15,000 disabled learners with EHCPs but no provision: The EHCP figures for 2021

It seems like an ice age since the last time we this rather than just a year – but yesterday, the Department for Education published their annual statistical summary of Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) in England for 2020-21.... so here we go, the EHCP figures, along with the pretty infographics you've come to expect.

The caveats

These statistics are a valuable source if you want to understand what’s going on in the higher needs bit of the SEND system. But all the same, there’s a lot that these numbers can’t tell you: 

  • The stats don’t cover children and young people who don’t have an EHCP – you’ll have to wait until the summer for those figures.
  • This data comes from a local authority census return, and it mostly just tracks EHCP paperwork and processes. The stats don’t tell you anything directly about the quality of support, or even whether the EHCPs delivered any support at all – and we know from our surveys that this has been an even bigger problem during the pandemic.
  • The biggest health warning of all though: these stats were collected in mid-January 2021, and they mostly cover EHCP goings-on in 2020 – a period of massive turbulence in the education system as a whole, including four months when a lot of the statutory duties around EHC needs assessments and timescales were relaxed. 

So the figures paint a useful picture of some of what’s happened over the last year – but it wouldn’t be a good idea to rely too hard on these stats when thinking about long-term trends. That said, we have still included the Hall of Shame - after all, every local authority was in the same boat and the standard of decision-making shouldn't have changed, so a comparison to see who did what is still in order.

Health warnings over – so what do this year’s figures say? If you’re in a hurry, check the infographic at the bottom – otherwise, read on…

A steady rise in EHCPs

EHCP numbers are continuing to rise steadily – In January 2021, there were over 430,000 children and young people with an EHCP in England. That’s 10% up on the previous year – about the same growth rate as 2019-2020.

In all, there are 190,000 more children and young people with a statutory plan in 2021 than there were in 2015, just after the start of the SEND reforms. That’s a really hefty increase – 80% over six years – but a large part of the reason why is because it’s now possible to get and keep statutory SEND provision beyond the age of 16.   

EHCP numbers are still rising faster in mainstream schools than in special schools
 – this is a trend that started in 2019, and has carried through in 2020. The number of pupils with EHCPs in mainstream schools (including units, resource bases, and non-specialist independents) has grown by 13% year-on-year - whilst the number in special schools grew by 6%, and by just 2% in alternative provision and pupil referral units.

Why’s this happening? It’s partly because capacity in state-funded special schools and alternative provision is full to bursting, but it’s also because many local authorities are taking deliberate steps to throttle specialist sector placements, so that they can bring their ravaged SEND finances into order. 

The number of requests for EHC needs assessment dropped in 2020 – In 2019, schools and parent carers made 82,300 requests for an EHC needs assessment. In 2020, they made 76,000 requests. That’s the first year since the SEND reforms began that the number of initial EHC needs assessment requests has dropped. It’s unwise to make too big a deal of this - the most likely explanation is that the pandemic, combined with LA gatekeeping, simply made it too hard for some schools and parent carers to put requests in.

Discontinued EHCPs also rising

The number of discontinued EHCPs hit an all-time high – Over 20,000 EHCPs were stopped in 2020 – in most cases, because the local authority judged that the young person no longer needed the plan as they’d left education. This number will continue to grow over time, and the reasons why LAs terminate these plans – particularly in post-16 and post-19 - will need to be watched increasingly carefully.

The formal education system just isn’t working for a growing number of children and young people with EHCPs – As of January 2021, there were over 27,000 children and young people with EHCPs who were either being educated outside a nursery, school or college, or who were waiting on the placement named in their EHCP to materialise, or who weren’t getting any form of education, employment or training at all. 

This is a part of the SEND world where the reliability of the data isn’t rock-solid, but it’s noteworthy that the number of children and young people in this category has gone up by over 60% just in the last two years

15,000 children without the education they're entitled to

Over 5,600 children and young people with EHCPs were listed as “awaiting provision” in January 2021 – more than ever before. The vast majority of these 5,600 reportedly weren’t in education. And there’s a very good chance that this number is the tip of the iceberg.

Take Bristol. They reported to the DfE that in January 2021, they had two pupils with EHCPs that were in education, but were still waiting on the provision in their EHCPs to be freed up. But the council’s own reports show that in September 2020, there were at least 190 Bristol pupils who were waiting in a mainstream school for the special school placements named in their EHCPs. And Bristol expects that number to grow this year. With special schools full nationwide, it’s highly likely that this is a pattern that’s being replicated nationally.

But one of the most damning statistics to appear in this latest haul is buried deep. As of January 2021, local authorities reported that 15,000 kids and young adults with EHCPs weren’t in any form of education, employment, or training at all. That number has nearly doubled over just two years. Whilst it’s likely that the pandemic has played a part here, there were still over 11,000 young people in this category in the months prior to lockdown. It’s inexcusable.

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EHCPs, home education and the pandemic

Separately, there’s been a lot of local authority-fuelled hyperbole in recent months about the impact of the pandemic on home education – in particular, that COVID-crazed parents were increasingly pulling their children out of schools. Yesterday’s EHCP data shines a little bit of light on that.

  • The number of children and young people with EHCPs listed as receiving ‘elective home education’ was 3,660 in January 2021, a 23% rise over the previous year. Bear in mind that the definition of ‘elective’ is likely to be very broad here.
  • In 2020, parents collectively took around 1,030 children and young people with EHCPs out of mainstream and special schools to be educated at home. Out of context, that might sound like a big, pandemic-driven number - but it’s only around 200 more pupils than in 2019.

Accessing an EHCP in 2020- handle with care

What about the process of getting an EHCP in 2020? The data that the DfE stattos put out yesterday in this area needs to be taken with care. For four months in 2020, local authorities were freed from many of the statutory deadlines that apply to the EHCP process.

Nonetheless, looking at the bare numbers, it’s remarkable how little difference the relaxation of SEND duties made to aggregated local authority performance. If you’re an optimist, you might feel like celebrating: it might suggest that LAs did their best to keep the show on the road in a really challenging environment. If you’re a pessimist, it might tell you that the SEND legal relaxations made no difference at all, because LAs weren’t abiding by their statutory duties before the pandemic anyway.

Either way - or perhaps somewhere in between - the headline data from 2020 is surprisingly unchanged, compared to 2019.

  • Overall, local authorities refused 22% of initial EHC needs assessment requests in 2020 – marginally lower than the previous year. As ever with SEND, there are massive variations between councils: some LAs say that they refused half of all EHC needs assessment requests, and a handful of LAs say they refused none at all.
  • If your child got an EHC needs assessment in 2020, then their chances of getting an EHCP generally remained high – although as ever, this tells you nothing about their chances of getting a properly specified and quantified EHCP. On average, in 2020 local authorities refused to issue an EHCP in only 5% of cases – very similar to the figure for 2019. Again, it all depends on where you live: the stingiest LA refused to issue an EHCP in 30% of cases, whilst 10 LAs didn’t refuse to issue at all.
  • Overall, 58% of new EHCPs were produced within 20 weeks in 2020, compared to 60% in 2019. That’s surprising, given everything that went on last year. All the same, it doesn’t tell you how badly delayed the late plans might have been – and the postcode lottery effects here are epic. 
  • Fifteen LAs managed to get more than 98% of their new EHCPs produced within 20 weeks – and at the other end of the scale, fifteen LAs got fewer than 25% of their new plans produced within 20 weeks. The worst-performing LA only managed to complete 1.5% of its new EHCPs on time in 2020, despite convincing Ofsted inspectors that they had made “sensible changes to improve efficiency.”

The numbers tell a story, though not the whole book

These numbers are dry, abstract things. They tell us a fair amount about EHCPs at a high level, but they won’t determine much by themselves, and data isn’t destiny; it doesn’t dictate whether your child or young person with SEND actually ends up getting the quality and quantity of support that they need. 

But as parents, what it allows us to do is to show that the experiences of the system that we have are not one-off anecdotes. For bad experiences as well as good, we can use these numbers to show that what we’re going through is happening elsewhere in our local areas, and all around the country.

Nonetheless, there are things about EHCPs that decision-makers need to know in more detail – they need more and better information than they’re currently getting. 

So from next year, the Department for Education will start asking local authorities for more data about EHCPs – and the statistical plan is to burrow right down to the level of individual plans, rather than just ask local authorities for summaries of the numbers.

This won’t involve throwing around personal data about individual children – but it will make it possible to for people to ask better questions about EHCPs and the EHCP process, including things like Annual Reviews. If it works, it’ll make it harder for officials to duck detailed scrutiny.

The DfE plan to get this new data collection system fully up and running by 2023. Whether it’ll actually be up and running by then is another thing – it’ll require local authorities to collect and manage data in a much more detailed way than many of them are currently capable of doing. But long-term, it’s likely to be a positive step.

The EHCP infographics for 2021

infographic- PDF has accessible version
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Download the accessible PDF version of the infographic here

Please note, these images and infographics are free to share on social media and elsewhere with credit. For other use please get in touch

One further note: DCP survey update

The Disabled Children’s Partnership has today released the findings of its latest survey on the impact of the pandemic of disabled children and their families.  The survey took place in the first half of April, so after schools had fully re-opened and as the country moved to the next stage of lockdown easing.  But despite this, and the government’s statements on prioritising services for disabled children, the DCP found that many children and families are still missing the support they need.  Six in 10 families are still experiencing delays to health appointments to review and treat long-term conditions; therapies are still delayed for half of children; and both children and parent carers are more socially isolated than the rest of the population.  You can read the more about the DCP’s research here

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Matt Keer

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