Hackney Council faces legal backlash following ‘unlawful’ cuts to special education

Source: Hackney Special Educational Crisis     Artist: Francisco de la Mora

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Hackney Council is facing a backlash from local people and lawyers following recent dramatic cuts of 5% to the borough’s special educational services.

Law firm Irwin Mitchell will be representing four Hackney families in the high court who have claimed that cuts to the Special Education Needs (SEND) budget mean their children are left vulnerable after not receiving the level of help and services they require.

In a response to ongoing austerity, special educational services in Hackney could go ahead with proposed plans to cut special needs provision funding by a further £5million on top of the recent cuts of 5% to high needs funding in mainstream schools. The £5m figure is the gap between what the government allocates the borough and what Hackney spends.

Cllr Chris Kennedy has recently been appointed a cabinet member in Hackney. He has taken over SEND duties and will play a key role in implementing any further cuts to the provision.

The charity Hackney Special Education Crisis has turned to crowdfunding to ensure that local families are less affected by the cuts. With under a week until their ‘Hackney Special Education Under Attack’ funding page is closed, they have already raised £4,905 of their £5,500 target.

In 2017, the Deputy Mayor of Hackney Cllr Anntoinette Bramble spoke of a “hidden education crisis” in response to a funding freeze for special educational services in 2011. Such freezing has meant that many London Boroughs have been left with no other option but to make harsh cuts and in Hackney alone there was a reported funding shortfall of £6million.

Cllr Bramble, wrote to the Secretary of State for Education in 2017, urging her to reform the vital funding, stating: “The funding of SEND is a hidden crisis in our education system and is threatening the quality of education and support we can offer to our most vulnerable young people. The National Funding Formula rightly sparked a national debate, but this funding freeze means councils are running out of choices.

“In Hackney, we will be forced to reduce the amount of high needs top-up funding we give to schools by 5%. Reducing funding is absolutely the last thing we want to do, and it’s been a hard decision to make. As a former SEN teacher, I know the importance of adequate funding, but there simply is no other option left to us.”

Despite the council’s earlier efforts to reform the previously available funding, local families have deemed the council’s decision to cut the necessary funding as ‘unlawful’, suggesting that the most recently announced cuts were introduced without the correct consultation of directly affected families. Furthermore, parents are suggesting that the council could have made cuts elsewhere.

Gillian Doherty, campaigner for Hackney Special Education Crisis whose son has been directly affected by the cuts told ELL: “The cuts will affect a lot of the children with the highest level of need. The worry is what will be cut is a lot of the specialist services. Things like specialist teachers, speech and language therapy or specialist equipment that children need to support their learning.

“We are trying to get the local authority to do what they are required to do by law, which we believe they are not doing, and to have a rethink about where we can recover these cost by cutting things which are less important. There can’t be many things of higher priority than supporting the needs of disabled children”

Special educational needs are made up of more general SEND (special educational needs funding) and an EHC (education health and care) plan which is aimed at individuals age 19-25 who require additional levels of support.

A spokesperson for Hackney Independent Forum for Parents/Carers of Children with Disabilities told ELL: “Our forum has worked with the local authority and parents for more than eight years, but our members have told us these cuts are entirely unacceptable because they will damage their children’s futures.”

Anne-Marie Irwin, specialist public law and human rights lawyer who is representing the case said: “We have heard extremely worrying first-hand accounts from our clients regarding what their children have faced.

“Through our work, we have come to the conclusion that the council’s policy on funding support is unlawful as it fails to fulfil the absolute requirement to ensure each child gets the help that they require. In addition, the amount of funding available has been reduced by an arbitrary figure which has nothing to do with children or young people’s needs.

“We are also concerned that the changes made to the EHC Plan mean decisions on provision can be made without having a child’s needs properly in mind.” 

Hackney schools general funding cuts, raw data source: www.schoolcuts.org.uk

The cuts to SEND funding are part of wider national funding cuts to schools in general, with £2.8 billion axed from the school budget since 2015.

The case against Hackney Council will be taken up in court with the hope of regaining the funds cut by the council, helping the families affected.

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