Children and young people with additional learning needs are thinking about and attempting suicide due to a lack of support in Wales’ schools, an inquiry has heard.
The Senedd children’s committee has been taking evidence on the extent to which disabled children are discriminated against in terms of equal access to education and childcare.
Describing the system as in tatters, a neurodivergent mother told the inquiry her autistic sons were unable to access childcare due to a lack of provision adapted to their needs.
She said her youngest son has been thoroughly let down at every stage of the school system, adding: “The cost-of-living crisis has dramatically reduced the chance for disabled children to achieve or even be well – it’s truly awful.”
A second family told committee members that their daughter waited seven-and-a-half years for a diagnosis: “In the meantime, her self esteem and mental health has taken an absolute battering and she has tried to take her own life twice.”
Another parent, who is also a school governor, said support is so lacking that her daughter often refuses to go to school.
She told MSs: “She locks herself in her bedroom crying or shutting down curled up in a ball staring into space, physically being sick, suffering anxiety and depression, threatening to harm herself and stating she does not want to live anymore.”
The family of another autistic girl described the process of fighting to even have her additional learning needs (ALN) recognised as exhausting and stressful.
The parent said: “It has taken five years for the school to acknowledge that my daughter has ALN, just a few months before it is time for her to leave school.
“They have wasted almost a third of her life by refusing to provide support.”
Another parent said their son – who was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2018 – is isolated from his peers in school.
The family warned: “Teaching children with brain damage is a specialised field that is severely overlooked – our children are being let down.”
A mother criticised the new ALN system, describing the reforms as not fit for purpose.
She said: “All of this has resulted in my son’s mental health being impacted, self harm and suicidal ideation.”
Another family raised concerns about unequal access to extracurricular activities, saying: “Many disabled children, including my own, cannot access breakfast club facilities – because they require support and this support is not available.
“The same applies to after-school clubs.”
A mother, who works as a teacher, told MSs that her autistic daughter was struggling in primary but secondary school has left her traumatised.
“Certainly schools are not inclusive,” she said. “If I hadn’t been a teacher, [my daughter] would have probably not passed most of her exams which is alarming.”
Another mother raised the impact of a lack of support on families, saying: “The rate of divorce in families with a child with disabilities is far higher than the average.”
The parent contrasted the support available for her non-verbal autistic son with a wide choice of extracurricular activities for her neurotypical daughter.
Three Welsh Government ministers appeared before the children’s committee on Wednesday, 29 November.
Jeremy Miles recognised the financial pressure on budgets as he responded to claims schools do not have the resources to meet disabled children’s needs.
Wales’ education minister said inflation and cost-of-living pressures have eroded the value of significant funding increases provided for schools.
Pressed about “discriminatory” reduced timetables for disabled children, Mr Miles told the committee he is concerned about it being a hidden form of exclusion.
Jane Hutt stressed the importance of schools embracing the social model of disability which says children are disabled by barriers in society rather than their impairment.
The social justice minister highlighted the work of Wales’ disability rights taskforce.
Julie Morgan recognised concerns about a lack of suitable, accessible childcare.
The deputy minister for social services told the committee that the childcare offer for Wales takes extra support needs into account.
She said a £2m additional support grant, which is being reviewed, helps ensure disabled children can access the offer.
Ms Morgan explained that the grant is demand-led, so £2m is not a ceiling.
Families warned that children often have to reach crisis point to receive support, with one mum saying: “Change is needed. No more families should have to struggle and fight to get their child the support they need – it’s not fair and it’s not right.”