Coronavirus and SEND Education: 75% of schools ignored Government risk assessment guidance during the lockdown

During most of June 2020, Special Needs Jungle offered a survey of to our readers, to ask them about some of the aspects of support their children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) had received during lockdown. This period was over two months after schools had closed and included the period when all children with EHCPs and selected year groups in primary should have been returning. It also included some specialist colleges that were allowed to reopen from June 15th.

By this time, the initial shock and panic of lockdown had subsided and it was fair to expect that schools and colleges to have established some kind of routine, put in place needed support, and ascertained which families needed special attention. This may have included paper resources through lack of internet connection or available devices, what kind of differentiation individual children needed, and ensuring children who needed particular equipment at home that was provided for them at school could, if possible have it sent home. All through this time, children with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) were, in theory, to be allocated places in an educational setting, though not necessarily the same as their usual provision.

At the start of May, the Government introduced a notice "relaxing" the legal duties for local authorities (LAs) and education establishments, to provide all the provision included in children's EHCPs. This notice was renewed in June and July. It also eased the limits of timescales for assessing, finalising and updating EHC Plans. You can find our coverage on this here

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Why we did the survey

We decided to do this survey after hearing parental accounts of risk assessments being utilised by schools during lockdown, to prevent children with SEND returning to school We wanted to determine how widespread this was, as well as other experiences of families mid-pandemic. 

You can find the whole report at the end of this post, but we are including the key findings and recommendations here. Please do take a look at the full findings for comments from parents and detailed data. The report was jointly produced by Tania and Renata - it was a huge amount of work but really important to do it. The data culling, analysing and deciphering was by our stats guru, Matt Keer.

Where families have had good support, the positive effect on the whole family is clear. It is wholly apparent that no one expected “service as usual”, but many families received little or nothing from their child’s school. While children with EHCPs were allowed to go to school, most families found this was made very difficult, if not impossible. Reasons included lack of available provision as a result of the EHCP relaxations, lack of access to transport, and closure of some special schools. Other families who wanted their children to attend, found schools actively dissuading them by citing staff shortages or using risk assessments inappropriately to prevent children from returning. 

Few parents were included in a risk assessment and most of those who were, said they didn’t feel they had had much input, or it seemed like something that had to be “passed”. It was clearly used by some schools as a barrier to returning. The majority of parents didn’t even realise a risk assessment had been carried out. The Government advice on risk assessments was clear, but it seems this message either didn’t get through to schools, or some schools didn’t understand that it was to support a child’s return, not to be used to prevent it.

“The physical and mental health of many children with SEND has deteriorated in this pandemic, and we know that their families have felt abandoned. The Government has failed to show the leadership needed to ensure SEND provision was not overlooked during this crisis. The sad result is that risk assessments have been few and far between and very few children with SEND have had their needs met. There must now be a laser-like focus on ensuring that schools and local authorities can get every child back to school safely in September, with proper support for vulnerable children and those with SEND.”

Tulip Siddiq MP, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Children and Early Years

“For me the most striking finding from this impressive research is that the vast majority of families were not involved in risk assessments designed to determine whether a child would be safer at home or at school during the pandemic. This makes a mockery of the requirement for co-production which underpins the whole of Part 3 of the Children and Families Act 2014, through the section 19 duties. It also suggests that government guidance, which called for involvement of children, young people and parents in risk assessments, was being routinely ignored. This system failure has to be addressed by government in advance of any future peak in the pandemic.”

Steve Broach, public law barrister

It is extremely worrying that the protections put in place by way of risk assessments to enable children with SEN to continue to attend school during the pandemic appear to have served a very different purpose. As this research shows, risk assessments appear to have been ignored (at best) and at worst, actively dissuaded parents from sending their children into school – contrary to their fundamental purpose being to enable those most in need to access support. Parents were actively left to struggle at home, with little to no help and then made to feel that they were putting their child in danger for sending them back to school when that pressure became too much to bear. Parents should be commended for the sheer grit and determination they have shown throughout this pandemic dealing with extremely difficult circumstances when often they were simply left with no support and nowhere to turn.

Hayley Mason, Senior solicitor, Director, SEN Legal

Read the Key findings and recommendations below, or click here to go straight to the download button


SNJ Coronavirus & SEND Education report: Key findings

Risk Assessments:

During lockdown, children and young people with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) were among those who the Government allowed to continue to attend their educational settings. To ensure a safe environment for the child, the Department for Education (DfE) issued guidance for risk assessments to be carried out, in co-production with families. Risk assessments should not act as a barrier but are intended to highlight actions to address any potential risk. Despite loosening of EHCP duties during the pandemic, reasonable adjustments are still required under the Equality Act 2010.[2]

Our survey revealed the implementation, process, and application of risk assessments are all areas that raise significant concerns, for the following reasons:

  • 75% of respondents said that their child had not had a risk assessment, or they did not know if one had been conducted.
  • Of the parents whose children had undergone a risk assessment, only 9% said they had been fully involved.
  • Even if they knew a risk assessment had taken place, most parents were not involved at all. 
  • In their comments, a number of parents indicated that a risk assessment had been used to actively dissuade them from sending their child in, or to prevent their child’s attendance.

Lockdown learning for children with SEND

Unexpectedly having to supervise home learning is a challenge for any parent. This can be made even more so by family circumstances, especially if there is limited access to internet-enabled devices. For families of children and young people with disabilities the sudden closure of schools and support services brought even greater difficulties, including lack of access to one-to-one teaching assistants, regularly-used equipment, and a lack of differentiation of lessons. Some families also lost access to respite activities and support workers that families depended on. 

In addition, even if a place was made available for a child with an EHCP, many were classed as “extremely vulnerable” and required to be shielded from any increased chance of infection.

Our findings highlight specific areas that impacted parents of children with SEND found particularly challenging.

  • 68% of respondents told us that they really struggled to educate their child at home. 
  • Only 28% of surveyed parents agreed that their child’s educational placement had provided very good support during lockdown. More than half said their school had not provided good support at all. 
  • Only 18% reported their child or young person’s school or college had offered them the SEND provision they needed in order to complete their work
  • Fewer than one in four surveyed parents reported that schoolwork had been differentiated for their child's needs. This reduced to just one in six if their child was in mainstream provision. Many parents said there had been no differentiation at all, which meant their child couldn’t complete work set. 

Differences in educational setting 

Our survey revealed that the type of educational setting attended played a significant role in how positive families found remote learning. 

  • 19% of parents with children in independent or non-maintained special schools (INMSS) strongly agreed their children had experienced very good support, with a further 29% agreeing the support was at least good.
  • In state mainstream, just 7% parents strongly agreed their child had experienced very good support, with a further 16% saying it was good. 
  • Similarly, in state special schools, just 8% said their child had been given very good support, with a further 18% agreeing it as at least good.

Amount of work set

  • Almost half in INMSS reported an appropriate amount of work being set, compared with only 16% whose child attended a mainstream setting and 26% in state-run special schools.
  • Of those in mainstream, 75% disagreed or strongly disagreed that the right amount of work had been set and 54% in state-run special schools.

Differentiation of work set

Differentiation is one of the key factors in ensuring a child can overcome barriers to learning. While remote learning may make this more challenging to achieve, a substantial percentage of parents reported their child’s school hadn’t even tried to differentiate work. This is one of the most concerning results in our survey. 

  • Perhaps as you might expect, INMSS schools did relatively well at differentiating their pupils’ work, with almost half of all respondents (49%) agreeing their child’s schoolwork had been suitably differentiated for them.
  • What was less expected, is that only 26% of parents with a child in state-run special schools had a similar experience. In fact, over half of them (54%) disagreed or strongly disagreed this was the case. 
  • A very substantial majority of parents with children at mainstream schools (including mainstream schools with specialist SEND units and resource bases) experienced very poor efforts to support individual learning needs. Only 16% said there was at least some attempt to differentiate work. Three-quarters disagreed or strongly disagreed that the work had been differentiated. 

We heard of both impressive, and not so impressive levels of support from all types of settings. However, the significant overall disparity between state and independent lockdown provision for children with SEND warrants further exploration.  

Many schools will have been impacted by staff shortages and access to resources. Access to the internet has also proved problematic, with parents having to request printed work. Others with only a mobile phone found some of the activities set to be inaccessible. 

We strongly believe children with SEND should not be in the position where they are disadvantaged simply because of their type of setting. We hope those independent schools (and others) who did particularly well, will be encouraged to publish their methods as learning resources.

Access to therapies

Many children in all types of settings who usually received therapies, missed months of sessions during lockdown. While we heard of some whose speech and language therapy (SaLT) moved online, only 12% of parents reported that their child received some form of SaLT, occupational therapy, or physiotherapy. Much of this was because NHS staff were redeployed into Covid-19 response teams. However, the impact of loss of therapies should not be underestimated, with many children likely to need intensive support to regain skills lost or not progressed during this period. 

graph showing different measurements of support - available in the report

Access to 1:1 teaching assistant support

For children who normally had 1:1 teaching assistant support, once again, those in independent or non-maintained special schools tended to fare better with online 1:1 teaching assistant support. Nevertheless, the numbers of children and young people who received 1:1 online teaching assistant support during the lockdown are still surprisingly low. 

22% of INMSS pupils had 1:1 teaching assistant support online compared to 17% in post-16 settings, 9% in mainstream settings and 8% in state special schools. This indicates that the large majority who would have usually had some teaching assistant (TA) support had none. 

As a result, many children & young people children who need 1:1 TA support to help them learn would have relied on their parents to step into this (often specialised) role. This is likely to have added significant stress to that already experienced by parents when home-educating during lockdown. 

When considered alongside families’ experiences of differentiation and support from the school, it could widen the gap in outcomes for children with SEND compared with those without SEND. 

Parents also raised questions over lack of TA contact when their child’s EHCP specifically funds teaching assistant hours or posts. As this funding did not cease, it is legitimate to ask what reasonable endeavours were made to try to support their allocated children during lockdown.

Anxiety

The pandemic is reported to have increased anxiety in children generally.[3] Surprisingly, however, our survey has identified that for some children with SEND, school closures have had a beneficial effect on their anxiety levels.

  • 37% of parents said their child’s anxiety had increased, while a similar amount, 38%, reported their child’s anxiety had actually reduced during lockdown 
  • Reasons given for increased anxiety levels included concerns about COVID-19, disruption to routine, the breakdown of separation between school life and home life, and anxiety about the prospect of returning to school 
  • A number of parents said their young person’s school set so much work they experienced anxiety-driven meltdowns
  • Reasons given for decreased anxiety were a less formal learning environment, more inclusive way of learning, less pressure, better understanding of the child’s needs, and reduced sensory issues
  • Some parents whose children were more settled during lockdown said they were now considering home education as a long-term option

Relaxation of SEND duties

The Government’s decision to relax duties under s42 of the 2014 Children & Families Act caused widespread concern in the SEND community[4]. It temporarily removed the legal duty for councils and local health bodies to secure or arrange the provision set out in Education Health and Care plans (EHCPs). 

Many parents were angry that this decision had been taken. However, over half (56%) of respondents said the move had not affected their decision about returning their child to school.

  • Some parents who chose to send their children back commented that some provision was better than none at all
  • Other parents said as their child’s EHCP had not been fully implemented prior to lockdown, the easement of the legal duties made no difference to the provision their child would receive.
  • There was widespread recognition that it was an extraordinary time and those who had experienced good provision pre-pandemic were happy to trust their school or college to do their best
  • Many parents based their decision not to send their child back to school on concerns over their child’s safety in relation to COVID-19 
  • Just under a third, 32%, said that the relaxation had directly affected their decision about whether to send their child. Many parents in this category stated their child would not be safe in school without the full provision in their EHCP, and therefore their child would be better, and more safely, educated at home than in school

This supports the widely-held view that the Government’s “relaxation” of disabled children’s rights was without sufficient cause, and without due consideration to the implications for their support. Our survey indicates that the consequences of many public bodies withdrawing all disabled children’s provision have been far-reaching, with families unable to access educational provision, exacerbated by the misuse of risk assessments. It has also impacted on transitions to new settings and left many children without educational placements for next year. 

Government Guidance

During the period that this survey covered, the government issued and updated a large amount of guidance and advice in a short amount of time. We asked parents for their views on government advice over lockdown. 

  • 20% of respondents were not aware of any government advice about disabled children during the pandemic. Some had only heard about it because of Special Needs Jungle’s coverage during this period.
  • For the 80% of respondents who were aware of government advice, just 5% were happy with its quality. Only two people said they were “very happy”
  • 80% expressed some degree of unhappiness, with 59% of these respondents describing themselves as “very unhappy” 

Comments included that the advice was “too vague” or that the removal of legal duties was a “kick in the teeth” for disabled children. 

Some of the survey findings and parent comments were very distressing. Families of children and young people with SEND already live with an incredible amount of stress, not least of which is the battle to get the right support for their children. This is something that is repeated as they get older and includes access to health, education, social care and benefits. So, at a time of crisis when they needed more support, it’s overwhelming to lose both their child’s legal rights, even temporarily, and most or all support, and then to have their views ignored. We’ve made practical and urgent recommendations as part of this research. We hope the Government will pay attention and work with our SEND community to ensure they are prepared for future crises with well-evidenced, workable, compassionate and co-produced plan to support disabled children, young people and their families.”

Tania Tirraoro, Renata Blower, Directors, Special Needs Jungle Ltd

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Recommendations

It is clear that a great number of disabled children were failed in the most basic ways, in terms of educational provision and support. We hope our snapshot survey will serve as a starting point for researching where there was exceptional practice, analysing where there were failures, and finding out why. 

Though the pandemic created extraordinary circumstances, it would be foolish to believe this is a one-off. A pandemic is not the only reason for a national crisis. It is imperative that everyone tasked with providing educational and support for children and young people with disabilities reviews their practice, learns from successes and mistakes during lockdown and prepares for the next time, even if it is “just” a local lockdown.

From what we have found, Special Needs Jungle recommends the following:

  1. National government recognises that families with children who have SEND need clear guidance that is timely, unambiguous and written after consultation with a wide range of stakeholders. This should include:
    1. An independent review of the decision to temporarily modify s42 of the Children and Families Act to consider appropriateness and how the relaxations were used or abused, both before and after the announced easements were put into force. This is crucial to ensure future crises do not leave disabled children without any provision for months.
    2. A national consultation with all disabled adults and families of disabled children, to understand their experiences during the pandemic and how they could be better supported and protected during national crises. 
  2. A wide-ranging review into how local and national public services for children with special educational needs operated during lockdown. To focus on:
    1. why some services were unavailable or had limited availability, whether this was avoidable, and if alternatives could have been found; 
    2. how effective communication was with families during this time and how it could have been improved;
    3. the support that was offered to families during this period;
    4. what worked well during this period and how this can be continued;
    5. the effect of service disruption on children with SEND and the projected time and costs involved in reversing the effects of these lost services; and
    6. development of a base service that can be provided in emergency situations, including assigning roles that have extra training and the expectation that these skills will be maintained. 
  3. Research to ensure a better understanding of who needs to shield and how they can be easier to identify and reach. Council disability registers for both children and adults could be used and expanded to support this.
  4. Ensuring that guidance for clinically-vulnerable children is considered equally as important as guidance for adults, and should not be an afterthought;
  5. National research interviewing the schools that did exceptionally well for their disabled students during lockdown and the reasons others did not. This can be incorporated into well-evidenced guidance for remote or blended learning for future crises and to better support children who are unable to go to school.
    1. That government investment in any online or blended learning offer, such as Oak Academy, includes a requirement for differentiation of lessons.
  6. Schools should contact their SEND families to ask what worked well and what did not. This feedback should be used to improve the school’s offer going forward, including:
    1. reviewing differentiation for pupils with SEND both in remote learning and classroom learning;
    2. reviewing how risk assessments were used by the school;
    3. the support offered for families with children who have SEND, and if this was the support the families actually wanted;
    4. how teaching assistants were deployed during this period, specifically those assigned to specific children;
    5. what worked well for families in lockdown and how that might be incorporated into their educational offer;
    6. the training or resources the school needs to make better use of IT in education;
    7. what percentage of pupils have access to the right technology to take part fully in online learning, and what can the school do to support those who do not;
    8. return to school strategies for pupils that may find it difficult, including offering flexible learning for those who found learning at home beneficial; and
    9. introduction of an emergency response policy for each school to be instigated if the school is forced to shut down. This policy should specifically outline how the needs of vulnerable children will continue to be met.

We would like to emphasise that the current SEND crisis long predates the pandemic. Coronavirus has simply exacerbated existing issues for families. We would therefore recommend a strategic five-year plan to improve SEND education and embed collaborative working across education, health and social care. While there will be short-term consequences of the pandemic for children with SEND, families need long term solutions that they have been involved in producing, to tackle the wider issues that they face. A summary of this report has also been submitted to the ongoing APPG SEND inquiry.

SNJ is a non-profit but not a charity and the SNJ team are all volunteers. We only keep online through your kind donations. If you'd like to donate to SNJ, scroll down a bit to find the PayPal donate link. If you'd like to become an SNJ Squad Patron, find out more here

Download the report

Tania Tirraoro FRSA, Renata Blower FRSA, Special Needs Jungle Ltd July 2020



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