Northumberland parents call for improved SEND capacity at protest in Newcastle

A lack of special educational needs provision in the west of Northumberland is causing some children to struggle without the support they need, protesters have said.
Parents at the SEND Reform protest outside Newcastle civic centre. Picture by Simon Greener.Parents at the SEND Reform protest outside Newcastle civic centre. Picture by Simon Greener.
Parents at the SEND Reform protest outside Newcastle civic centre. Picture by Simon Greener.

Parents at the SEND Reform protest at Newcastle Civic Centre last Friday spoke of the difficulties they had been through trying to get their children into SEND schools in the area. One mum said she was told there was no room for her autistic son, who is non-verbal and requires one-to-one support.

The demonstration was part of national “day of action” organised by SEND Reform. The group was formed by a group of mums earlier this year following “disparaging” comments made by councillors during a Kent County Council SEND sub-committee meeting.

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Dozens of parents and children attended Friday’s event in Newcastle to show their support for the cause.

Among them was Zoe Bell, a mum from Prudhoe who has a four-year-old son called James.

James is autistic, non-verbal and presents with “very challenging behaviour”. Despite this, she has been unable to get him into the county’s SEND schools due to a lack of places.

Zoe said: “Unfortunately, we wanted to get him in a specialist school but were told there were no places this year and we would have to wait. He’s in mainstream school, but he is not able to access the classroom and has to be in a separate room with a one-to-one teaching assistant.

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“It is hard work. James can be very aggressive, lashing out at teachers and other children, and also towards himself.

“He only goes to school from 9am until 1pm – today, he lasted half an hour. I just have to take him home.”

Zoe would like to send James to the Priory specialist school in Hexham, but has not ruled out sending the youngster further afield.

She continued: “I would rather not send him to Morpeth, but I would take it. The school has been really supportive but it’s just not the right setting – he needs a smaller class.

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“It’s really hard. It would be a big decision to say we will do an hour’s travel, because he doesn’t travel well. We have to fight for everything.”

Also attending the demonstration was Labour’s Coun Angie Scott, who represents the Prudhoe North ward. Coun Scott has an autistic teenage son, Joseph, who has had to travel to Morpeth and Cramlington for his schooling.

She said: “The system is failing our children. Look at how many people are here saying it is stealing their future.

“Children are being failed and the Government aren’t bothered. We need a fair education system where children’s needs are met. If a child needs SEND provision, don’t send them to a mainstream school.

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“My son, Joseph, travelled from Prudhoe to Morpeth on a daily basis since the age of eight, and then had to go to Cramlington. He’s now socially isolated, he has no voice and no friends in our local community. It’s not fair.”

The county council has defended its record on SEND education. Coun Guy Renner-Thompson, cabinet member for inspiring young people, said: “We want every child in Northumberland to have access to a good school and inclusive provision that is as close to home as possible and our SEND Capacity and Place Planning Strategy sets out the steps we’re taking to address this.

“These steps will be taken by working closely with our schools and our communities. For the vast majority of our SEN students, their local mainstream school is the best place for them to experience their education so they can remain with their friends in their home communities and we work closely with all our Northumberland schools to support this.

“We know that every parent wants the very best for their child and that we have much more to do to tackle inequalities in Northumberland. But we have a plan in place and will continue to work closely with our schools, partners and communities so that every child reaches their full potential.”

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However, Zoe was not so sure mainstream is the best place for her son. She added: “They say mainstream is the best place for children, but my child is in a room by himself – how is that going to get him the best outcomes?

“I would like them to see my son in a mainstream school. What education is that? It’s no education.

“It comes down to money at the end of the day. I want the local authority to think about things in a bespoke, holistic way, instead of a box-ticking exercise.

“The process has gone on for over a year now. Early intervention is key so the longer it goes on, the worse it gets. I feel like this time is key.”

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The council has pointed out it is investing more than £100million in new and improved school facilities in Berwick, the Seaton Valley and Coquet partnership at schools, with SEN provision “at the heart” of those plans. Furthermore, the new Emily Wilding Davison school in Ponteland and the Gilbert Ward Academy in Blyth have created “additional capacity”.

It also said that “innovative” specialist support bases have been opened across the county, which can “deliver specialist teaching and support on a mainstream school site”.