Rejected special school bids in areas facing biggest shortfalls

The majority of local authorities that have been refused new specialist schools will run out of places three years from now, Schools Week analysis shows.

The Department for Education announced on Monday that 39 local authorities had been successful in their bids for new special needs or alternative provision schools, out of 65 to apply.

But our analysis shows that 54 per cent of the local authorities that were not successful are facing shortfalls in secondary pupil places by 2021.

That compares to just 39 per cent of those given the go-ahead.

Furthermore, the two councils facing the biggest shortfall in secondary places were among those refused.

One of those, Manchester City Council, had two bids for specialist schools rejected – despite needing more than 8,500 school places in three years from now.

DfE figures show that a population bulge moving into secondary schools will swell numbers by 15 per cent (427,000 pupils) between 2018 and 2027.

Education Datalab stated this could equate to roughly 15,000 more pupils with education, health and care plans.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, warned that vulnerable or excluded pupils will suffer from a lack of good specialist provision in these areas. “There will be long waiting lists, during which [time] children will not be getting an education.”

Sponsors for the new schools, which will create 3,400 places, will be chosen “by this winter”, according to the DfE. However, they wouldn’t say when the schools will open.

Schools Week used data collated by the Local Government Association to calculate which of the 65 local authorities face the biggest shortfall in secondary school places in the next three years.

Specific figures forecasting demand for SEND places aren’t available, so we used the overall pupil number figures as a proxy.

Manchester is facing the biggest shortfall of any local authority, needing 8,670 more secondary places in 2021-22, or 129 per cent of available places.

Yet the government turned down the council’s bid for a special school for pupils with profound, multiple and severe learning difficulties and autism, as well as an AP school.

Leicester, which needs 5,122 more places by 2021-22, or 127 per cent of available places, was also turned down for an autism school.

From now until 2025, the city needs 285 more specialist school places, following steep rises in pupils with EHCPs, said Leicester City Council.

The council is “disappointed” it didn’t win a bid but is expanding its “designated school provision” programme for special educational needs pupils in mainstream schools instead, they added.

The next local authority with the biggest shortfall in places to be refused was Hackney in north London, which needs 1,297 new places by 2021-22. It was turned down for an AP free school.

Demand for places has forced Hackney to send pupils to other boroughs and private schools, which is “not consistent with our SEND strategy to promote in-borough provisions,” said a spokesperson.

Special schools are full…demand is outstripping supply across the country

The council has contacted the DfE to “discuss why the bid was not successful”, they added.

Census data shows the proportion of pupils in state special schools has increased from 1.3 per cent in 2014 to 1.4 per cent in 2018, or almost 18,000 more pupils. The proportion in pupil referral units and AP has risen from 0.4 per cent to 0.5 per cent, or almost 6,500 more pupils.

Malcolm Reeve, national leader at Whole School SEND, said special schools are “full” with “demand outstripping supply across the country”.

However, he warned more specialist schools were not necessarily the answer to rising exclusions of SEND and other high-needs pupils, urging government instead to open more specialist provision in mainstream schools.

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, added the mismatch between local need and the DfE’s awarded contracts was “extremely concerning”.

“We would welcome clarification from the DfE over its thinking on this important matter.”

The DfE said applications for the schools were considered through a robust process and awarded based on selection criteria.