Forgotten or misrepresented. Special schools deserve better policy

25 May 2023, 17:00

The role of special schools in England’s education system is contested: some claim they constitute a form of segregation that is antithetical to full inclusion of disabled people in society while others point to their expertise in customising education for learners with the most complex needs.

Either way, the proportion of young people educated in special schools in England has increased over the past decade from 1.17 per cent in 2012 to 1.62 per cent in 2022. Similarly, the number of young people with SEND attending special schools or other alternative provision rose by more than a fifth between 2014 and 2018.

Stated government policy is consistent with this growth. In 2010, the coalition government famously declared that it would ‘prevent the unnecessary closure of special schools, and remove the bias towards inclusion’. Thirteen years on, the government promises to ‘deliver more school places for children with complex Special Educational Needs’.

Given this apparent political enthusiasm for special schools, it is curious that they so often remain an afterthought in policy, planning and guidance. A telling example came in the form of government briefings to schools in England regarding Covid lockdowns when, as Laura Crane and colleagues have shown, much of the guidance was simply impossible to operationalise in a special school context.

For instance, the announcement that learners with education, health and care plans (EHCPs) should remain in school throughout lockdown was clearly predicated on manageability in the mainstream context, where only 2 per cent of learners had EHCPs in 2020. In contrast, almost all learners in a special school have an EHCP.

The policy therefore effectively required special schools to remain open at full capacity. Similarly, the recommendation of class/year group ‘bubbles’ simply did not translate to special school settings where many students must mix twice daily with students from other classes in shared home-school transport.

These oversights were not simply the product of an unprecedented national crisis. Special schools are routinely faced with curricular demands which seem far removed from the needs of their learners.

Special schools remain an afterthought

As Lila Kossyvaki (2023) notes, the DfE’s reading framework, which insists upon the near-universal relevance of Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP), is at best unhelpful. Unlike other policies which simply forget about special schools, this document dubiously claims applicability to ‘those with moderate to severe SEND and complex needs’.

It goes on to provide a vague and muddled account of evidence supporting SSP for children and young people with autism and attempts to generalise it to those with the most severe learning disabilities. But like Kossyvaki said in these pages recently, learners with SEND are not an homogenous group.  

All of which appears to leave learners with severe and/or profound and multiple learning disabilities (S/PMLD) with two options when it comes to government policy: to be forgotten or else grossly misrepresented. It’s no wonder educators and families alike are bewildered as to the meaning and purpose of words like ‘literacy’ when it comes to these young people.

Reflecting on the frequent frustration with national education policy expressed by special school leaders and families on social media, I launched a research project exploring headteachers’ relationship with national policy in their setting.

The study is currently recruiting special school headteachers in England who would like to select three recent pieces of government policy and share the struggles they have had to operationalise it in their setting. This could be policy governing any area of school life including curriculum, behaviour, safeguarding, or a specific context such as the pandemic response.

The study will elucidate how national education policy ‘lands’ in special schools and the strategies which are employed by school leaders to ‘translate’ ill-fitting guidelines an directives into some form of workable practice.

If special schools are to continue to exist for the foreseeable future, it is important that policymakers are made aware that ‘all learners’ and ‘all schools’ rarely really means ‘all’ in current policy speak.

If you are a currently serving special school headteacher in England and would like to enquire about participation in the study, please contact Dr Lauran Doak at

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