needs within 20 weeks. These - which replaced the old ‘statementing’ process - are crucial in finding families the right places in the right schools, so that educational needs and disabilities can be properly addressed.
Last year, Staffordshire had a £5m funding shortfall in its special needs budget, and there is no detail yet on where an extra £700m nationally will actually go, and when.
The overall situation masks huge differences between districts in the County. In 2017/18, just 26% of ECHPs for 111 children were completed in time in Newcastle and the Moorlands; for the academic year just gone, it fell to 0% - with over 100 pupils left waiting.
In Cannock and Lichfield, the figures were 98% and 75% respectively; in East Staffordshire and Tamworth, 77% and 15%; and in Stafford and South Staffordshire, Mr Williamson’s seat, it was 92%, dropping to just 24% in 2018/19.
‘The situation has deteriorated dramatically this year across the whole of the County, but the variation in Newcastle and the Moorlands is utterly unacceptable,’ Newcastle’s MP said.
‘I have seen families, who have been waiting 18 months, with children out of school. And then, with the crisis generally, it’s tough to find a place. The County is blaming a shortage of educational psychologists, but that doesn’t explain the discrimination against our area.’
In January, Staffordshire’s performance was slated after a joint Ofsted and Care Quality Commission inspection and it is currently reviewing it organises the special needs service following a ‘Written Statement of Action’, agreed with regulators and Education Department.
Before Christmas, the County also completed a wide-ranging consultation over its strategy, which was aimed at cutting the deficit and threatened future funding for special school places. Following the inspection, however, the results have yet to be unveiled.
Since pursuing concerns about funding last year, Mr Farrelly made a detailed, critical submission to the consultation, after contacting all schools in Newcastle.
As well as local schools, he also recently visited the Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) in Newcastle, which also covers the Moorlands and is bearing the brunt of the crisis. He was appalled to learn of waits there, too, of up to 18 months for EHCPs, meaning it is stretched to the limit in helping other children and schools out.
As well as quarterly MPs’ meetings with the County Council, Mr Farrelly has pressed concerns with ministers and Ofsted, too – whose review failed specifically to address the ‘unwarranted variation’ between Staffordshire’s different local areas.
‘I’ve now had replies from them all to fresh questions before the summer, but they are of no comfort at all in addressing the neglect in my constituency, especially, Mr Farrelly said.
‘The only actual commitment by the County is to ‘roll out’ a new system in the Moorlands now, and to have Meetings with schools in Newcastle this term for something to happen next year. There are no specifics at all - and meanwhile families and schools are left in limbo.’
‘I’ll be following this up, with a demand that the new Education Secretary uses the Government’s powers to compel improvement for the benefit of families not only in Newcastle, but the Staffordshire seat he represents, too.’