Councils open special free schools applications, as more pupils go private

Nineteen local authorities have opened applications to run 19 new special free schools, as new figures reveal that more pupils with special needs are moving into specialist provision in the independent sector.

The government has today confirmed that councils want to create an extra 1,600 new special school places over the next three years to meet rising demand for special needs provision.

The announcement came as a new report released this morning showed more pupils with special needs are moving to independent schools, rather than staying in mainstream schooling or state-funded special schools.

Whereas in 2010 just four per cent of pupils with a special need, but without a formal statement or Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP), were in independent schools, by this January that proportion had risen to 6.7 per cent.

Similarly, the percentage of pupils who do have a statement or EHCP and are attending an independent school has also increased year-on-year since 2010, from 4.2 per cent to 5.8 per cent this year.

Schools Week has previously reported that an acute lack of state-funded places is forcing councils to spend about £480 million a year to send pupils to independent special schools.

Fewer pupils with SEND but no statement or EHCP are attending mainstream secondary schools, with a drop from 43.6 per cent in 2010 to 34.4 per cent this year, the data also showed.

This indicates that more pupils leave mainstream state education for special needs schools or the independent sector at secondary school level than at primary.

Barney Angliss, an SEND expert and consultant, said almost half of pupils with EHCPs were now learning and socialising “exclusively” with other disabled children.

“We are excluding children in their many thousands by stealth, by system, by structure, by politics. It has to stop.”

Meanwhile, the 19 special free schools are part of a new process which allows local authorities to invite free schools proposers themselves; previously free schools had to bid directly to the Department for Education.

The new schools are expected to be completed within a rough three-year time frame.

Nine of the applications are for schools catering for autism, the special education need that’s seen the greatest increase of any in recent years.

For instance, Doncaster metropolitan borough council wants a sponsor for a 100-place special free school catering for pupils with complex communication needs, autism and other social or mental health needs.

It is joined by Sunderland, Suffolk, Sheffield, Portsmouth, Manchester, Herefordshire, Hampshire, Doncaster and Croydon in specifically mentioning provision for autistic pupils.

The need for more schools catering for autism is backed by the government’s SEND data release this morning, which shows eight more schools with provision for autism opened this year than last year, bringing the total across the country to 662.

Meanwhile, six more special schools catering for moderate learning difficulties opened this year, for a total of 537. But the number of special schools catering for severe learning difficulties remained the same, on 537.

Special needs was highest among pupils who were travellers of Irish heritage, at 30.8 per cent, and Gypsy or Roma pupils, at 26.9 per cent. You can read more about the crisis facing Irish traveller, Gypsy and Roma pupils in Schools Week’s recent investigation here.

The new school places announced today are separate from government plans to open 30 new free schools in partnership with local authorities pledged by education secretary Justine Greening earlier this month. Applications close on November 24.

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