Depressingly awful data and our 2024 EHCP Hall of Shame reveal the sad state of disabled children’s education, with growing numbers out of school

Yesterday, the Department for Education (DfE) published its annual statistical summary of Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) in England. This year, these figures will be put under a lot more scrutiny than usual from the people at the top of the shop.

That’s partly because we’re in the run-up to a general election. But it’s mostly because the people who lead and operate the SEND system view the number of children and young people with EHCPs as a major “policy problem” they are trying to tackle.

So the way this year’s figures are interpreted and spun will matter more than usual. That makes our annual health warning about these figures more important.

Statistical Health warning

  • These stats don’t cover all children and young people with SEND – just those with EHCPs. Only one in every four school pupils with SEND has an EHCP. If you want data on the rest, you’ll have to wait another week.
  • This data comes from a local authority census return conducted in January. This census mostly just tracks EHCP paperwork and processes. The stats don’t tell you anything directly about the quality of support, whether support arrived on time, or even whether the EHCPs delivered any support at all.
  • Some of these figures are eminently gameable – particularly compliance with the statutory duty to produce new EHCPs within 20 weeks. The SEND and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan places a lot of emphasis on data and dashboards; it doesn’t take a great deal of low cunning to make some of these figures look better than ground-level practice.
  • The way that this data is collected has changed in the last year or two, and that process hasn’t had the kinks ironed out of it yet. Some LAs are still unable to provide specific and quantified data to the DfE’s new specification.

So with that warning, what have we learned this year?

If time is short, check out our infographic below – but otherwise, keep reading….

Growth in EHCP Numbers

  • The overall number of children and young people with an EHCP continues to rise, and slightly faster than before: In mid-January 2024, there were 575,963 active EHCPs. That’s 11% more than last year.
    • The number of children and young people with SEND who get support through a statutory plan has more than doubled since the SEND reforms were launched in September 2014.
    • In the first few years after the 2014 reforms, most of this growth was down to the expansion of plans in the post-16 sector. These days, the growth is largest amongst school-aged children – not just in primary, but also in secondary too.
  • The number of pupils with EHCPs still appears to be growing faster in mainstream schools than in special schools.
    • In January 2024, the number of pupils with EHCPs in mainstream schools was up by 17% on the previous year, at around 241,000.
    • For red-trousered political pundits with a newfound passion for SEND in the mainstream independent sector, the number of pupils with EHCPs there is up by 5% in the last year. At January 2024, there were around 6,700 pupils in this category.
  • The number of pupils with EHCPs in special schools is also growing – at a slower rate than mainstream numbers, but a higher rate than the previous year.
    • At January 2024, the number of children and young people with EHCPs in special schools was around 185,000 – up by 8% on the previous year.
    • This is probably in part because of the creation of new state special school placements, and you can read more about that here.

All the same, the state special school sector continues to burst at the seams, and so growth is fastest in the independent special school sector. It’s also reasonable to ask whether the sharp rise in mainstream EHCPs is happening because state special is still ram-jammed.

Who’s not in education or training?

When we look at each year’s EHCP figures, we normally pay close attention to the numbers of children and young people for whom formal education or training just isn’t working: those with EHCPs who are classified as ‘educated elsewhere’, and young people classified as not in education, employment or training (NEET).

The data in this area always needs to be approached with care. That’s partly because the education status of these children and young people can change rapidly, but in recent years it’s also because there are greater concerns about the quality of data that the LAs are supplying to the DfE.

From these figures, our best guess is that in January 2024, there were around 44,000 children and young people with EHCPs who didn’t have a formal education placement. That’s one in every 13 children and young people with an EHCP. This was also the third most common category for children and young people who received an EHCP for the first time in 2023.

The fastest growing sub-groups here are ‘elective home education’ (usually a misnomer), and – enragingly – young people not in education, employment, or training (NEET), which currently includes more than 15,000 young people. This part of the data is shocking, but not surprising to us. Tania recently commented that these days, the most common search term we see on the SNJ website is EOTAS – Education Other Than at School.

Assessments and New EHC Plans

SEND system leaders have come to the conclusion that the numbers of EHCPs in the system are a problem. Some of them believe that EHCPs aren’t just a problem, but the problem.

Those leaders are all going to be crying into their Waitrose granola when they check out the latest numbers.

  • In all, 84,428 new EHCPs were created in 2023. That’s 27% up on 2022’s number, a much heftier increase than in previous years.
  • In 2023, three quarters of children and young people with box-fresh EHCPs were placed in mainstream schools – a slightly higher proportion than in 2022.
  • There were roughly 138,000 initial requests for an EHC needs assessment (EHCNA) in 2023 – that’s a similar increase to 2022. We know from our own investigations that most of those requests are coming from schools, and that fewer than 30% come from parent carers.
  • From the data, it looks like around 39,000 EHCPs were ceased in 2023, for all sorts of reasons: people moving house, young people moving into work or higher education, or because the LA decided that the child or young person didn’t need an EHCP any more. That’s a higher number than ever before, but it’s still a lot lower than the number of new EHCPs.

Data doesn’t lie- EHCPs are being slashed

SEND system leaders are very keen to get LAs to trim, cut, or slash EHCP numbers. The data suggests that many LAs are trying to act on this pressure.

  • The proportion of LA refusals to conduct an EHC needs assessment (EHCNA) is up.
    • At least one in four of these requests was refused by local authorities in 2023. That’s a distinct uptick on previous years, but not a game-changing one.
  • The backlog of unprocessed EHC needs assessments nationally was 75% higher in January 2024 than it was in January 2023. It’s likely this has had a depressive effect on the refusal rates.
  • EHCNA refusal rates continue to vary hugely from LA to LA – check our Hall of Shame at the bottom for more – and the quality of data provided by some LAs looks a little suspect. Some LAs refuse nearly half of these requests, others are much more lenient.
  • On the whole, LAs in the DfE’s Safety Valve and DBV SEND financial intervention schemes were slightly more likely to refuse than other LAs, but not by much. However, almost all of them had higher EHCNA refusal rates than they did last year.
  • We know from our previous investigations that requests from SEND families are far more likely to be refused than requests from schools and other settings.
  • On the other hand, the rate at which LAs refused to issue an EHCP after an EHC needs assessment is slightly down: 5% in 2023, versus 6% in 2022.
    • Again, this is an area with massive postcode lotteries. The LAs at the top of the Hall of Shame are refusing to issue at four times the national average, whereas others will issue a plan in almost every case.

Delay, delay, delay

The percentage of new EHCPs produced within the statutory 20-week timescale in 2023 was fairly similar to 2022, at around 50%. Remember, this isn’t a target or a benchmark – it’s a statutory requirement.

There’s always been a lot of variation in LA compliance with this duty, and the spread is even wider this year. Fifteen LAs completed less than 10% of their new EHCPs within the 20-week limit, and 27 LAs completed over 90% of them within 20 weeks. See our EHCP Hall of Shame below for more

We’d recommend applying some salt to these numbers. Anecdotally, we continue to hear of cases where LAs are gaming the stats, most often by putting plans out to meet the deadline before all of the necessary professional advice has been obtained.

Click to enlarge. Download PDF here

Ethnicity & Gender

In the last couple of years, the DfE EHCP stats have included data on the ethnicity of children and young people with EHCPs. Again, bear in mind that this data is new and that it might well not be very robust:

  • Somewhere in the region of 69% of all children and young people with EHCPs were classified by their LA as White;
  • Around 8% of all children and young people with EHCPs were classified by their LA as Asian or Asian/British;
  • Around 6% of this cohort were classified by their LA as having Black British, Black African, Black Caribbean or other Black ethnicity;
  • A further 6% were described as having mixed ethnicity
  • …but the second largest group of all – 9% - had unknown ethnicity

These are percentages of the overall population of children and young people with EHCPs. This data alone can’t tell you what proportion of young people in White, Asian, Black or other ethnic groups have EHCPs.

Last year, the DfE provided a split of EHCP data by gender. This gender split was remarkably definitive and binary. They’ve now provided similarly binary data, this type labelling it as a split by sex. Treat with caution, but this is what the figures say:

  • 71.3% of children and young people with EHCPs were classified as male by their LA;
  • 28.7% of this cohort were classified as female by their LA, leaving:
  • Only one person’s sex was described as ‘not known.’

Inclusion dashboards

The DfE has spent years trying to get more specific data on children and young people with SEND. On the whole, that’s a good ambition.

Getting better quality data into the hands of senior decision-makers is a big priority for the SEND Improvement Plan. One of the first changes the DfE wants to make is to produce national and local inclusion dashboards. These dashboards are supposed to give leaders reliable data at their fingertips, to help them make the best decisions they can. They were supposed to be rolled out at the end of last year, through the SEND and AP Change Programme. Nobody outside the expensive fug of the Change Programme Partnership sweat lodge has yet to see these dashboards.

The current SEND system has been in place for nearly a decade. The DfE has given LAs three full years to get their act together on generating better EHCP stats. Some LAs are clearly still struggling to do that. That’s a problem for a whole variety of reasons. It’s a problem, because the kids that’ll be most affected by these data issues are those that the SEND system is already failing the most.

It’s also a problem, because the new Ofsted / CQC inspection system relies on access to person-level data – data that some LAs seem simply to be unable to produce reliably.

But it’s a problem too because it undermines the value of the inclusion dashboards that SEND system leaders are so very keen on, and that will increasingly be used to drive improvement.

Strategic-level users would never admit it, but data dashboards are the corporate equivalent of the Easy Read material that many of us have used with our own kids. Leaders rarely have the time, interest or inclination to ask whether the pretty graphs and heatmaps they see are reliable, whether the datasets are comparable from year to year, or whether they should be making big decisions off the back of shaky numbers. Unfortunately, that won’t stop them.

Infographic

Speaking of pretty graphs… here’s our second infographic, illustrating the stats as a whole

Also read:

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Matt Keer
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