‘It’s just another stab in the back’ – the traumatic battle for special needs education in Sheffield

Written by Hannah Richardson

From legal battles to a chip shop classroom, the right to a suitable education has become a traumatic and exhausting fight for parents of children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities in Sheffield.

A mother of three SEND boys in years eight, six and four of school, who wished to remain anonymous to protect her children’s privacy, detailed a catalogue of failings concerning the provision of her children’s education by Sheffield City Council.

She said: “It’s been about eight years since we’ve been dealing with the SEND department in the local authority and it’s been nothing but the worse thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. It’s been really traumatic and time consuming and energy consuming.

“I can’t describe, I just can’t understand, how they can get away with it and have no accountability. I’ve never known a service that can just do nothing and get away with it.”

She says the process is exhausting, but as a parent who simply wants the best for her children, to not fight for their needs is not an option.

“You think ‘how long can I do this for?’ But you have to because you can’t have the boys out of school. And that’s the motivation, you just want them to be stable and happy and able to attend school every day.”

The family from South West Sheffield are in the process of going through their fifth tribunal, after the council failed to name any secondary school for one of their sons on the legal deadline of 15 January, despite having the necessary information since June 2020.

In the end, the family found their own school, which the department took as an opportunity to enforce the parental preference loophole. This means they are now not entitled to funding for things like transport, despite the family’s increased involvement resulting from the department’s own failings.

The boys’ mother said: “It’s just another stab in the back.

“They put on his plan that we’ve agreed to pay things above and beyond his fees. We’ve never even had that conversation, the last time someone was in touch was February, so yeah, they’re liars as well. It’s just blatant dishonesty, there’s no other word for it.

“You’re there like ‘that conversation has never taken place and you’ve put it on legal documents.’”

She added that the issue with the department meeting deadlines extends beyond this single incident: “In the eight years, they’ve never met a legal deadline. Ever. Ever. Nothing has ever come on time and you’re always left chasing.”

The 2019/20 annual review for one of her sons, which was due in January 2020, is still in the draft stage, with the department admitting that a delay of this length cannot be blamed on the pandemic.

She also claimed there was a culture of aggression within the department when they are speaking to and about families.

“When it does get sent to the Head of SEND or to the lawyers, they then become really aggressive with you. You just think ‘you’re meant to be working in partnership with families and you’re just being really aggressive.'”

A second mother from Nether Edge, who also asked to remain anonymous, described a five-year cycle of council failures that resulted in her son, now in post-16 education, being taught in a disused chip shop.

At that point, her son had been walking the streets with his tutor as no indoor space had been provided.

She said: “I had been asking and asking and asking for them to provide somewhere indoors that’s dry and warm and somewhere where he has access to a toilet. And they agreed to fund the chip shop and at the time I was so grateful.

“Looking back at it, it’s appalling, he should not have ended up in a chip shop, it’s disgusting. There was still fat in the fryers, they were all turned off, but the smell it permeates everything. And there was no heating, it got to the point where I had to send him in a dressing gown.”

Eventually, she went to an ombudsman who found serious failings with the way the case had been handled. In 2020, she received £20,000 from the council in compensation, but for her, the money cannot cover the true cost of this debacle.

She said: “I feel like we’ve lost so much because [my son] has lost his self-confidence, he’s lost his friendships, he’s lost his childhood, he’s lost his educational chances. I mean, how do you make up for five years?

“I can’t imagine myself what it must be like to not have been in high school for five years, because that’s your memories going forward, isn’t it? Like when you meet friends and you talk about ‘oh what school did you go to’ or whatever, he’s got none of that. He’s got none of that to come.

“I just think the effect this is going to have in years to come, and it worries me. It’s life limiting. Now he doesn’t want to catch up, it’s damaged him, it’s damaging. He just sees himself as worthless.”

For her, the impact has been just as bad. She was in the process of completing a degree at the time and considered throwing it in more than once because she could not cope with the strain of it all.

“It just drains you; I don’t think people realise how much it drains you. You think you can just ask for help and it’s there, but it isn’t, it’s not there at all.”

“As a parent, it does scar your relationships with services, you do lose your trust in professionals. It does damage you and I never thought I would be like that because I’ve always been very trusting of organisations.”

These personal stories come as Sheffield’s SEND department are implementing internal changes to the service after Sheffield City Council declared that this was an emergency area.

Sheffield’s SEND department has been contacted and are yet to provide a comment.

Written by Hannah Richardson

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