In a transient phase, the special education system is responding to global events, national politics and improved societal understanding of neurodiversity.
Despite the uncertainty that this brings, we have a once in a generation opportunity to step back, reflect and consider how to move forwards.
In England about half a million children have an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP). Of children with EHCPs, about 83 per cent attend special schools maintained by the local authority, whilst the remaining 17 per cent of these children attend special schools which are independent and local authority funded.
“The SEND Review was a huge piece of work.”
In the recent SEND Review, commissioned by our current government earlier this year, local authority voices can be heard loud and clear.
These voices are calling for a re-evaluation of the state’s relationship with independent special schools, with particular concern around, in their words, “controlling the high costs associated with expensive provision.” They described the current system as “financially uncomfortable” with regulatory systems “designed for fee-paying private schools”.
The SEND Review also identified that an excessive portion of spending goes to schools which offer a higher level of intervention. Schools for children with more complex special needs.
“VAT will not apply to independent special school fees paid by local authorities.”
Of course, a child who needs a greater level of intervention will need more nuanced support, more specialist resources and more adult attention, meaning greater costs.
But this is not the whole story.
We must also consider how getting good support early can enable a portion of these children not to need such an intensive level of intervention in the first place. This is not just an economic case, but a moral one.
If, with better early support, a child can access mainstream education, or require less intensive special provision, this brings them closer to having independence, societal integration and, ultimately, better outcomes.
But how? By redistributing a portion of public spending towards supporting children who are at an earlier stage of their education journey, and developing provision for children whose needs are somewhere in the middle, huge benefits will be felt.
We would be likely to see:
- Children feeling less rejected by the education system and in turn, more engaged with their teachers.
- Children recovering more quickly from trauma and in turn, experiencing less entrenched anxieties.
- Children feeling less overwhelmed by their struggles and in turn, more able to pursue their talents.
- Children learning to overcome their own difficulties sooner and in turn, being more able to use this skills for any future struggles.
The list of benefits goes on and on.
So, it is heartening to see the SEND Review give such public attention to proper early intervention.
But politically we’re in a transient phase, with the Government looking likely to change hands next year. If it does, what can we expect?
Keir Starmer has said that he will reform our education systems. You will likely be aware of the much-publicised VAT on parents’ fees to private schools. He has confirmed that this will not apply to independent special school fees paid by local authorities.
His other promises include:
- modernisation of the national curriculum
- increased funding for early years
- the development of education for oracy
- and the teaching of more contemporary digital skills
Keir has also spoken about tackling, what both him and Michael Gove have called “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” a concern that certainly applies to children with special needs.
But Keir has not given a clear statement on the SEND Reforms outlined by the current government.
The SEND Review was a huge piece of work, being underpinned by much needed and vast consultation across families, students and the multi-disciplinary professionals who have contact with children. Whilst Keir would have the liberty to dismiss the SEND Review completely, it seems unlikely that he will do so, especially as the outcomes of the review seem to broadly align with his own direction for the education system.
It seems probable that Keir will roll out his own version of the SEND review, accepting the summary of the consultation, but changing the resulting action plan.
“There are one million children with special needs in mainstream schools needing extra support, but without an EHCP.”
Next let’s consider the direction that other trends are heading in.
The first significant trend to consider is the increase in special needs, Gov.uk tells us that the portion of children with an EHCP in England has more than doubled since 2010, with a significant increase for every one of those years.
Furthermore, a staggering 13 per cent of children in mainstream schools require additional support, because of their special needs, but do not have an EHCP to guarantee the support that they need is funded or even provided.
There are now roughly one million children with special needs in mainstream schools, needing extra support, but without an EHCP.
This means an overall total of 1.4 million school age children in the country with special needs to provide for.
Let’s consider the cause of this increase in special needs.
As a community we are aware that the social isolation that we lived through during the pandemic caused children trauma and negatively impacted on their mental health.
Research published by the Education Select Committee indicates that nearly one in five children are now living with probable mental health disorders. Sadly, vindicating our fears about how the pandemic, and it’s social isolation, impacted on children’s wellbeing.
This legacy of this will continue to impact on children as we look into the future.
But there is more to this, by missing out on social interaction, children also missed out on some of the essential building blocks of other aspects of their development. Social interaction is not only needed for learning social skills, it is also a vital neurological vehicle for all learning.
So, the number of children with an EHCP, and the number of children requiring extra support without an EHCP, are both increasing. This will of course lead to greater demand for special education provision, whether this is found within a mainstream school package or in a specialist environment.
“The time is right for challenging ourselves to consider how we can support this cause.”
So, we’ve established that local authorities feel disenchanted with the current model, and that the SEND Review indicates a need for better and more support in early intervention. We have also discussed the increased level of need amongst children.
The time is right for challenging ourselves, those within the education system, to consider how we can support this cause. We can bring children with special needs into the fold, we can change our organisations so that we are the pioneers of a new way of meeting special needs.
This won’t just benefit the children concerned and society itself, but it also makes good economic and business sense. The demand for good special education provision in all schools is only going to grow.
How can you be at the forefront of supplying this?
How can you build on the work that your organisation is already doing for children with special needs?
Let me ask you to consider the following;
- Developing a recruitment strategy that enables you to welcome staff who are neurodivergent themselves
- Investing in a work force who have experience working in high quality special schools
- Partnering with universities to conduct academic studies of the experiences of the children in your schools, and your local area, we can learn so much from them.
- Connecting with local special schools meaningfully so that you allow their best practice to influence your own school development plans
- Working with think tanks to contribute your own expertise to the evolution of the national system
- Methodically challenging any aspects of your organisation’s culture, which hinder the experience of anyone in your community who has special needs
Let’s make these changes systemic and strategic, a part of our schools in every way. Now, at this unique time is history, is the time for real progress for children with special needs.