Diary of a Sheffield headteacher: ‘Children are literally falling out of the school system because schools can’t cope’

A Sheffield headteacher reveals how children with special educational needs (SEN) are being failed due to ‘woefully inadequate’ funding as part of a week-long diary series detailing the true impact of school budget cuts in England.

Friday, 29th November 2019, 12:46 pm
Updated Wednesday, 4th December 2019, 2:31 pm
A pupil in a lesson at Watercliffe Meadow School in Shirecliffe

According to figures from the Department for Education, around 1.3m school-age pupils across the country are classed as having special educational needs, equating to 15 per cent of the pupil population, while the number with education, health and care plans has increased by around 30 per cent this year.

Further analysis by the National Education Union also found that special needs provision has lost out on £1.2bn due to shortfalls in school funding, which has seen budgets slashed considerably since 2010.

In September, the government said it was to launch a major review of the support offered for SEN children, just a week after it announced a funding boost of £700m in 2020/21 for pupils with the most complex needs.

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Watercliffe Meadow School Headteacher Ian Read

As part of a week-long series that began on Monday, The Sheffield Star is delving into school life at Watercliffe Meadow Primary School, in Shirecliffe, through the eyes of headteacher Ian Read.

Within his role, Mr Read also works with Sheffield Council around special education provision and supporting children at risk of exclusion.

In the next installment of the diary, which covers just one week in November, he details how there is an increasing need to offer support to SEN children at Watercliffe Meadow and other schools in a similar position but, due to cuts to school funding, this is becoming even more difficult.


Watercliffe Meadow School, in Shirecliffe

Today we ran the second in a series of five workshops for our new parents with children starting nursery, we have a session at the start and end of the school day, probably about 80 per cent of our new parents attended. This is something that we have done for many years in order to establish strong relationships with our parents and share ways in which they can support their child in school and at home. We view this partnership as fundamental to success for our children.

Another reason for running them is that we find out about both the children and the parent’s needs. Previously, we would’ve then been able to tap into a range of services to offer support; from educational psychologists to autism specialists. It is not that these services no longer exist but they are so stretched that it can take months and years to access what is needed. Not only that but the level of need in schools is increasing in both numbers of children and complexity.

The role I do outside of school for the local authority is around special educational needs and supporting children at risk of exclusion. In just the past three years I have seen that need escalate significantly, mirroring what I am seeing in my own school and schools up and down the country. The current funding for children with a high level of special educational needs is woefully inadequate and leads to a huge amount of stress for parents, the children themselves and staff who are trying to support in schools.

An example from today; we home visited a child who has been out of school for over a year and a half. This is a child with a diagnosis of autism and attention deficit but without an Education, Health and Care Plan, living with a single parent and two siblings with more pronounced SEN. They are not in our catchment area and we are not their preferred school, partly because it will mean six journeys a day for one parent with three SEN children in different places.

As they have been allocated a place with us we will do all we can for them but we also know from that home visit that we will be faced with an impossible choice. Do we take away a member of staff from the six to nine children she currently works and supports to give this new pupil the support he is probably going to need? Or do we leave the new pupil to flounder? This is a common issue faced more and more frequently in mainstream schools. In the end it will be a compromise for both and will stretch the capacity of the adults involved. The staff who we would previously have redeployed to address these kind of additional challenges are the people who are now redundant as a result of the funding cuts.

Interestingly, at the end of the day we had a joint staff meeting with another school in another part of the city. When I arrived, they had just had a call about two similar children that were being placed with them. We have had more cases like this in the past 18 months than we’d had in the previous 10 years. Children are literally falling out of the school system because schools can’t cope and at some point, another school will attempt to pick up the pieces without adequate resource to do so.

Our education system is falling apart because we don’t have the budget or supporting services to meet need.