Special school leaders are being forced to cram vulnerable pupils into converted therapy spaces and staffrooms as surging demand and scarce places elsewhere pushes them over capacity.
New figures shed light for the first time on the places crisis in state-funded special schools – some of which are breaching building safety guidelines because pupils have nowhere else to go.
As well as pushing special schools over capacity, councils are forced to place more youngsters in costly independent schools – pushing their high-needs funding black hole to £1.3 billion.
Warren Carratt, chief executive of Nexus Multi Academy Trust, which has nine special schools, said: “It’s a perfect storm for the quality of education to start to reduce in special schools.
“They are being forced into an impossible position where they are having to take more pupils – and no one has a grip on it.”
Heads get ‘creative’ to avoid saying no
The government does not collect capacity data for special schools, which instead falls to local authorities.
However, many councils said they were unable to provide figures. Councils said the physical capacity of a school will change based upon the needs of children.
Councils commission places for SEND pupils, which is done in consultation with the school. Experts said the commissioned places figure was a good proxy to use to show a school’s capacity.
However this could underplay the true figures – as our investigation found many commissioned numbers were actually already above official estimates on how many pupils schools can accommodate.
Freedom of Information data obtained by Schools Week shows that 54 per cent of special schools had more pupils on roll than the number commissioned by their council. This was a 15 per cent rise from 2017-18.
While not directly comparable, around 20 per cent of mainstream schools were at or over capacity, based on government data collected in May.
The failure to keep up with rising needs also comes despite more than £380 million being spent on expansions, new buildings or new schools in the 51 councils that responded to our request.
Abbey School, part of the Nexus trust, has been oversubscribed by between 30 to 50 pupils each year, despite the commissioned places by Rotherham Council increasing from 86 to 171 since 2017.
Over the trust’s nine schools, there are 1,126 children on roll against a commissioned places figure of 939.
To cope, seven Nexus schools have expanded into satellite provision. This includes a disused pupil referral unit in Doncaster. But the £120,000 a year to fund it is coming out of the trust’s own pocket.
Schools must admit a pupil if named on their EHCP. Leaders also said they were reluctant to turn vulnerable children away.
While councils can refuse requests, this is often challenged by parents who normally win in costly tribunals.
Carratt added: “If we don’t find creative ways, we find ourselves with overcrowded classrooms or inadequate provision which puts us at risk of getting a ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’ Ofsted.”
Staff move kitchens to cupboards
Cedars School in Gateshead has turned an on-site garage, a large cupboard storing physiotherapy equipment and the staffroom into classrooms, as well as a satellite site costing £40,000 a year. The school is 33 places oversubscribed this year.
Headteacher Michelle O’Reilly said they try to make “sensible” changes, but “have reached a point now where we are at capacity”.
“It wasn’t so bad with Covid, but at the moment we haven’t got a staffroom. We’ve created little kitchen areas in little cupboards, and nooks and crannies. Staff were supportive, but it is something we need to look at to make sure we’ve got the space for them too.”
Kris Williams, headteacher at James Rennie School, in Cumbria, said increasing complexity of need, as well as rising demand, means “school stock is physically unable to meet the needs of the pupils”.
Schools are being forced into an impossible position – and no one has a grip on it
Nationwide, the number of pupils with EHCPs has risen from 237,000 in 2015-16 (2.8 per cent of all pupils) to 326,000 last year (3.7 per cent).
The number of children with autism listed as their primary need as soared from 66,723 in 2017 to 92,567. Children with severe learning difficulties has risen from 29,532 to 31,300.
The academy, a member of the Eden Academy Trust, has sacrificed specialist therapy rooms for teaching spaces. Children now get physiotherapy in class. Funded by the local authority, a disused church will also be converted into a sixth form block.
All five special schools in Oldham are oversubscribed, with the gap between commissioned numbers and pupils actually on roll rising from 60 to 152 over the past five years.
The council said it attracts high numbers of pupils from other areas. It is now focusing on early identification so mainstream schools can better “meet the needs of pupils without the necessity of an EHCP”.
Councils’ special school capacity blindspot
Most authorities said they could not provide capacity data. Of those that did, some were years old, with one council saying their last assessment was in 2017.
In Coventry, most special schools are over capacity, based on a council assessment using non-statutory government guidelines for building sizes. The guidance recommends how much space is required per pupil, based on their needs.
For example, Sherbourne Fields School has a building capacity of 197 pupils, but its commissioned places for this year sat at 220 and it had 221 youngsters on roll.
The Department for Education’s own predictions show the state-funded special school population will continue to rise before peaking at 121,000 pupils in 2024, up from 113,000 in 2020.
North Yorkshire Council predicts a 21 per cent rise in demand. Gateshead, which needs ten per cent more places by 2024-25, said there is “no capacity or ability to stretch” schools to accommodate this.
Annamarie Hassall, chief executive at the National Association for Special Educational Needs, said more “strategic planning” was needed from government and councils.
“School leaders work so hard to make sure this didn’t have a negative impact, but they might be making short-term choices and not long-term solutions.”
Some areas seem to be getting a handle on the issue, though.
In Devon, for instance, the number of schools with more pupils than commissioned places has dropped from eight to five. This is despite the number of children with EHCPs in Devon more than doubling since 2018.
But more than £17 million has been spent on expanding schools.
Graham Quinn, chief executive of the New Bridge Academy Trust, also said having more pupils allows them to “work a scale. We view that as a positive as there’s no doubt at all that some of the curriculum opportunities we have have been a direct consequence of having large numbers.”
Newbridge school, part of New Bridge Academy Trust in Oldham, is 104 places oversubscribed and has satellite buildings.
Ministers have pledged £2.6 billion to create 30,000 new places for children with SEND over the next three years.
This includes capital funding worth £1.4 billion for councils to “improve existing provision” and help “stabilise local systems” before SEND review reforms are introduced.
On top of the £2.6 billion, government wants “up to” 40 new special and AP free schools in “regions where they most needed”. This is on top of 60 that are “in the pipeline”.
But Carratt said the funding addresses “historical underfunding” of high needs budgets. “It does little to meet further growth needs and there is no immediacy that can help rebalance the system now, so that it is fit for purpose in future years”.
He said historical deficits should be wiped – like NHS trusts – “and a clear long term plan agreed that recognised expected increases in demand”.