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(UK) U of Birmingham: "Greater awareness" is behind more SPED kids

April 2, 2024, U. of Birmingham: Record investment has been announced for SEND...but is it really enough?

For Autism Acceptance Week Professor Laura Crane, Director of the Autism Centre for Education & Research, explores the need for more SEND provision in schools.

Last week, the Government announced a record annual investment of £850 million [$1B] to help meet the needs of the growing numbers of children and young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). This investment aims to contribute towards the Government’s goal of creating over 60,000 new school places across the country. However, many professionals and families are questioning whether this investment will really be enough to solve the SEND crisis.

Both mainstream and special schools have been struggling to meet the needs of the rising numbers of children and young people with SEND for quite some time. Special schools typically function by offering a more bespoke and individualised programme of support for learners, where pupils benefit from small class sizes, high numbers of staff relative to students, and more specialist facilities (e.g., sensory rooms). Pupils in special schools often have some of the most complex levels of need; needs that require additional and highly specialised educational support that are not considered feasible to provide in a mainstream setting. 

However, with a general rise in the number of children and young people entering education in recent years (and therefore a general rise in the number of children and young people with SEND entering education), special schools have been accepting more and more students each year, impacting their ability to provide the bespoke and individualised learning environment that they pride themselves on. . . .

Professor Laura Crane, University of Birmingham

As special schools reach the point at which they feel that they cannot take any more pupils on roll without compromising the quality of their provisions, mainstream schools are being asked to cater for increasing numbers of children and young people with SEND. In an ideal world, all schools would be inclusive spaces that can meet the needs of all learners, with pupils benefitting from the diversity of the peers around them. Yet the longstanding effects of austerity, coupled with the attainment-focused pressures that schools are under, has led to schools struggling to meet the needs of fairly homogenous groups of learners, yet alone those with additional learning needs. These effects have been acutely felt in recent years, where the complexity of needs among learners in mainstream education has been increasing and diversifying. While some mainstream schools may be very skilled at adapting teaching to meet the needs of all learners, there are some obstacles that are more difficult for these schools to overcome (e.g., the need for additional staff and more specialised facilities).

Several factors may account for the growing numbers of pupils with SEND. First, there is greater awareness of SEND among both school staff and families, aided by initiatives such as World Autism Awareness Week. As such, it is likely that both school staff and families are not only familiar with different SEND labels, but that they are more likely to spot the signs that a child or young person is developing differently from many of their peers. Second, our definitions of different SEND labels have broadened in recent years. As one example, autism was once used to describe a fairly niche group of children who showed quite overt differences in the way they interacted with the world and with those around them.  . . .

A further factor that likely underpins the growing numbers of children with SEND relates to how our conceptualisation of education has changed quite considerably over the past few decades. While school used to be an environment in which need was determined largely based on academic attainment and behaviour, the areas in which children are assessed are now much broader (particularly in the early years), and are likely to include an emphasis on personal, social, and emotional development, for example. If we are assessing pupils in a much broader range of areas, it follows that we should see children and young people with a more diverse range of need. . . .


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