In a few weeks time for many, a new academic year will start; in some parts of the country, it starts this week. The start of the new academic year is often the time that church children’s and youth clubs start up again, although of course some have continued during the summer, or have run holiday clubs or camps. Sunday mornings become busier again as families return from holidays; the buzz of activity in weekly children’s and youth work across the UK builds up again… including those working with children or young people with additional needs or disabilities.
But what does the overall landscape look like? What is the background narrative in the UK today to working with children, young people and families where there are additional needs or disabilities? What do we see if we lift our heads up from the great work which many are doing individually and locally for a moment, and take a long hard look at the big picture?
Well, here are three observations, drawn from published data (sources provided) that shed some interesting light on the state of the nation in the UK regarding children, young people and families where there are additional needs or disabilities, and how the church can and must respond:
1. This is a bigger ministry area than we might think
3% of children/young people have a Statement of Special Educational Needs (source: UK Gov.) The term ‘Special Educational Needs’ (SEN) has a legal definition: “Children who have learning difficulties or disabilities that make it harder for them to learn or access education than most children of the same age.” There are roughly 13 million under 18’s in the UK, so 3% is 390,000… a big number, and of course each individual is important, but that is only part of a much bigger picture…
20% of the 13 million children and young people in the UK have additional needs of some kind (source: UK Gov.) That’s 2.6 million children and young people across the country, a huge number! Do we see one in five of the children or young people that we engage with in church, or care for in other settings, having additional needs of some kind? Maybe in some settings we do, but in many we don’t, and there could be some important reasons for that…
2. Additional needs ministry isn’t just for Sunday mornings
Up to 90% of families with children that have additional needs are un-churched (source: Baptist Press) Many of these families are outside of our immediate church congregation, we seldom see them at church events, but they live all around us in the local community, and they are in need of support and help. It can be hard for them to find us, we need to make the effort to reach out to them, to welcome them, and to meet their needs. And their needs will be many and various…
Siblings and parents often feel excluded from a wide range of social activities, including church (source: Mumsnet) Why is this? Because often these activities don’t cater for children or young people with additional needs, or require parents to continue caring for their child at the activity rather than being able to enjoy it for themselves. Talking to parents about how they and their family can be supported at church events is a vital first step to enabling them to come. And it is important to pick up on siblings here too… often junior carers, regularly missing out on typical family activities, generally overlooked by the church.
53% of families claim that having a disabled child causes some/major relationship difficulties or breakups (source: About Families) It is hard raising a child with additional needs or disability, and it has an impact on families… It grieves me as a father of a child with additional needs myself to see that it is often the father who can’t cope and goes, leaving the mother with the additional challenge of being a single parent too. How can the church reach out to families to either a) support them better to help them stay together, or where this is no longer possible b) support the remaining parent to help them cope? Perhaps working with families to see where the key stress points are during the week, and looking to support them effectively at those times, might be a good place to start. Offering marriage support such as that offered by Care for the Family might also be helpful.
3. There are other things that the church can do
Poor communities are twice as likely to include families with children with additional needs (source: LKMCo/Joseph Rowntree Foundation.) This will be relevant to most churches, as every church will be near to more deprived areas. The reasons for this statistic are many and various, but include that poorer communities will commonly have less access to the best specialist support and medical advice, and that poor nutrition can play a part in exacerbating some conditions. How can churches step up to help? Offering food banks, debt counselling such as CAP (Christians Against Poverty) and other services targeted at the poorest families in the community would be a good start.
60% of children with additional needs are bullied (source: Ability Path) When we think of bullying, and the places it happens, we commonly think of school, the journey to and from school, in the local streets, and increasingly online. But do we also consider the bullying that happens in our churches? The ‘tuts’, the harsh stares, the gossiping, the unasked for ‘child rearing advice’, all can be just as bullying to a family of a child with additional needs? A zero tolerance of such bullying behaviour, led from the top by the church leaders, is essential in bringing about a culture change so that everyone is welcome, included and cared for.
So, in conclusion, the state of the nation for children, young people and families where there are additional needs is often challenging and difficult, and this blog deliberately hasn’t touched on recent Government policy and its impact, but the church can, and must, engage and make a difference… As Nick Knowles always says at the end of ‘DIY SOS’; “Do you know someone you can help?”
16th August 2017
Image rights: Committee for Economic Development (Header), Hampshire Childcare and Family Information
 ‘House of Commons Education and Skills Committee: Special Educational Needs – Third Report’ (2006) https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmselect/cmeduski/478/478i.pdf [accessed 2nd August 2017]
 ‘Reforms for children with SEN and disabilities come into effect’ (2014) http://www.gov.uk/government/news/reforms-for-children-with-sen-and-disabilities-come-into-effect [accessed 17th November 2016]
 ‘Mumsnet parents: negative attitudes are holding back our disabled children’ (2014) http://www.scope.org.uk/About-Us/Media/Press-releases/February-2014/Mumsnet-parents-negative-attitudes-are-holding-bac [accessed 17th November 2016]
 ‘Together and apart: supporting families through change’ (2011)
http://www.capability-scotland.org.uk/media/101061/about_families_report_2_change.pdf [accessed 1st August 2017]
 ‘Children from poor families ‘twice as likely’ to have special needs’ (2016) www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/children-poor-families-twice-likely-have-special-needs [accessed 1st August 2017]
 ‘Walk A Mile In Their Shoes – Bullying and the Child with Special Needs’ (2013) http://abilitypath.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/walk-a-mile-in-their-shoes.pdf [accessed 1st August 2017]