Children with special educational needs (SEND) living in affluent areas are more likely to get a precise diagnosis and a proper plan for support from their local council, a new report has found, amid fears of a “rationing” of support in poorer locations.
Research from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) shows that those with SEND in wealthier parts of the country have a higher chance getting an education, health and care plan (EHCP), which entitles them to more support.
The government published its SEND improvement plan in March, three years after a review into provision was first launched.
During an education committee hearing in which MPs questioned then children’s minister Claire Coutinho on the plan, Ian Mearns described a “massive rationing process” in deprived areas, due at least in part to “huge high needs deficits”.
The LSE report, which analysed data from the national pupil database (NPD) on 4.5 million primary-aged children in January 2021, suggested its findings provided “evidence” for such concerns.
Dr Tammy Campbell, a visiting senior fellow at LSE who conducted the research, said the findings suggested recently-revealed government plans to reduce spending on specialist provision “are a move in the wrong direction”.
“Until the wider primary education system is made significantly more inclusive, cuts to EHCPs are likely only to worsen unmet need.”
Below are the key findings.
1. Higher EHCP rate in wealthier areas
Campbell found that children who were eligible for free school meals (FSM) were more likely to be recorded as having SEND.
As of January 2021, 16.2 per cent of all primary pupils had some level of SEND, with 12.9 per cent receiving SEND support and 3.3 per cent with an EHCP.
Of the 1,025,974 children eligible for free school meals, 21 per cent had SEND support and 5.3 per cent had an EHCP.
However, just 4.75 per cent of FSM pupils had an EHCP in the most deprived areas, compared to 5.75 per cent in the most affluent.
Among all children with any SEND, around 17.5 per cent had an EHCP in the most deprived areas, compared to 22 per cent in the most affluent.
2. Pupils in richer areas get more precise diagnoses…
Children with SEND living in more affluent areas also had higher chances of being diagnosed with “less prevalent, more precisely defined conditions” that involve external professionals and services.
For example, 10.3 per cent of children with SEND in the most deprived areas were recorded with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) conditions, compared with 11.9 per cent in the most affluent areas.
Around 2.3 per cent were recorded as having physical disabilities in the most deprived areas, compared with 3.4 per cent in the most affluent.
And around 1.3 per cent were recorded as having hearing conditions in the poorest areas, versus 2.1 per cent in the richest.
The report added that the difference in diagnoses for specific learning difficulties (SPLD) – which includes conditions such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD – was “particularly clear”.
Around 15 per cent of children with SEND living in the most affluent areas were recorded as having SPLD, compared to 6 per cent in the most deprived.
3. …with those in poorer areas ‘less well-defined’
Children in more deprived areas were more likely to be categorised with “less specific, more common” forms of SEND.
Around 32 per cent were recorded as having speech, language and communication needs (SLCN), versus 25 per cent in the most affluent areas.
Around 20 per cent were recorded as having moderate learning difficulties (MLD) in the most deprived areas, compared with 15 per cent in the most affluent.
And around 18 per cent of those with SEND were recorded as having social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) difficulties in the most deprived areas, compared with 15 per cent in the most affluent.
4. Findings suggest ‘rationing’ support in poorer areas
The report said its findings “support” the possibility that “children’s chances of receiving suitable support and resources depend on the affluence of the area in which they live”.
It noted that there were “numerous reasons” why area deprivation may be related to the level of SEND support allocated and type of diagnosis attributed to children.
This included that families living in “deprived and challenging” circumstances may be more likely to develop SEMH. But it added that unmet need in such areas could also result in poorer mental health.
Given specific conditions and EHCP provision were at “relatively lower rates” in more deprived areas, this suggested a “rationing process” in those areas.
5. Revision to funding formula may improve inequalities
Current high needs block funding provided to councils to serve children with SEND is adjusted according to factors included FSMs and levels of deprivation.
But the report said: “findings here…suggest that, in is current incarnation, this does not provide an adequately weighted or resourced counterbalance to the prevalence of higher levels of SEND in more deprived areas”.
It added that this resulted “in ‘rationing’ of support”. To counter this, the report put forward that “revision” of the funding formula “to better serve areas of high need” was a lever which could improve “the inequalities in provision”.
“Importantly, however, this revision should be premised on adding more resources into the system…rather than simply reweighting away from more affluent areas.”