Falling Through the Cracks: How children with SEND struggle to access early years education

with Catherine McLeod, Dingley's Promise

Today we're hearing from Catherine McLeod from Dingley's Promise, a charity trying to drive change for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in early years education. Catherine is concerned about the widening gap she is seeing in the ability of families to access education for young children with additional needs, and how the proposals in the SEND Green Paper might further influence this.

How children with SEND struggle to access Early Years education by Catherine McLeod MBE

The current early years system is struggling to give children with SEND the best start, and unless action is taken this is only going to get worse. 

Even before COVID the situation was difficult, with children with SEND accessing far less of their free entitlements than other children, and only 18% of local authorities reporting they had enough provision for all children with SEND in the early years (Coram, Childcare Survey, 2020). Outcomes for children with SEND were worse than other children, and the gap between them and their peers was growing.

Pandemic widens the gap

Issues have been exacerbated as a result of the pandemic, and Ofsted identified in their June 2021 report ‘SEND: Old issues, new issues, next steps’, that more children with SEND are further behind their peers, others have been wrongly labelled because they are struggling after long absences from settings, while others’ needs have not been identified due to absences. Recent research from the University of Leeds suggests that settings are increasingly considering not admitting children with SEND because they can’t afford to support them. The ‘Too Little Too Late’ report from The Early Years Alliance (2022) found that 28% of settings reported they have declined a place to a child because of their SEND.  92% of the settings they surveyed reported that they have used their own funds to provide the right support for children with SEND, and 53% are regularly doing so. Without doubt, the funding system is flawed and combined with the general lack of funding in the sector and the rise in numbers of children with SEND in recent years, there are real questions about sufficiency of places for children with SEND in the early years.

Changes to Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS)

Changes to the EYFS in September 2021 have focused on less tracking of child development in the early years. This is a relief to many practitioners who rightly want to focus more on time with children and knowing them and their needs directly, rather than spending time on filling in excessive tracking sheets. However, it was unclear from the beginning what this meant for children with SEND, as local authorities and other professionals still often need to see detailed evidence of their progress in order to decide on what support and funding they should receive. The government then released the Pen Green document ‘The Celebratory Approach’, which focuses practitioners straight back on previous tracking documents. The result is that practitioners see an even greater contrast between the time they need to spend on paperwork and tracking for children with SEND compared to their peers. This is likely to contribute to greater exclusion as settings weigh up the administrative costs of supporting children with SEND at a time when they are already struggling financially.

Reducing Ratios

The second development is discussion of reducing ratios in early years settings as a way to reduce the cost of childcare. This has been floated previously but last month it was reported that the Prime Minister suggested that this could be a way to reduce the costs of childcare for families across the country. Early years professionals and families have responded in their thousands to raise concerns about how this would affect the quality of early education and the safety of children. For those of us focused on children with SEND in the early years though, the concerns are even more grave. In order to deliver truly inclusive practice that recognises and supports the needs of a range of children, ratios need to allow for meaningful support for different children. At current ratios there are already concerns among providers and parents about settings having the capacity to support children with SEND effectively, and so a further reduction would likely reduce capacity and parental confidence even further, driving more exclusion in early years education.

Catherine McLeod smiling with dark short hair
Catherine McLeod MBE

Decreasing inclusion 

Either of these developments alone would have been a concern, but with both of them together it seems that meaningful inclusion for children with SEND in the early years is likely to decrease even further. The SEND Review Green Paper consultation, closes at the end of this week. It's an opportunity for providers and families to communicate directly with decision makers about what is needed to improve this situation. From our experience we believe that the following is vital:

  • Core training in inclusive practice for all early years practitioners - not just one practitioner per setting. Parents have real concerns about what happens to their child when the one person trained is on holiday or off sick and this would reduce their worries.
  • Information and support for families, and a real commitment to listening to their views and aspirations for their children – without real partnership working and trust no new programmes can be truly successful.
  • A focus on understanding the sufficiency of places specifically for children with SEND in the early years across the country – critically with a duty to report on this in the childcare sufficiency reporting process.

The danger at this moment in time is that capacity will continue to reduce and more children with SEND will not be able to access early education.

This will lead to long term delays in their development, to increased stress for their families, and to much greater pressure on schools when those children eventually start their education.

Now is the time to address these concerns and build a system with more capacity to support children with SEND, giving them the best start in life in the right early years setting for them and their families.

About Catherine

For the last 25 years, Catherine has worked in the charity sector to ensure access and inclusion for people with disabilities. Since setting up her own charity in Sri Lanka in 2005 she has been in leadership roles, and has a Level 7 Certificate in Leadership and Management.

She was awarded an MBE in 2011 in recognition of her work with vulnerable children, and today is actively involved in lobbying for change to improve opportunities for children with SEND in the early years.

Catherine has been the Chief Executive of Dingley’s Promise since 2015 and has grown the organisation from a small local charity to one with national influence and a national training and consultancy programme. She is a mentor for ACEVO and a Trustee of Charity Mentors Berkshire.

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