The DfE is focused on learning but a tsunami of need is upon us

22 Jun 2021, 14:30

At the Westminster Insight SEND conference, Sonia Blandford says the government is ignoring a worrying rise in SEND and CAHMS referrals that we are not prepared for

Strange. Challenging. Unprecedented. Just a few of the words we have all used to describe the period since COVID-19 has impacted on all of our lives.

But while it’s been difficult enough to understand from the position of a secure family home with no prior needs, there are many for whom it has been simply devastating.

In our work with education settings all over the country, we are detecting a major seismic event: a tsunami of referrals to SEND teams and CAMHS provision that will overtop the flood defences.

Let me talk you through some of the situations students we work with have found themselves in. (All names have been changed.)

Kadija is 18 and shares a bedroom with her mum, a single parent who survives by working and claiming benefits. Her older sister has had mental health and drug problems, so living at home is a trial.

We are detecting a major seismic event

Kadija was to have taken A levels. But her mocks, disrupted by family trauma, resulted in a C, E and U, against predicted grades of A*, C and C.

She is getting little additional income through occasional shifts in the pub her house, and she has little or no motivation to continue with her ambition to go to university to study medicine. Kadija is vulnerable and disadvantaged but does not fall within Educational, Health, Care Plan (EHCP) or Free School Meals support or subsidies

Then there is Tess. She is 16, with high-end physical and cognitive disabilities, and significant emotional needs. Tess is disabled and vulnerable, but she lives in a rural area and her support system – including specialist teaching and learning services – are located 90 miles away. They take over two hours to get to her.

Finally, Tom has profound and multiple learning disabilities and has been living with his single mother as the primary carer along with four other siblings. One of them has the same condition as him. His mother got diagnosed with a mental illness two years ago and since then has been out of the house, so his older brothers have been the main carers.

Kadija, Tess and Tom share a common situation, which makes them vulnerable and disadvantaged – they do not have the normal points of reference shared by so many of their peers. Their world is different, needing significant structure and support.

For all young people, it is home that provides the benchmark for their lives. The pandemic has caused us all to revalue the meaning of home and the importance of the quality of shelter, food, safety, personal growth, health, and love that it holds. We know that ‘home’ is where we develop and nurture our core strength.

So have Kadija, Tess and Tom. But for them and thousands like them, watching the news or scrolling social media, trying to seek support when the structure of their lives has disappeared has been traumatic.

Education institutions and third sector organisations have stepped in to care for vulnerable and disadvantaged young people over the past 16 months.

Teachers have provided daily one-to-one support, checked meal vouchers had arrived and that there is somewhere to sleep, clothes to wear.

In the meantime, government’s key focus has been on learning. But in truth Kadija, Tess and Tom have a long way to go before this is their priority.

Their teachers, carers and support networks face the challenge of providing new stable reference points before any form of learning can take place.

Teachers face the challenge of providing new stable reference points

Physical and emotional security, love and belonging are their priority, so our key question must be this: How will we get them the highly specialised and urgent support they need to overcome the social, emotion and mental health issues caused by lockdown?

Some of these young people would have been on a road towards more positive life outcomes, overcoming ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) through the care and support of their college communities.

But many have been re-traumatised. And for them, specialist help is not a luxury, but an absolute and immediate necessity.

And supporting that ought to be the government’s priority.

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