The education system is letting children with special educational needs down – Education Policy Institute

Jo Hutchinson is Director of Social Mobility and Vulnerable Learners at the Education Policy Institute.

Here she explains that while the government’s focus on children with special educational needs and disabilities is welcome, its proposed policies are unlikely to address longstanding problems in the system, and could result in more vulnerable pupils failing to receive adequate support.

Recently, the government announced an additional £700 million to support children with special educational needs (SEND), another review of SEND support, and its intention to expand alternative provision – education for children that sits outside of mainstream schools, because of exclusion from school or for other reasons.

While these plans have received a cautious welcome from some in the education sector, there is much to unpack beneath the headlines. Indeed, on closer inspection, it is evident these announcements are only likely to offer a partial response to the huge challenges in how we support children with additional needs support.

Pressures in the system are growing. The number of children with more complex needs in England has been rising fast in recent years, which, along with changes brought in to require local authorities to support young people with SEND right up until the age of 25, is creating further strains.

Because of these pressures, parents of children with SEND often have to go to great lengths to secure their basic rights, and are increasingly likely to resort to formal appeals in order to ensure that their children are getting the support they need in mainstream school settings. The overwhelming majority (89%) of parents are successful in their appeals, meaning that the SEND Code of Practice – the statutory code explaining the duties of those in education settings to support SEND pupils – is routinely being broken. This should be a concern for everyone.

Fundamentally, the problem is one of inclusion: it is clear that there is an array of perverse incentives in mainstream schools which make the incorporation of SEND pupils difficult. It need not be this way.

Funding and accountability pressures seem to be exacerbating difficulties for schools in adequately providing for those with more complex educational needs. Against a tide of balancing budgets, a loss of wider children’s services, ongoing staffing difficulties and ever-rising performance expectations for schools, many in education settings are struggling to find alternatives to squeezing out those children with additional needs.

For those pupils that are forced to move between schools, or indeed, out of the school system entirely because of these pressures, it is clear that there is also a lack of transparency and weak oversight of these decisions. In short, too often authorities are not properly held accountable for the movement of SEND and other vulnerable pupils around the system.

The design of the funding system poses a further problem to greater SEND inclusion. The current = system for allocating SEND funding between different local areas is far too inconsistent and inflexible.

This likely contributes to postcode lotteries in SEND support across England – an issue that has been highlighted many times in various reviews over the years, but has not yet been resolved. Current funding rules also fail to the promote the inclusion of SEND pupils in mainstream schools by draining down funds for schools if there is more alternative provision in the area.

It is for this reason that the government’s plans to expand alternative provision could prove risky. While there is no doubt that the plans are based on good intentions and with the outcomes of vulnerable children in mind, further alternative provision expansion may simply encourage schools to hastily move more pupils away from their classrooms into such alternative education settings, when it may not necessarily be in a pupil’s best interests.

This has the potential to result in both the SEND Code of Practice and equality laws continuing to be breached, and to encourage an ever-larger proportion of children being siphoned out of mainstream schools without sufficient safeguards or regard for their best interests.

While SEND support and funding are crucial, we must also not forget that of equal importance is ensuring that the right attitudes and practices are in place in schools – particularly when it comes to their obligation to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for SEND pupils, so that they are able to prosper in mainstream school settings.

There are also conflicts of interest among local authorities, who are both responsible for assessing the needs of SEND pupils, and delivering their educational provision and support. This needs to be addressed. To avoid pupils’ interests becoming overlooked, there is a strong case for assessment decisions being carried out independently, rather than by the local authorities themselves.

School performance and accountability measures should also take account of the vulnerability of pupil intakes, and do more to reward more inclusive schools. The system should promote a far broader conception of school performance that accounts for children’s health and development, as well as pupil attainment and other standard measures.

Alternative provision is of very variable quality – it is for this reason that we should focus on the quality of these alternative education settings, rather than simply expanding its capacity at any cost, as floated by the government. Indeed, a concerted focus on the quality of provision both across mainstream and specialist education should be a priority for the government. At its core, this quality drive should involve mandatory training and development for leadership staff in all schools and LAs, so that they are aware of their responsibilities to support those with SEND.

Simply moving vulnerable children with complex needs around the system is not a solution to the problems that are faced. We must move towards an education system that promotes, values and rewards inclusion – only then will we lay the foundations which allow all pupils to thrive.

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