Pupils with special needs have better outcomes if they have an education health and care plan (EHCP) or statement – but those without statements or plans are being let down, Ofsted has warned.
Children categorised as needing “SEN support” are more likely to have their needs overlooked, be excluded, and achieve less well than those with a legally binding EHCP, a report on local area inspections has concluded.
Three years ago, changes were made to how pupils with special educational needs were categorised. Prior to the Children and Families Act, pupils were listed in three tiers: ‘school action’, where their school supported them, ‘school action plus’, where a local authority also supported them, and a full statement of special educational needs.
But the 2014 act had just two categories: pupils who can apply for a legally binding ‘education health and care plan’ (EHCP), and those with less severe needs who require ‘SEN support’, whom schools help according to statutory guidance.*
However, SEND experts are now suggesting that pupils with no plan or statement are more at risk.
Malcolm Reeve, the executive director of SEND and inclusion at the Academies Enterprise Trust, said that pupils with EHCPs have the “protection” of a plan or statement, but those in the other category are forced to rely on how their schools interpret the SEND code of practice.
This code guides schools on supporting special needs pupils, but it is “more variable” in what it requires of teachers, and is not itself legally binding.
No-one really understands the SEN support category
“The Department for Education is starting to realise we really need to improve our practice for these pupils,” he said.
His words echo a report on SEND provision at local authorities by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission, which oversees health and social care. The two organisations collated the findings of its joint inspections for the first time this year, looking at how schools and other services link up to help special needs individuals.
Their report, released last month, found that schools are informally excluding pupils who require SEN support “too readily”, and that as a group they are particularly prone to being excluded.
Inspectors also found “compelling evidence” that pupils with EHCPs do better than those on SEN support, making EHCPs a “golden ticket” in the eyes of many parents.
Pupils can apply for an EHCP assessment there is a possibility they have special educational needs and they may need provision through a plan.
When deciding whether to issue the plan, the council may consider whether the pupil’s needs can be met within available school funding, which is usually £6,000 a year. But this threshold is just “one of the considerations” for whether pupils can secure an EHCP, with other factors such as the school environment and resources also considered, said Laxmi Patel, partner and head of education at law firm Boyes Turner.
Anne Heavey, a policy advisor at the National Education Union, said that since 2014 “no-one really understands” the alternative SEN support category, either “what it’s meant to do or how it works.”
There are many more pupils with SEN support than have EHCPs. 242,185 pupils have a statement, but one million are on SEN support, according to DfE statistics. Of those needing SEN support, only 2,860(0.3 per cent) are in special schools.
Pupils in special needs schools have far better opportunities than mainstream schools, Ofsted’s report found. Staff assess the needs of pupils more accurately and give them better access to specialist experts.
So far, 45 local authorities have undergone the new joint SEND inspections, which visit a sample of each area’s schools.
Of the first 30 reports published, nine ordered councils to produce a written statement of action because their SEND provision was so poor.
*This article was corrected to firstly make clear that the SEND Code of Practice is statutory guidance, and secondly that pupils whose needs do not exceed £6,000 per year may still apply for and secure an EHCP.