Ofsted

Spielman: Special school crisis leaves primary pupils ‘languishing’ in AP

Places shortage, lengthy waits for EHC plans and no cash means some youngsters stuck in 'unsuitable' alternative provision, Ofsted says

Places shortage, lengthy waits for EHC plans and no cash means some youngsters stuck in 'unsuitable' alternative provision, Ofsted says

The number of primary-age children in alternative provision has risen by more than a quarter in the last five years

Vulnerable primary school children are left to “languish” in “unsuitable” alternative provision (AP) because of lengthy waits for special school places and services, an Ofsted report has found.

Some AP staff told the inspectorate they felt their classrooms were being used as a “dumping ground” with some children waiting three years for specialist support.

The number of pupils aged 11 or under in APs has risen by more than a quarter, to 7,000, in the last five years.

Ofsted research, published today, found many younger children only attended AP part-time for a period of between a few weeks and months.

But chief inspector Amanda Spielman, said: “Limited access to external services, and lengthy waiting times for a special school place, mean some vulnerable children languish for years in APs that cannot provide the specialist support they need.

“And the consequences for these children may last well into their adult lives.”

‘Dumping ground’: AP staff reveal concerns

The study looked at the reasons younger pupils were referred to AP and the challenges a sample of 10 primary schools and eight APs faced in supporting children with additional needs.

Earlier this year, Schools Week revealed the places crisis within special schools.

Our investigation found 54 per cent of special schools had more pupils on roll than the number commissioned by their council, with leaders converting cupboards and staff rooms into makeshifts classroom.

At the same time, around only 60 per cent of education, health and care plans in England are issued within the targeted 20-week timeframe, according to the latest government data.

Staff in one AP told Ofsted their provision felt like a “dumping ground” for pupils who needed a special school place. They added that such children were sometimes waiting for three years.

Meanwhile, some primary school staff said they believed the purpose of AP was to be a “stop gap”.

But the report found that while AP could be a more suitable environment for pupils with “specific needs”, such settings could not always provide the “most appropriate” education and support.

“As a result, vulnerable pupils who cannot return to mainstream education can end up in an unsuitable setting for the long term,” the report stated. “This is likely to be challenging both for the pupil and the AP staff who work with them.”

No cash for mainstream school support

Most of the children in the eight APs Ofsted visited had been referred because a mainstream primary school could not “safely manage” their violent physical or verbal behaviour.

But it noted that in these cases, school staff had not been able to meet pupils’ additional needs because of “a lack of funding, training or facilities”.

This comes in spite of new government proposals to reform the SEND system relying on mainstream schools becoming more inclusive.

On the contrary, APs were likely to have a range of non-teaching staff on site, including mental health specialists and speech and language therapists.

Staff in both mainstream primary schools and APs cited the importance of outreach work, in which AP staff advise those in mainstream.

School staff said this could help with early identification of needs and intervention and to prevent suspensions and exclusions.

But the research concluded that in some cases, a lack of funding meant pupils were instead sent to APs as a “short cut to getting support”.

“In addition, pupils may be suspended or excluded, when this could have been avoided,” the report states.

Funding was a particular issue where children did not have an EHC plan, as it made it more difficult for schools to provide “proactive support” when challenging behaviour occurred.

In one case, a lack of funding led to an AP placement because a school was unable to secure funding for a pupil who only needed support during breaktimes and lunchtimes. They were told that funding was only available for 16 or more hours a week.

Ofsted noted that Covid had “further aggravated” existing issues, as rise in additional needs during school closures had “not been matched” with timely identification and support.

Budget cuts to make things worse

While 95 per cent of pupils referred to AP are of secondary school age, Ofsted initiated its report because of the growing number of younger children entering such settings.

But the issues it identified could be set to worsen. A new survey of more than 11,000 school leaders in England from headteachers’ union NAHT shows that many are looking to make budget cuts in the face of skyrocketing energy bills and extra costs for resources and supplies.

Nearly half – 47 per cent – said they would be forced to reduce non-educational support and services for children in 2023. This included cutting back on counselling, therapy and mental health support.

Meanwhile, four in ten (44 per cent), said they would need to cut spending on additional targeted interventions for pupils requiring additional support.

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