One in ten councils believe pupils with special educational needs are being let down when they try to move mid-year, with some schools refusing to admit children unless extra funding is agreed.
An investigation by Schools Week has also found town halls are shaking up in-year admissions in response to growing problems with the system, with one county even resorting to taking charge of the process for all schools on its patch.
The Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) revealed in its annual report that councils had “considerable concern” schools were refusing to admit pupils eligible for SEN support unless additional resources were forthcoming.
Many parents don’t apply as they are told the school is unable to meet their child’s needs
Schools Week has obtained the names of the 16 of England’s 152 councils that told the OSA in-year admissions do not function well for pupils in need of SEN support, but who do not have an education health and care plan.
The councils’ submissions paint a bleak picture of an admissions landscape beset by funding and administrative issues, as schools and local authorities grapple with the impact of a 17 per cent real terms cut in SEND funding over just three years.
In its submission, Bexley Council in south-east London warned that some schools “can put barriers to admission where there are additional needs to consider, without a plan”, while Kent County Council said its SEN department was now more frequently having to direct schools to take on pupils “due to mainstream and special schools unwilling or unable to admit a child”.
There are two categories for pupils with identified special educational needs and disabilities (SEND): Children with legally binding EHCPs, who are assigned additional funding, make up around one-fifth. The rest – more than one million children nationally – are those with SEN support, who are usually taught in mainstream schools and whose provision has to be funded from general budgets.
Unlike those with an EHCP, who have their own tailored system for in-year admissions, pupils who receive SEN support are considered alongside all other pupils.
Some councils are now even resorting to changing their systems in the hope that consistency across all schools will help.
For example, in Worcestershire, the council will take over all in-year admissions from next September.
Marcus Hart, the county’s cabinet member with responsibility for education and skills, said his council has been “working closely with schools to simplify the process of admissions and to promote inclusion and equity for children”.
Wigan Council is also considering changes. As well as a project to create more special school places, the authority is looking at how it can use special school places “differently and more flexibly to support children to remain in their mainstream school where appropriate”.
“We aren’t suggesting the system doesn’t work for SEND pupils but we are aware that there are challenges, including special schools being at capacity and lack of funding, which can impact the support SEND pupils can receive,” said Cath Pealing, assistant director of education at the authority.
In Rotherham, the council has introduced “focussed” placements for pupils with social, emotional and mental health needs following a “significant increase” in demand.
The authority told the OSA in its report last year that it was responding to “particular issues with admission of children who have SEN but no plans”, and said that schools “lack confidence in their ability to meet needs”.
Pepe Diiasio, the council’s assistant director of education, said new measures included an additional outreach programme to aid in-year transitions and placements into mainstream education, and added that the council is “now seeing the benefits of our refreshed strategy”.
According to the OSA’s report, schools are also reportedly putting parents off applying in-year.
The report claimed “several councils” found that “many parents report not making a formal application to a school as they are told when they initially make contact to apply that the school is unable to meet their child’s needs”.
Despite targeting resource at supporting pupils with SEND, schools are not currently recognised for delivering effective provision
But the local authorities expressed “considerable frustration at a perceived lack of consequences for schools who behave in this way”.
Anne Heavey, national director at Whole School SEND, warned of “perverse incentives” that can “work against schools taking on pupils with SEND mid-year”.
These include staff capacity issues, which are “especially challenging” for SEN support pupils because schools are expected to fund provision from existing resources.
But Heavey also said many teachers lacked confidence in supporting pupils with SEND, leaving leaders concerned about “having the resource to address training needs quickly”.
“This last point is unpalatable, but school leaders know that on average, pupils identified as SEN support attract negative progress scores in both primary and secondary schools – meaning that despite targeting resource at supporting pupils with SEND, schools are not currently recognised for delivering effective SEND provision.”
Councils are required to draw up fair access protocols in order to help pupils, especially the most vulnerable, find new schools as quickly as possible when they move outside normal admission rounds.
However, a Schools Week investigation last year revealed a postcode lottery, with some pupils waiting months for places.