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The Regional Democracy Think Tank for West Yorkshire

An education system that nurtures all our young people

By Bikatshi Katenga

Our young people with special educational needs and disability (SEND) have bags of potential and are capable of achieving great things if given the right support.

Very often the children who need the most support are ending up with none, and these failures in the SEND system have long-term consequences. There’s no doubt that the underfunding of SEND is having a negative effect on the educational outcomes and life chances of disabled children, thus undermining inclusion. There is no greater sign of Government failure on this issue than that 40 per cent of the children in youth custody have SEND.

All children in the youth justice system are vulnerable by virtue of their young age however many are, in fact, highly vulnerable due to social and educational disadvantages. It is important to recognize that a high number of children who come to the attention of youth justice services have complex support needs, low levels of educational attainment, and far more unmet health needs than other children of their age.

Young Minds, a leading charity fighting for children and young people’s mental health, found that children who offend have health, care and education needs which, if not met, could lead to a lifetime of ill health, unemployment and crime.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

‘Too many youngsters are slipping through the net of care and support. Services need to work together to help young people to turn their lives around. This would have a major impact on improving health, reducing unemployment and tackling youth crime’.

Despite improvements in mental health services for children, health and criminal justiceservices are still not working together to ensure that these vulnerable children get the right support.

It takes a village to raise a child. Although the first elected metro mayor for West Yorkshire will become the region’s Police and Crime Commissioner when they are elected on May 6th, we all have the responsibility to meet and care for the needs of these young people.

Social Economic Factors: Child poverty and the Digital Divide

The pandemic has highlighted, if not exacerbated, the need to tackle child poverty in our region. Our children have been forced to deal with significant and interrelated challenges outside of the classroom that inevitably impact academic performance and the ability to maintain focus in classes. For children already identified as needing special education services, the stresses of hunger can exacerbate learning problems.

This is a moral failure but it is also a failure to recognise the economic benefits of upfront investment in young people’s futures. For example, supporting one person with a learning disability into employment could increase their income by between 55% and 95%, and reduce lifetime costs to the taxpayer by at least £170,000.

Despite the increase in councils’ extra budget ‘Covid Funds’ we continue to see cuts to specialist support and this is contributing to a growing attainment gap between disabled and non-disabled pupils.

Funding cuts have left council teams short-staffed and this has resulted in longer waiting times for families to have their needs assessed and to receive the support they need. Consequently, there are serious inconsistencies in schools identifying, assessing and meeting families’ needs. Parents are not receiving clear or timely information about the support that is available for their children and how to access it.

Funding cuts have significantly impacted on the SEND workforce resulting in the loss of trained SEND qualified teachers, while most teachers are over-stretched and lack specialist training. Volunteers play an important role in our schools from teaching assistants to school governors and as a community we should commend their work, however they should not be used to fill in the gaps caused by the lack of funding.

Homes and liveable places for children and young people

Local communities should have access to local and easily accessible universal services without the need to travel or use a car. For young people, this includes a variety of engagement opportunities that will also enable children with SEND to be included.

There are many housing developments underway, or that have been completed, with little consideration for the needs of the children who live (or will live) there. This includes community spaces and services.

The benefits of free play don’t seem to be acknowledged in many new housing developments, which often lack the facilities needed for children to exercise both their minds and their bodies. Some developments don’t offer any space for free play, while others offer only swings and slides suitable for very young children. Playing outside is essential for children to develop balance, coordination and physical strength. It provides opportunities for children to gain social skills, and improve their imagination, creativity and problem-solving ability. It can also strengthen their sense of self and their sense of connection with their peers and to their community and the environment.

The needs of each local area vary and therefore the investment required in each area will be different, but we need to be able to stand up in planning meetings and ask whether play spaces and gardens will be created for children and young adults. The views of the community and its young people need to be sought. They need to be listened to.

We want children and young people with special educational needs and disability to be genuinely at the heart and soul of decision-making, so that they can thrive and fulfil their potential.

Bikatshi Katenga, based on my own experiences, research, and interviews with people in the SEND education sector.

Bikatshi Katenga
Bikatshi has been involved with local politics since 2015 and has stood in both parliamentary and local elections in 2017 and 2018. She is an advocate of Yorkshire devolution and has chaired The Campaign for a Yorkshire Parliament in 2019. She lives in Huddersfield and is mother to four children, who all attend local schools.

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