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(UK) In-depth look at the special needs crisis

June 10, 2024, inews: ‘Our autistic son has been denied a school place’: the special needs education crisis

Thousands of families are caught up in the chaos of the UK system - with both mainstream and special schools at breaking point, say insiders

Oscar Steele, age five, is due to start reception in September but has no place at any school because all the local special schools are full

By Hattie Garlick

Oscar Steele will turn five in July. “He’s a lovely, happy, cheerful boy. But he does face real challenges,” says his mother Gillian. He is autistic, and non-verbal. He needs help with eating and drinking, and is not yet potty trained. He has no sense of danger, so will dash into roads and even climb over fences. 

When Gillian and her husband, Oliver, were encouraged to consider a mainstream school for Oscar, they were surprised. They researched local options, but held firm: Oscar needed, they knew, a place at one of the several special schools within reach of their home, so they applied for one.

“He couldn’t be in a mainstream school,” says Oliver. “They simply wouldn’t have enough staff available to keep him safe, let alone with the qualifications necessary to cater for his specific developmental needs.” 

Yet in April, when other children found out which primary school had offered them a place, there was a blank next to Oscar’s name. He has not been allocated any school at all. All nearby special schools were full. Come September, when he will be too old to stay at his nursery school, this boy who struggles to cope with the smallest of deviations to his routine will be left, effectively, in limbo.  

The Steeles are one of tens of thousands of families caught up in a crisis in the UK’s special educational needs system. Increasing numbers of children are being diagnosed as having SEND (special educational needs and disabilities), and both special schools and mainstream schools are at breaking point.  

In England, two-thirds of special schools – which have specially trained teachers, higher staff ratios and extra resources to provide an education for children with complex needs – were at or over capacity in the last academic year. This has devastating consequences for children such as Oscar Steele. . . .

Mainstream primary schools are taking more children whose needs would be far better served at a special school, says Rachel*, a teacher and special education needs co-ordinator at a mainstream primary school in central London. Stretched too thin to meet the competing needs of the children in her care, to the standards she believes they deserve, Rachel leaves school at the end of each day feeling: “scared for what the future holds, for the children and for the state of schools.” 

Her own school currently includes more than a handful of children who, like Oscar, need constant, attentive care. Yet while these children are entitled to the highest level of funding available through an EHCP, it does not stretch far enough to cover their individual and highly complex needs. So: “you end up in a situation where you actually need a critical mass of special needs kids, so that you can pool the pitiful additional funding to employ a shared TA.”    . . .

The NAHT union recently found that just one per cent of school leaders believe the funding they receive for SEND pupils is sufficient to meet their needs. Some even reported feeling unable to keep children and staff safe. “I’ve not met anyone involved in any part of this crisis – no one in health, social care or education – who believes there’s enough money in the system at the moment,” says NAHT senior policy adviser, Rob Williams.   

Cuts to Sure Start Centres mean increasing numbers of children like Oscar encounter no professional support until they arrive for their first day at a mainstream school. “I’ve had children arrive with severe delays in physical skills like toileting, and with severe delays in communication too, so that they are really only at the very earliest stages of interaction,” says Rachel.

When this happens, Rachel must apply for an Educational Health and Care Plan (or EHCP) for them. These legal documents detail a child’s unique needs as well as the funding and support that their local authority is legally obliged to provide. 

The system, however, is in disarray, the situation exacerbated by the pandemic. Fewer than half of new EHCPs are meeting the official 20-week deadline. But Rachel also flags another, less publicised, problem – draft ECHPs that are missing vital information from the health and social care experts who are supposed to assess the children. Such gaps can leave parents less able to choose the right school, schools less able to assess whether they can meet their needs, and insufficient funding allocations too, says Rachel. “The system is creaking, and falling apart,” summarises Rob Williams.

The crisis impacts all children. Oliver Steele wants his son to go to a special school not just for his own needs, but for the other children in mainstream schools: “it wouldn’t be fair on the other children, because the staff there would be distracted by having to cater for Oscar’s needs.”

A survey, conducted by Teacher Tapp exclusively for the i, shows that 59 per cent of heads and senior leaders have had to make cuts to other provisions and/or staff in order to meet the needs of SEND children. 

ECHPs like Oscar’s are hard to come by. Most schools are also struggling with rising numbers of children who do not qualify for one, or the additional funding it would entail, but still have some special educational needs.   

Teacher Tapp data suggests the number of primary school teachers who believe they have “nowhere near the help they need” to support SEND pupils almost doubled from 2022 to 2023. When asked what form of support is most needed, the vast majority (75 per cent) say a teaching assistant. Yet the latest NAHT survey found 78 per cent of school leaders have been forced to reduce their number of TAs, or the hours worked by them, in the last three years because of funding pressures.  

When TAs leave the classroom, everyone suffers, says Rachel.  A child – SEND or otherwise – who is momentarily confused by a maths problem is less likely to have it explained. Teachers are stretched even thinner, exacerbating the current retention crisis.  Almost a third of teachers never make it to their fifth year in the job, and this creates a vicious circle. 

 “I’ve been teaching for over a decade,” agrees Rachel. “It doesn’t phase me any more to have a child with complex needs in my class. But new teachers – just getting to grips with the national curriculum and how to line children up – are now also having to learn very quickly how to manage the needs of children with complex needs.”  . . .

Meanwhile, the number of pupils with SEND shows no signs of shrinking. It rose by 87,000 in the year 2022-23, to 17.3 per cent of all school children.

Two-thirds of local authorities are now grappling with such serious budget deficits as a result of, or linked to, meeting their statutory duties to SEND children, that they qualify for one of two government intervention schemes. To access that help, however, they must stick to an agreed plan says Rob Williams, and: “some of our members are telling us that can mean their local authority trying to reduce the number of ECHPs being issued. The risk is that some children who should be getting support will not.”  

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are helping to ensure that all children have the chance to reach their potential by increasing funding for children and young people with complex needs to over £10.5bn [$13.3B] next year – up 60 per cent in the last five years. We are also providing £2.6bn [$3.3B] to support the creation of places for children and young people with SEND, more than tripling the previous level of investment, so parents can be reassured that their child will receive the right support at the right time, close to home. Combined with the special and AP free schools’ programme, this is helping to increase capacity, creating over 60,000 specialist places across the country.”   . . .


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