Covid-19 crisis has had ‘disproportionate impact’ on SEND children, says Ipswich MP

PUBLISHED: 10:10 07 August 2020 | UPDATED: 10:10 07 August 2020

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt is concerned about the impact the coronavirus crisis has had on children with special educational needs. Picture: Barry Batchelor/PA Wire

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt is concerned about the impact the coronavirus crisis has had on children with special educational needs. Picture: Barry Batchelor/PA Wire

It seems like a long time ago now since my maiden speech back in January. In that speech I spoke about my struggles with dyslexia and dyspraxia at school and how if there is one thing I can do in public life other than representing Ipswich, it’s dedicating myself to ensuring that children with special educational needs have the support they need to achieve their full potential.

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt. Picture: HOUSE OF COMMONSIpswich MP Tom Hunt. Picture: HOUSE OF COMMONS

At that time, I couldn’t have imagined the impact that Covid-19 would have on children with SEND, and how the need for more support for them would become even more important and urgent. But since the lockdown began, I’ve been working non-stop on the Education Committee to stick by the commitment I gave in my first speech in Parliament and tackle the disproportionate impact this virus outbreak has had on children with SEND.

This has really been a fight on multiple fronts. One of the first issues that came to light during the lockdown is the greater difficulty children with SEND have had in using online learning resources. For many children with dyslexia for example, things like reading the same amount of text on a screen as other children can be a challenge when it’s not broken down and presented in the right way. I took this issue up directly with the Education Secretary during Committee in April and also with the Director of the Oak National Academy to help secure improvements.

I’ve also been working on what the cancellation of exams and the prediction of grades mean for children with SEND. I’ve made the point a number of times on the Committee that children with SEND are often unconventional learners who can achieve grades that few would have predicted beforehand. And the evidence we’ve heard at Committee suggests children with SEND may be disadvantaged by predicted grades.

Ofqual has recommended that schools seek the input of SEND specialists when calculating grades which is welcome, but there are a number of further steps that should be taken without delay. These must include ensuring that the input from SEND specialists on grading actually happens in practice and doesn’t just remain a recommendation.

I also know from my own experience how crucial it is that children with SEND have access to specialist support. For me, the intervention of a couple of key individuals at school helped me to turn things around when I was at risk of dropping out of the school I was at. With schools closed during the lockdown, this vital way for SEND children to engage with learning has been much more difficult or sometimes impossible to access.

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Reconnecting children with SEND with the specialist support they need and preventing the disadvantage gap from widening further is one of the reasons why I’ve been clear that every stop must be pulled out to get children safely back to school as soon as possible.

But when schools make a full return in September, we mustn’t take our eyes off the ball when it comes to continuing to support children with SEND. I raised this in the House of Commons last month when I called on the Education Secretary to support the Sir Bobby Robson School’s approach to opening its doors to pupils for the first time in September. The new Sir Bobby Robson School in Ipswich will provide places to youngsters with complex educational needs and disabilities, and the team at the school has developed a plan to opening focused on pupils’ well-being and providing an almost therapeutic approach for re-socialising vulnerable youngsters back into school after Covid-19.

One of the ways children with SEND and other complex needs can manage and overcome the challenges they face is by developing a routine which gives them confidence and structure. But the disruption Covid-19 has caused to their routines has been unprecedented. That’s why it’s important to get this welfare-first approach right. I’ve recently been made an Associate-Governor of the Sir Bobby Robson School and I’m looking forward to working more with the school.

It’s also good news that plans for another new special school in Woodbridge Road have now been given the go-ahead by the Government. Due to open by 2022, this new school will teach 60 young people with speech and language difficulties. High quality special school places can be the difference for many of the most vulnerable children in our town and, all being well, we will have two opening in Ipswich in the near future.

Just as we mustn’t lose focus on support for children with SEND over the coming months, we must also continue to look at improving the long-term prospects of people with SEND in our society. This week the All Party Parliamentary Group on Dyspraxia which I co-chair launched a call for evidence on the experience of dyspraxic people in the economy and wider society. This inquiry will look at adults’ experience as well and will be a crucial way we can raise awareness of the challenges dyspraxic people face and submit formal recommendations to the Government on how support and inclusion can be improved. I’ll be studying the submissions to the inquiry in detail and I’d encourage anyone with dyspraxia or experience with people who do to write in and have your voice heard. Details on how to do so can be found by searching ‘APPG Dyspraxia inquiry’ online.

I will do everything I can turn the findings of the inquiry into action and more broadly I’ll keep doing my best to live up to the promises I made in my maiden speech. I’m passionate about special educational needs and I’ll never be found absent when there is a chance to improve the prospects of children with SEND.

The disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on children with SEND will be a challenge that we will have to face for many years to come, and I’ll continue to work tirelessly to make sure this virus isn’t a reason why children with SEND can’t achieve their full potential.

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