Children ‘failed’ by SEND support system say MPs

Many children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are not getting the support they need, and the government should take urgent action to address this, a parliamentary committee has said.

The warning comes in a report, Support for children with special educational needs and disabilities, from the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts. In their report the committee, made up of a cross-party group of MPs, concluded that ‘many children with SEND are being failed by the support system’. They note that inspections of support for children and young people with SEND, jointly carried out by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission, found that half of local authorities inspected up to July 2019 had significant weaknesses. The MPs call for the Department for Education (DfE) to complete its review of SEND provision, announced in September 2019, ‘as a matter of urgency’, and for it to set out ‘the timescale within which families will see practical changes’. The DfE has yet to announce when the review will be completed or any findings published.

The report also notes that there are ‘significant unexplained disparities’ between different groups of children in terms of identification of SEND. For example, nearly twice as many boys than girls aged 5-17 are identified as having SEND – 20.2 per cent to 10.7 per cent. There are also big variations in terms of ethnicity, from 8 per cent of Chinese pupils to 15.5 per cent of black pupils. The MPs want the DfE to develop a ‘better, evidence-based understanding’ of these variations, and publish both their analysis and what actions they intend to take to address them.

MPs also say that too many pupils with SEND are being excluded from school – they made up 44.9 per cent of permanent exclusions and 43.4 per cent of fixed period exclusions in 2017/8. This follows last year’s Timpson review of school exclusions, which also found that vulnerable groups of pupils were more likely to be excluded, and that more should be done to ensure exclusion is used consistently and fairly. The committee want the DfE to now say how they will reduce the number of SEND pupils being excluded, and also how they intend to respond to recommendations made by the Timpson review.

Other conclusions in the report are that the DfE relies too heavily on periodic inspection for assurance that children are being properly supported, and that mainstream schools have little financial incentive to be inclusive of pupils with SEND. As schools must cover the first £6000 of extra support costs for pupils with SEND from their core budget, this can act as a disincentive to enrolling pupils with SEND or identifying existing pupils needs. The committee recommend that the DfE work to identify funding mechanisms that ‘strike the right balance between incentivising schools to be inclusive without encouraging over-identification of SEND’. The MPs also call for action to address a shortage of state special school places in some parts of the country, which is leading to disruption for pupils and to local authorities having to cover high transport costs.

The committee’s report came as the DfE announced that the number of children and young people  with Education Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) had increased by around 10 per cent in the year to January 2020, with the figure now standing at 390,100. Of these there were 53,900 children and young people with new EHCPs made during the 2019 calendar year, an increase of 10 per cent on 2018. The number of new EHCPs has increased each year since their introduction in 2014. The data released by the DfE also showed that in 2019, 60.4 per cent of new EHCPs were issued within 20 weeks, a small increase from 60.1 per cent in 2018. Local authorities are supposed to finalise EHCPs within 20 weeks of receiving the request for an EHC needs assessment.

Responding to the committee’s findings, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL union said: ‘The…report paints a stark picture of a system for supporting children with special educational needs which is poorly funded and ridiculously complicated. It is important to understand that many teachers and support staff do an amazing job for these young people despite these circumstances, but they need more backing from the government in the form of sufficient funding, and a system which is more streamlined and less bureaucratic.’

A DfE spokesperson said: ‘We are committed to supporting the safety and wellbeing of children with special educational needs and disabilities, and are working to ensure they get the help they need during the coronavirus outbreak. Our SEND review will look at how to improve the whole system for those children, young people and their families, who need additional help to access the support they need.’

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