Parents slam council

Protesters against both cuts to SEND provision and the felling of mature trees at Walthamstow Town Square turned up to protest at the town hall despite a full council meeting being postponed until September
Protesters against both cuts to SEND provision and the felling of mature trees at Walthamstow Town Square turned up to protest at the town hall despite a full council meeting being postponed until September

Fury over postponed meeting at which protests were planned, reports James Cracknell

Parents of disabled children branded Waltham Forest Council “cowardly” after a meeting they planned to protest at was postponed.

Two separate demonstrations had been planned to coincide with the full council meeting scheduled for Thursday 18th July but now put back until 12th September. A council spokesperson claimed there was a “lack of business to discuss” at the meeting despite it coming just four days prior to the launch of its draft Local Plan – setting out the local authority’s development proposals for the next 15 years – as well as coming amid an ongoing crisis with Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) services in the borough.

Full council meetings usually take place every two months but the gap of nearly fourth months between the last meeting in May and the next one now scheduled for September is the longest since 2005. Claire Bithell and her partner Ken Barlow are parents of five-year-old autistic boy Dylan and helped organise a ‘protest picnic’ outside Waltham Forest Town Hall. Claire told the Echo: “We only found out [about the postponement] two days before.

“The council has no interest in meaningful debate with teachers or parents – they want to do everything on their own terms, they want to keep a lid on things, and they don’t like their dirty laundry being aired in public.

“This meeting was a chance for us to engage with councillors and it is not a chance we get very often. It is cowardly.”

Earlier this year the council proposed changes to the way it allocates funding for SEND children in the borough but, after a backlash, the changes were “paused”. Parents had argued that re-allocations of funding would leave some children in mainstream education facing cuts to their SEND provision of up to 40%. Concerns remain over cuts to funded nursery hours at special schools, early years intervention, hospital and home teaching services, as well as occupational therapy. The council has also been accused of failing in its legal duty to provide comprehensive Education Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) for special needs children.

In a recent open letter sent to the Secretary of State for Education, council leader Clare Coghill blamed the government for Waltham Forest’s SEND provision cuts, stating the borough’s higher needs budget faced “a cumulative deficit of £4.2million by 2020/21 if no action is taken” and that “children and young people deserve better”.

But parents say blaming the government is a convenient way to avoid accountability for the local authority’s own failings. Ken told the Echo: “There has been gross financial mismanagement. The council has a legal obligation to look after these kids, so if they genuinely believe they cannot meet their needs they should take the government to court with a judicial review – they’re willing to do it to protect Waltham Forest News so why not children with special needs?”

Michelle Hegarty, chair of governors at Frederick Bremer School, was also protesting outside the town hall. She told the Echo: “Our school has been disproportionately affected but we weren’t invited to take part in the original consultation. We can’t take any more cuts – we won’t be able to keep these kids in school.”

A council spokesperson said: “The council meeting was postponed after consultation with both political groups until Thursday 12th September, due to a lack of business. If there is a lack of business to discuss, it is more cost-effective to wait until there is a full agenda of items.
“We apologise for any inconvenience caused to members of the public who were due to speak at this meeting. They will be welcome to speak at the September meeting.”