Specialist settings can’t solve all of mainstream’s problems

The north east’s schools are bearing the brunt of a national crisis of unmet needs and insufficient support, explains Chris Zarraga

The north east’s schools are bearing the brunt of a national crisis of unmet needs and insufficient support, explains Chris Zarraga

6 Nov 2023, 5:00

Schools in the north east and across the country are seeing significant increases in children and young people with profound additional needs. Adding to an already large backlog, this need is increasingly going unmet, hampering educational outcomes for students. 

Often, this unmet need is leading to rising rates of permanent exclusions. In 2021/22, the north east had the highest rates of permanent exclusions. Every north east local authority had a permanent exclusion rate above the national rate of 0.08. Redcar and Cleveland had the highest rate in the country at 0.31.

To solve this crisis, we need strategic solutions that understand our local context and that confront the underlying issues that impact so heavily on areas like ours.

Our sector is dealing with pre-existing problems that have been hugely exacerbated by Covid and the cost-of-living crisis – problems that will continue to accelerate until we get proper support. They include attendance, behaviour, readiness for stage, and teacher recruitment and retention. And then there’s mental health, made worse by the collapse of services around schools, leaving staff desperately trying to deliver beyond their remit and expertise amid ever-more stretched budgets.

These issues hit our most disadvantaged communities the hardest. This adds fuel to the fire when looking at the behaviour and complex needs of pupils in both mainstream and alternative provision (AP) schools.

An overcrowded system

As we reach the halfway point of the autumn term, the system is already working at capacity. APs are reporting a lack of places – a situation that would normally only be reached in the spring term.

Far too often, APs are being treated as specialist provision, being named on education, health, and care plans (EHCPs). But these schools are designed to provide temporary places to prepare students to return to mainstream settings. With resources stretched, it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to fulfil that aim. Instead, a lack of places in special schools and inadequate resources and support available to mainstream schools means they are being expected to provide permanent places, without the necessary expertise to support referred students.

This is a national problem, often highlighted in efforts by the National Network of Special Schools (NNoSS). But it’s a problem that’s particularly bad here. Between the academic years of 2012/13 and 2021/22, there was a 145.43 per cent increase in SEND students with an EHCP or statement being suspended from school in our region.

It’s a devastating statistic, but it should come as no surprise when we have been offered little by way of a long-term, strategic solution to prevent the structure from complete collapse.

A road paved with good intentions

These challenges are only likely to increase as more children and young people are not able to access the support they need in the right settings. The whole SEND system urgently needs a strategic plan to address the increased need since the pandemic, as well as the rising expectations of schools that predate Covid.

At the moment, we only have strategic intentions. Without a plan ensuring joined-up thinking across the different sectors that support children and young people, it will become increasingly difficult if not impossible to ensure students have real pathways to success.

But the solution cannot simply be larger specialist settings. The system should ensure students, where possible, return to mainstream settings and prevent students needing to be referred to special and AP schools in the first place. 

Mainstream schools can learn a lot from APs, but without a long-term, calculated plan for either we can expect more and more stress on a system that’s already close to breaking point. We need a holistic approach that works to halt the rise in exclusions and supports the rising number of pupils with complex needs. The answer to a mainstream school’s problems can’t always be found in an AP setting. The sooner this is understood, the better it will be for the whole sector. 

However, we can’t reach this conclusion on intention alone. Mainstream, specialist and AP schools all require more resources and expertise to deliver that ambition.

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  1. J Hammersley

    This has been a long time coming problem. If you do not recognise the interventions that schools make to meet children’s needs, remove the resources they have to work with those children and support a devisive mainstream school system more children will be failed.
    Allowing schools to be creative to help children develop and not penalising them when they do. Would be a good first step if taken in tandem with adequate resourcing.

    • I must say that having watched Roman’s TV documentary last night; this response maybe a knee jerk reaction.may-be in the short term young people may just need a designated quiet space where they can meet and talk. Just a thought as the Y/Ps discussed and showed viewers; how they are doing it themselves and for their friends, who are living and for friends whom feel suicidal and those no longer living: because they have died asa direct result from committing suicide. One of The very strong messages that Roman helped portray is Young people need their own space now. I feel this responsibility should not be left solely to teachers. I am a youth worker and will have discussions with Young People raising difficult issues.

  2. More often than not the children who are disruptive in Main stream are those with unaccessed primary issues and other challenges arising from those. Lack of immediate and professional assessment and screening, of adequate and appropriate therapeutic intervention cost these children a invaluable loss in the window of time which ensures rapid recovery or rehabilitation
    School teachers and staff are NOT equipped to do this and incorporation of these individuals into Main stream schools without appropriate integration procedures is just a waste of precious resources be it human or material.