Education Reform, SEND

The SEND system needs urgent and substantive reform

28 Jun 2021, 5:00

The SEND system has been waiting two years for promised reform and it can’t afford to wait any longer, writes Whitney Crenna-Jennings

It’s been two years since the publication of Edward Timpson’s review of exclusions, the launch of a review of special educational needs and disabilities provision, and proposed legislation to track children who are not in mainstream schools.

Two years in which the government has only implemented six of the 30 Timpson recommendations it accepted in principle. Two years, and the SEND review findings are only due this month. Two years during which there’s been no movement on the promised register to track off-rolled pupils.

Delays due to the pandemic are understandable, but the simple truth is that if the government had prioritised the needs of vulnerable children much sooner, the education system would have been more resilient to Covid’s unequal impact. Instead, the number of children at risk of poor outcomes has only increased in the last year.

All children have been dealt a bad hand by Covid, but some more than others. A substantial number of young people report feeling that their career aspirations have been destroyed. We are seeing a widespread rise in mental health issues too – these are starker among children who spent more time out of school and those in families who fell into debt as a result of the pandemic.

Many children with SEND were unable to access needed support during the shutdowns and lost important opportunities in their development. Children from vulnerable backgrounds had less access to IT and study space, and experienced greater disengagement from education. Some research shows an increase in absenteeism concentrated amongst disadvantaged pupils.

And now, there is real concern that the government’s paltry education recovery package will fail to offer these students the support they need, leaving many at increased risk of exclusion and poor outcomes.

Previous EPI research found that approximately one in ten pupils experience an ‘unexplained exit’ from secondary school. These pupils are much more likely than their peers to have an additional need, including a mental health issue or experiences of neglect or abuse at home.

There are flaws in the system that families have been highlighting for years

Worryingly, more recent EPI research using data on all schools in England confirms troubling inequities in identifying and supporting children with additional needs – flaws and inconsistencies in the system that families have been highlighting for years.

What we’ve found is that, far above individual characteristics and circumstances, the most influential factor in the quality of support students receive is the school they attend. Type of school, where children live, and level of vulnerability can also spell the difference between being able to access needed support or facing disciplinary action, including a possible exclusion.

Children in academies, those with severe SEND in disadvantaged areas, and those with less stable lives – who have moved schools in early primary, experienced frequent absences, or have experienced abuse or neglect – are all less likely to be identified as needing support.

Worse, our research shows that children who miss substantial amounts of school due to absence are at risk of slipping under the radar for SEND assessment. Those whose SEND needs had already been identified in education, health and care plans (EHCPs) temporarily lost the legal enforceability of their agreed SEND support when schools closed. But how many more have not been identified at all due to the pandemic?

The good news is that we know schools make the difference, so we need to ensure they all do.

To achieve that, we need a national framework of minimum standards of support for children with SEND in mainstream schools and increased specialist training and support for teachers and school leaders. Assessments to identify SEND in schools must improve, as must our capacity to identify and reach highly vulnerable children who require specialised learning support.

The government must also issue clear guidance to avoid exclusions as far as possible during the recovery phase and closely monitor pupil movement at local and national levels.

But none of this can happen without a SEND funding system that is responsive to children’s needs.

The system was failing before the pandemic. It needs substantive reform, and it can’t wait another two years for it.

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