“PARENTS deserve better” theses are the words of the borough’s Member of Parliament regarding the lack of places in specialist educational needs schools.

New figures from Radar reveal that 23 appeals against the decision not to give a child a place at SEND schools were submitted to the Special Educational Needs and Disability tribunal in Cumbria in 2020.

The local authority is tasked with prioritising which children are given a place in SEND schools such as Mayfield in Whitehaven.

Ruth Ramsay of Cleator Moor has been through the process of challenging a decision not to give her son Dylan a place at Mayfield in 2019. She works with west Cumbrian autism charity Bee Unique, guiding parents through the appeals process. She said: “Appeals should be a very last resort for parents as they are extremely stressful and the procedure is drawn out and far too complicated for parents who are already often overwhelmed and distressed at the lack of suitable provision.

“More planning needs to be done to ensure that children who need specialist places can be accommodated before it gets to a tribunal judge or the parents spend months fighting through paperwork only for the council to back down at the last minute.”

Reacting to the figures, MP for Copeland Trudy Harrison said: “We have helped 16 families to find school places for their children with special educational needs this year which is more enquires than any previous year. The process fails families and despite my requests for information from Cumbria County Council we still lack a clear assessment of need.”

Mrs Harrison said: “Local Government Reform will prioritise Children’s Services and I hope, ensure the most appropriate setting and provision for every child will be available. Parents deserve better.”

In 2020, 4,019 decisions on SEN places were made across Cumbria with 0.6 per cent of them being appealed to a tribunal, a 0.4 per cent rise on the year before but lower than the 0.8 per cent in 2014.

Amanda Batten, Contact’s chief executive has attributed the drop to the challenges of Covid-19 and parents’ added home-schooling demands.

“Families were so busy not only home schooling, but also being nurse, physio and therapist.

“While the guidance was that schools remain open to some children with SEN during lockdown, in practice many were not in school.

“In addition, the support disabled children sometimes access through school including physiotherapy, speech and language therapy and psychotherapy disappeared, and in some cases they are still not back to pre-pandemic levels.”

Councillor for schools and learning Sue Sanderson pointed out that the county council has increased provision at special schools throughout the county, supported Workington’s Cumbria Academy for Autism.

“We’ve done everything we possibly can within what we are in charge of.”

Councillor Sanderson called on the Government to increase funding for councils in order to combat the lack of provision.

“We’re expanding Mayfield again because the demand is there. We’re looking at additional classrooms which they’ll move the sixth form into and they’ll be able to take more children in. We’ve had austerity as a Local Authority for 12 years.”

Councils are allocated High Needs Block funding for specialist education provision. But councillor Sanderson said funding is “not enough”

“The issue with that is we always get the Department of Education saying how are you going to recover the overspend on the High Needs Block Funding? That’s getting less and less every year.”

She mentioned The Queen Elizabeth Studio School which has additional provision on its Kirby Lonsdale site.

“They run that with an additional curriculum. That’s the route will have to look at if things don’t change.”