From education to employment

System for supporting special educational needs is failing children and families, new EPI study shows

Jo Hutchinson, Director of Social Mobility and Vulnerable Learners at the Education Policy Institute (EPI)

A landmark study from the Education Policy Institute (@EduPolicyInst), funded by the Nuffield Foundation (@NuffieldFound), finds that there are “deeply concerning” inconsistencies in how children with special educational needs and disabilities (#SEND) in England are identified and supported.

The research, which is the first ever study to fully quantify how SEND support varies nationally, shows that access to support is decided by a “postcode lottery” – with the chances of receiving SEND support from the school or from the local authority largely dictated by the school that a child attends, rather than their individual circumstances.

Commenting on the new report, Jo Hutchinson, Director of Social Mobility and Vulnerable Learners at the Education Policy Institute (EPI), said:

“For many years families have highlighted flaws and inconsistencies in the system of identifying children with special educational needs. Now, for the first time, through analysis of national data, we have provided evidence to show that there is a lottery for support.

“We find that the level of support for children with SEND is highly variable across the country and is very much dependent on which school a child goes to, rather than actual need.

“While access to SEND support was already very unequal, the pandemic is very likely to have resulted in more children falling through the cracks or facing long waits for support. We need to significantly improve how we identify pupils with special educational needs and disabilities, so that we can deliver consistently for families and ensure that no child is denied the support that they need.”

David Laws 100x100David Laws, Executive Chairman of the Education Policy Institute (EPI) said:

“This report exposes the erratic and unequal way in which support for pupils with special educational needs is provided.

“It is especially concerning that many of the most disadvantaged children with unstable home lives are less likely to access support for more complex learning needs.

“With the pandemic acting as a further barrier to assessing children’s needs, the government must drastically improve its efforts to ensure that it is reaching the most vulnerable children in society.”

Chris Quickfall, Founder and CEO, Cognassist, said:

“Cognassist data shows that 1:3 apprentice learners have a learning need that poses a substantial barrier to their ability to learn. Cognassist learners are aged 16+ and for the vast majority, the learning need was only unmasked on completion of their cognitive assessment upon induction to their apprenticeship programme.

“This means these individuals have gone through school and their need wasn’t picked up. Early identification and intervention contribute to success.

“It is simply unacceptable that so many are being denied support in their formative educational years. No individual’s future should rely on luck.”

Ian Noon, Head of Policy at the National Deaf Children’s Society, said:

“This report is extremely concerning and it sadly confirms what parents of deaf children have been telling us for years. There were already wild fluctuations in the support given to children with SEND, and now Covid-19 has made things even worse.

“All of these children are entitled to effective, tailored support at school and their teachers should get the specialist advice they need. This simply isn’t being delivered consistently and it’s the children who are left to struggle on alone.

“The evidence is as clear as it is damning. It now falls to the Government to take stock of these findings, address a system in crisis and make real, lasting change through the upcoming SEND Review.”

KevinCourtney100x100Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: 

“This is an outgrowth of the Government’s encouragement of competition between schools, and leads to a postcode lottery for parents. It raises further questions about the Government continuing with its plan to enhance the role of multi-academy trusts in supporting SEND locally. We need to stop the competition between schools and rebuild real collaboration and co-ordination between schools if we’re to reverse some of these problems; the role of local authorities in this must be re-built. 

“It is an impact of the systemic cuts to SEND funding that local authorities in the most disadvantaged areas are found in the report to have been forced to ration support for the children with greatest need.  This report reminds us we need a properly funded SEND system if we are serious about making education flexible enough to work for students with additional needs. There is a clear urgent need for extra staffing and high-quality staff training.” 

Tulip Siddiq 100x100Tulip Siddiq MP, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Children and Early Years, said:

“The Government is clearly failing children with special educational needs and disabilities. Families are facing a postcode lottery, with inconsistent support that is determined by geography and resources rather than the needs of children.”

“This is unacceptable. Children have been neglected by this Government and action is urgently needed to ensure that every child with SEND receives the individual support they need to succeed at school.”

Sense Chief Executive, Richard Kramer, said:

“Every child with SEND should have access to the right support regardless of where they live. We know many families of children with SEND experience a postcode lottery of services and the pandemic has worsened existing issues.

“As we move out of lockdown, we want to see a comprehensive recovery plan that recognises the impact of a lack of support on families of children with SEND. This must be backed up with appropriate resources and funding to ensure every child receives the right care and support to meet their needs.”

Cllr Judith Blake, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said:

 “All children, including those with SEND, will undoubtedly need additional support to help them catch up in the coming weeks and months due to the impact of the pandemic.

“However, councils are struggling to meet the ever-increasing demand for SEND support and are building up deficits in their high needs budgets. This is not sustainable and will ultimately impact on other services.

“The reforms in the Children and Families Act, which extended eligibility for SEND support, remain underfunded.

“The Government needs to urgently complete its positive ongoing review of the SEND system. This needs to set out reforms that increase mainstream inclusion, provide councils with long-term certainty of funding to meet immense demand for SEND support, and give councils the power to hold academies to account if their provision for identifying and supporting children with SEND is not adequate.”

Over a million children are currently registered as having special educational needs in England – with as many 4 in 10 of all pupils recorded as having SEND at some point during their time at school.

Parents of children with more complex needs have long claimed that the support offered by authorities is insufficient and differs markedly from place to place. Now, for the first time, data analysis from EPI provides evidence at a national level to support claims of disjointed and unequal support for SEND. 

The longitudinal research, which tracks hundreds of thousands of pupils from a single year group through primary school, reveals that the huge variation in SEND support for children can be explained by inconsistent approaches to identifying children.

The findings show that pupils attending academy schools are far less likely to be identified with SEND compared to other similar pupils, indicating that pupils’ needs may have been overlooked in these settings.

Children living in the most disadvantaged areas of the country are less likely to be formally recognised as having SEND than similar pupils in more affluent areas, highlighting how there is a “rationing of support” in many areas of high need.

The report also shows that many vulnerable pupils are more likely to be subject to SEND “under-identification”. Those moving schools and those frequently out of school, along with children who have suffered abuse or neglect, are all shown to have a reduced chance of being identified with SEND compared with otherwise similar children.

With the system for supporting SEND highly reliant on regular access to pupils over time, researchers conclude that the pandemic will likely have aggravated existing problems seen in SEND identification, with increasing numbers of more vulnerable children who need support falling under the radar of schools and authorities.

APPG report on experiences of children with SEND during pandemic should ‘serve as urgent wake-up call to government’

Commenting on another report by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for SEND on the experiences of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) during the Covid-19 pandemic, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said:

“This cross party report should serve as an urgent wake-up call to government.

“A decade of underfunding and an ongoing failure by the government to properly get to grips with systemic failings has been exposed by the pandemic.

“The report captures how children and young people with SEND have too often been an after-thought for government during the pandemic, and in many cases schools have been left to pick up the pieces with little support. This report amplifies everything we have been saying about the experiences of children with SEND during the last year – and before.

“The government has been rightly criticised for the lack of support it has given SEND schools, from being overlooked in guidance that didn’t take account of SEND settings, to not being given the correct PPE and resources.

“The government must learn from this. There is a pressing need to put pupils with SEND at the heart of the educational recovery agenda. The current SEND review being carried out provides the ideal opportunity to do this.

“We agree entirely with the recommendation for greater investment. The government has said that no child should be left behind – now is the time to put its money where its mouth is and make sure the most vulnerable children in society are included in that promise.”


Key findings

There is a postcode lottery for accessing SEND support, with access to specialised provision for children heavily determined by the school they attend, rather than their individual needs

  • SEND identification varies widely across England, and when examining what is behind this (at primary school level), differences between schools account for a large majority (two-thirds) of this variation in identification.

  • The school that a child attends therefore makes far greater difference to their chances of being identified with SEND than other factors, such as children’s individual learning needs or experiences.

  • Findings showing a decisive role for schools are rare in education – typically pupils’ backgrounds and circumstances play a larger role in their outcomes, rather than attending one school as opposed to another.

  • There is a fundamental mismatch between how schools and local authorities identify pupils with SEND. Local authorities largely identify SEND consistent with children’s personal, social and emotional development – qualities that are particularly important for later life, such as education and employment outcomes. However, schools appear to focus mostly on communication, language and literacy skills when assessing a child for SEND.

Pupils attending academy schools are less likely to be identified as having SEND

  • For children with more severe needs, those living in areas in England with very few academy schools are ten times more likely to be identified with SEND by their local authority than similar children living in areas that have many academy schools.

  • At a school level, children attending academy schools are also half as likely to be identified as having SEND by their local authority than those attending other schools.

  • Taken together, and after controlling for a range of factors, this shows that these education settings may be overlooking pupils who require SEND support. With data covering the period of two years after schools have become academies, further research on SEND identification in academy schools should be undertaken, to see if these trends persist.

The area that a child lives in can also influence the level of SEND support they receive

  • For more severe needs, children from the most disadvantaged local authorities are less likely to be identified with SEND than children of similar backgrounds who live in more affluent areas. Families in poorer areas appear to have more limited support for their children and are likely to be subject to higher thresholds for accessing support.

  • Conversely, at a lower, neighbourhood level, children in the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods had substantially higher odds of being identified with SEND. However, significantly, within these poorer neighborhoods, the most affluent children are most likely to be identified with SEND, indicating that better-off families are relatively more successful at securing support for their children.

Many of the most vulnerable children in society are less likely to access support for SEND

  • There is strong evidence that the system of identifying and supporting SEND is poorly adapted to the lives of many children – particularly those with less stable lives who do not remain in one education setting or area.
  • Children who moved around schools or neighbourhoods at an early stage in their lives are less likely to be identified with SEND than their otherwise similar peers.

  • Children who experienced frequent absences from school are less likely to be identified as having SEND, even though children who are already identified with SEND are known to have higher absence rates on average.

  • Children who have suffered abuse or neglect (those with child protection plans) also have a reduced chance of being identified with SEND compared with otherwise similar children and securing support for any additional learning needs.                                                        

Policy recommendations

The system for identifying and supporting pupils with SEND requires a number of careful reforms to improve consistency, accessibility, accountability and resource allocation, including:

  • Improvements in assessing SEND within schools
  • Increased specialist training and support for teachers and school leaders
  • A national framework setting out minimum standards of support for children with SEND in mainstream schools
  • A greater focus in primary schools on the role of children’s personal, social and emotional development
  • Concerted efforts from authorities to reaching highly vulnerable children who require specialised learning support, who may be less visible in the system. 
  • A SEND funding system that is far more responsive to pupils’ needs.

The full set of policy recommendations can be read in full in the report on p.11.

You can read the full report here.

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