Herts-wide SEND Crisis march sets its sights on the hearts and minds of Stevenage and beyond

PUBLISHED: 14:26 31 May 2019 | UPDATED: 14:26 31 May 2019

Special education needs families gather in Stevenage for an organised march against Hertfordshire County Council Childrens services which they say are failing vulnerable families. Picture: DANNY LOO

Special education needs families gather in Stevenage for an organised march against Hertfordshire County Council Childrens services which they say are failing vulnerable families. Picture: DANNY LOO

©2019 Archant

More than 100 parents and activists marched together yesterday to protest the situation for children with special educational needs in Hertfordshire.

Thursday's march, which took place in Stevenage, came as part of a nationwide effort to raise awareness of funding cuts and a lack of accountability for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

According to the organisers, the march addressed the "failings of those with SEND, their families and education providers who are expected to deliver an appropriate education on continuous budget cuts".

For Hertfordshire SEND Crisis, what started as four mums with an idea turned into an organised, afternoon protest with more than 100 demonstrators taking part.

Donna Sharp, one of the four mums who co-ordinated the event, had a 15-month fight to get her son with disabilities into a school. He has only recently been accepted into Lakeside School, Welwyn Garden City.

Special education needs families gather in Stevenage for an organised march against Hertfordshire County Council Childrens services which they say are failing vulnerable families. Picture: DANNY LOOSpecial education needs families gather in Stevenage for an organised march against Hertfordshire County Council Childrens services which they say are failing vulnerable families. Picture: DANNY LOO

She said yesterday's action was "just the beginning, not the end," of the journey for the SEND crisis campaigners.

Demonstrators from across Herts assembled in Fairlands Valley Showground at 1pm.

Many had prepared colourful banners for the day and, as the march set off, loud chants of "our kids matter!" ringed throughout the park.

After about an hour, the snaking procession had made its way to a small square just outside of Stevenage Central Library.

Special education needs families gather in Stevenage for an organised march against Hertfordshire County Council Childrens services which they say are failing vulnerable families. Picture: DANNY LOOSpecial education needs families gather in Stevenage for an organised march against Hertfordshire County Council Childrens services which they say are failing vulnerable families. Picture: DANNY LOO

Equipped with a microphone and loudspeaker, five people were invited to speak about their own, or their children's, experiences.

Harry Thompson - who has been diagnosed with ADHD, autism and pathological demand avoidance, started the speeches off with his personal experience.

Samantha Lethbridge, a parent to a child with SEN, then spoke about how she and her husband were forced to sell their house in 2015 to pay for their daughter's care.

She said: "Selling our house was the last resort. In the past three years we have spent in excess of £20,000 on our daughter's care. Should we have had to pay that money?"

Donna Sharp joins special education needs families as they gather in Stevenage for an organised march against Hertfordshire County Council Childrens services which they say are failing vulnerable families. Picture: DANNY LOODonna Sharp joins special education needs families as they gather in Stevenage for an organised march against Hertfordshire County Council Childrens services which they say are failing vulnerable families. Picture: DANNY LOO

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Jill Borcherds, who has 23 years of teaching experience in Hertfordshire schools, discussed funding cuts and the effect this was having on students in schools.

Jill said that £253 per pupil had been lost due to budget cuts since 2015. "Of course, these cuts will affect the most vulnerable children the most," she added.

Kenny Arnold - founder of Stevenage community group People for People and father of a SEND child - said that without the support his family received in the 1990s, they would not have pulled through.

He told the crowd that our society has travelled backwards since then. Kenny's final words were addressed directly to Damian Hinds, the Education Secretary: "We will keep fighting!"

As the protest moved towards Farnham and Robertson House in Stevenage, protesters had strong words for Herts County Council.

Liz Stanley, an independent SEND advisor and parent of a SEND child, believes that the situation has reached a critical level amidst "a dramatic drop in services and support for SEND families".

She added: "Hertfordshire [county council] is turning down applications for unlawful reasons."

Herts County Council will be investing approximately £3 million to improve its SEND services and support.

In response to the march, a spokesperson said: "We understand the concerns of these parents about the increasing pressures on SEND budgets.

"By the end of 2023 we are forecasting that the number of children and young people requiring an education health and care plan will grow by 36 per cent.

"To meet demand we have identified three priority areas: Transforming local delivery networks, maximising the benefits of digital technology and improving access to independent living, employment and training opportunities for people with SEN."

Jenny Coles, director of Herts children's services, and education cabinet member Terry Douris met with a handful of protestors outside of the council's building.

Herts-based organisations also took part in the day's events. Angels Support Group, S P A C E, Potential Kids, Families in Focus and ADD-vance all offered their support.

Protest action was organised in more than 25 towns and cities across the country, with 13,000 people signing a petition that was delivered to Downing Street by SEND Crisis campaigners.

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