Parents push ahead with SEND cuts legal bid

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 cuts to SEND provision outside Waltham Forest Town Hall

High Court hearing set for later this month, reports James Cracknell

Parents fighting cuts to special needs provision in the borough are going ahead with a judicial review challenge against Waltham Forest Council after being told they could obtain legal aid.

An initial two-day hearing at the High Court has been scheduled for Wednesday 29th and Thursday 30th July, with a date still to be set for a potential full judicial review hearing.

The council voted through its cuts to funding for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in March, after saying it needed to plug a £5.3million budget deficit. It meant reducing ‘top-up funding’ for pupils in the lowest two bands of need by 10%.

The decision came despite a series of long-running appeals and protests staged by local parents and teachers. Waltham Forest SEND Crisis, a local campaign group opposing the council’s cuts, raised £3,000 to help fund a court challenge. Two parents who are personally bringing a joint case on behalf of the campaign were granted legal aid. Lawyers Irwin Mitchell sent a letter to the council in May, ahead of its judicial review bid.

In the letter, seen by the Echo, lawyers argue that the council’s decision was unlawful on the basis of being “irrational” and because its consultation with parents and teachers was “insufficient and unfair”.

Irwin Mitchell state: “The council does not appear to understand what the ‘needs’ of the relevant children in question are, or what resources are required to meet those needs.

“It is unclear how the council could rationally conclude that – if the cuts went ahead – schools would be able to make up any shortfall and continue to secure the provision.”

On the matter of the consultation held last winter, the lawyers add: “The consultation document did not contain sufficient information to enable individuals to fully consider the proposals and provide an intelligent response. This is reflected in the consultation responses from both schools and individuals.”

Shortly before the council’s ruling cabinet voted through the SEND cuts, the council’s children and young people’s committee recommended that any decision be deferred while other solutions could be explored and further lobbying of government could take place. This recommendation was dismissed by cabinet members.

Separately, another consultation was recently launched for a new banding system that will apply to any child in the borough that receives an educational, health and care plan (EHCP) from September this year. However, the consultation initially carried the wrong dates, asking parents to submit responses “between 4th November 2019 and 2nd December 2019”.

Ken Barlow, a parent of an autistic son and campaigner with Waltham Forest SEND Crisis, said: “The fact no-one involved has noticed this shows how little real interest they have in engaging [with us] and how inept they are.”

A council spokesperson said: “The council has responded to the letter received from Irwin Mitchell, setting out why the decision taken has been lawful, and is defending the judicial proceedings that have been issued.

“We apologise for the incorrect dates being set out on the consultation questionnaire document. The error was corrected and the consultation period extended.”