18.4% with SEND in 2024, and girls are increasingly suffering. Plus, a new hot destination for SEND

Hard on the heels of the 2024 EHCP figures, analysed by Matt here, it’s time for the 2024 SEND statistics as a whole. That means all children who were reported to have any type of special educational need, as of January 2024.

Where is the data from?

The figures are from the Department for Education school census and covers schools and pupils in:

  • state-funded primary, secondary schools, and special schools
  • non-maintained special schools
  • state-funded alternative provision schools, academies and free schools, including pupil referral units (PRUs)
  • independent schools
  • hospital schools, resourced provision, SEN units and approved special provision

The data is submitted by schools, who put down the primary category of need, so if the SENCO doesn’t have a diagnosis to go on, or is inexperienced, they may plump for Moderate Learning Difficulties (MLD), or Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH)- whatever is in the general vicinity of what they are seeing.

The SEND data headlines

The headline data shows,

  • A total of 18.4% of children in England have some kind of special educational need- up from 17.3% in 2023.
  • That’s a total of 1,673,205 of children with SEND
  • 434,354 pupils have an EHCP, up by 11.6% from 2023.
  • In percentage terms, that’s 4.8%, of pupils, up from 4.3% in 2023
  • 1,238,851 children are on SEN support, without an EHC Plan. That’s up by 4.7% from 2023
  • In percentage terms, 13.6% of pupils are on SEN support, up from 13.0% in 2023
  • There’s been a 7.1% increase in the number of children on SEN Support who have no type of assessed need noted.

Rises: SEND Support, no assessment

There are a number of areas where larger increases are being seen, but looking at the category of “SEN Support with no type of assessed need”, this is likely for one, or both, of two reasons.

First, it may be because a need has recently been identified, but the school is first trying classroom-based strategies. This can be anything from an educated guess from the teacher or SENCO based on training or experience, or a “throw some things at the wall and see what sticks” approach. However, with a lack of resources that should ordinarily be available, it’s not surprising that needs escalate, no matter how hard a teacher tries.  

It may also, or as well, be because the child has not had the benefit of any outreach or external assessments. Given the extreme shortages in speech and language therapists and educational psychologists, the child may well be on a long waiting list, or a waiting list for an external NHS assessment. Parents who can afford it are forced to fork out for expensive private assessments to get help sooner, or they, or the school, are applying for statutory assessments because the child has waited so long, their difficulties have multiplied.

This is part of the vicious cycle of educational psychology shortages: those employed by local authorities are tied up doing statutory EHC needs assessments, so cannot do the early intervention work they should be doing to prevent needs increasing. Those needs then do increase to the point the child waiting also now needs a statutory assessment. The Ed Psych gets burned out and moves into private practice, making the pool of available LA EPs even smaller. While the government has announced plans to train 400 more EPs, this is a doctorate qualification so takes years to achieve – and 400 across all of England’s LAs is just over two each.

Rises: Social Emotional and Mental Health

A notable rise is the number of children with Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) problems.

While this may be one of the “plumped for” categories, the reasons behind the rise are likely to be a result of poor access and lengthy waiting lists for assessments for mental health, ADHD and autism. Many children are also still feeling the effects of post-pandemic anxiety. For some, this lack of diagnosis means they are stuck in what is likely to be the wrong environment with their mental health suffering more as a consequence. This is also probably one reason for the rise in absenteeism in schools.

The assessment and diagnostic backlog is serious. Although schools do not have to wait for a diagnosis to put interventions in place, a lack of expert input and lack of resources in-school means help isn’t available. SEMH is not a diagnosis, it’s a sign of needs not being met. And if needs aren’t being met, it’s likely the interventions being tried aren’t working effectively enough to help. While schools may have had teachers who’ve had “mental health lead” training funded by the government, they do also have to teach, and they are still not qualified counsellors.

It’s also likely that increasing mental health problems are a result of the environment children are living in- perhaps family poverty or financial problems from the cost of living crisis, poor housing, the damaging effects of ubiquitous social media impacting on self-esteem and confidence, and the pressure from expectation of school achievement and behaviour policies. And this is all against the backdrop of coverage of wars, political strife and the climate crisis that all serve to make our children— even those without SEND—feel depressed, anxious, helpless, and to wonder, what’s the point? And who can blame them?

Girls’ mental health is suffering

The data shows the number of girls with EHCPs listing SEMH as the primary need rose by a massive 23.5% - almost a quarter, while girls on SEN Support rose by 15.4%.

Boys with a similar primary need also increased, but by a more modest 11.3% (EHCPs) and 8.2% (SEN Support). As mentioned, SEMH isn’t a diagnosis, so it’s concerning that this is a primary need for an EHCP, but this may again to be do with the data collection; while there’s a category for Autism Spectrum, there isn’t one for ADHD, anxiety and so on.

Another reason may be anecdotal evidence that SEMH may be being used on EHCPs because that’s where the specialist places are available, so children are being labelled as having behavioural problems rather than wait for a place in an oversubscribed school for children with learning difficulties.

However, another “plumped for” category, Moderate Learning Disabilities, has this year seen a fall of 5.2% in numbers of children with this listed as primary need for those in SEN Support. It’s increased however for those with EHCPs (3%).

Communication difficulties on the rise

Another area of significant increase is Speech, Language and Communication difficulties (SLCN). Again, it’s girls who have seen the larger rise in EHCPs with SLCN as primary need at 19%, while boys with the same primary need increased by 17.6%. There were much smaller increases for those with SLCN on SEN Support.

What, if anything, can we infer from this? Take your pick – lack of language and communication skills continuing post-pandemic, coupled with the SaLT therapist shortage, means development has been interrupted for many, or developmental disabilities have gone unnoticed and by the time they are, they cannot get the help they need to catch up. This can also lead to mental health problems and absenteeism—if a child cannot access the curriculum because of unmet learning needs, they are less likely to want to engage or show up at all.

Autism spectrum rising faster in girls

Historically, diagnosis of boys with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), has outstripped girls many times over. But the data we are seeing here shows this is starting to change.

There are still more than double the number of boys on SEN Support than girls, and autistic girls have only 28% as many EHCPs as autistic boys. But last year saw a huge rise of 25.1% in the number of girls on SEN Support with ASD, and a 20.7% increase in girls with EHCPs (albeit from a far lower base than boys). The numbers for boys also grew, but by 10.7% for those on SEN Support and 12.3% for EHCPs.  

Where are the children with SEND?

While most children with EHCPs are still in maintained special schools, the percentage is falling compared to mainstream, both mainstream primary and secondary, where they have slightly increased. Which is odd when you consider the narrative of more children in special provision, isn’t it?

There have been increases of children with EHCPs:

  • 23.5% increase in children with EHCPs in mainstream nursery, although the numbers are still under 1% of the total.
  • In mainstream primary there are increases of 16%
  • Mainstream secondary 14.5%
  • Mainstream special school saw a 5.6% increase
  • But Non-Maintained special schools only rose by 1.6% in NMSS.
  • Independent provision: saw a 16.7% increase in children with EHCPs
  • And what about Alternative Provision? The increase is 13.9%

What’s happening with AP?

Alternative Provision (AP) is growing at a similar rate as an “EHCP destination” as mainstream school. When you add in those in AP without EHC Plans, it’s risen by 20.3% on 2023—the fastest-going sector.

click image to enlarge

Looking closely at the SEN status of children in state AP, it is worrying to see what looks like a 22% increase in the number of children who do not seem to have SEN at all— or at least they were not on an SEN register before they were moved to AP. The data doesn’t detail this, but a simple deduction from the headcount of those with SEN gives a gap of — 2,819 children. It seems that several thousand children were never given any kind of assessment of their needs before their previous mainstream setting decided it wasn’t for them.

A bleak picture for our children

All in all, these numbers are deeply disturbing. The status quo just isn’t working. We need more than just more special schools and more teaching staff — we need to look at why so many children’s mental health is at rock bottom.

Society, like technology, evolves, and it’s time for a paradigm shift in education. We need more focus on wellbeing, renewed focus on subjects that a wider range of children can thrive in, more empathy in schools and as much respect for skills as for academics.

We need greater investment early, and more help for families in need - a return to Sure Start, and/or a bigger boost for Family Hubs.

The next government must act fast, because the we need our next generation to thrive, and right now too many are not being supported to do so.

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Tania Tirraoro

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