‘Mistrust’ between councils and residential special schools is harming pupils

A “striking level of mistrust” between residential special schools and councils isolates them from the rest of the education sector and causes negative outcomes for their pupils, a government report has warned.

The combination of financial pressure on town halls and rising numbers of pupils with high needs, coupled with a feeling among these schools that pupils are only referred “at crisis point” are contributing to issues on both sides, and their charges are being caught in the middle.

The report, ‘Good intentions, good enough?‘, was commissioned by the Department for Education and written by Dame Christine Lenehan, director of the Council for Disabled Children, and Mark Geraghty, principal and chief executive of the Seashell Trust charity.

Residential special schools feel that children and young people are only referred to them at crisis point

Justine Greening, the education secretary, has already taken up one of the report’s recommendations, agreeing to set up a new “national leadership board for children and young people with high needs”.

The new board will promote collaboration between schools, councils and health bodies, the report says.

There are currently 6,000 pupils being educated in 334 residential special schools and colleges in both the state and independent sectors.

These cost the taxpayer around £500 million a year, and typically cater for those with needs such as autism, severe learning difficulties and mental health issues. Although they have “huge potential” to transform the most vulnerable pupils’ lives, many do not enjoy a positive experience.

The report points to a “striking level of mistrust within the sector” as a significant factor behind negative experiences and outcomes for residential pupils.

The authors were “consistently concerned” by “how the conflict that flows from this is affecting children and young people”.

“Adversarial relationships” between councils and schools “leave children and young people caught in the middle” and can cause delays in them receiving the right support, the report warns.

Much of this mistrust seems to stem from a “lack of understanding about the conflicting pressures that other parties are experiencing”.

LAs, for example, are under significant financial pressure, and face increasing numbers of pupils with high needs “at a time when they may lack the capacity to plan strategically for them”.

At the same time, the schools and colleges feel children and young people are only referred at crisis point, when behaviours are ingrained. This means they feel “isolated from or excluded by the rest of the education sector”.

As well as the leadership board, the report’s authors want the government to consider how staff in mainstream schools can “improve their understanding of the reasons for challenging behaviour” and better meet the needs of children and young people with SEND.

The Department for Education should also improve the supply of quality school leaders into special schools, and replace current national minimum standards for residential special schools with new national quality standards.

In her response to the report, Greening said the DfE would publish a new resource for schools that sets out out evidence on “effective approaches” and examples of best practice for supporting SEND pupils.

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