Do Academies turn away children with Special Needs?

academies title

In an article on 3rd January, The Independent reported comments from Anna Feuchtwang, Chief Executive of The National Children’s Bureau, regarding, "...anecdotal evidence that academies are more reluctant to accept children with special education needs unless they have an education, health and care plan already in place.” The article also quoted Richard Rieser of World of Inclusion, which provides training on implementing disability legislation, as saying, “I have heard lots of anecdotal stories of people with special needs being turned away [from academies].”

Knowing that I work for a large academy trust, Tania got in touch with me and asked if I’d make some comments for our Special Needs Jungle readers. The truth is it's hard to untangle an accurate picture on this, but here are some thoughts:

Academies are required to admit children with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs)

Academies are under the same duty to admit a child if they are named in an EHCP as any local authority school. If they really do not wish to admit the child the only option they have, which schools don't, is to refer the admission directly to the Secretary of State - and that's quite rightly rarely used.

There should be no difference in admission practices, and no academy should be able to refuse admission of a child with an EHCP, if it is named in the paperwork.

I wouldn’t be surprised….

So that brings us to children with special needs who don't have an EHCP -which is what the original article was about. I am going to state quite clearly from the outset that from what I’ve heard I wouldn't be surprised if this was the case, but before we go any further I just want to say a few words about the use of the word 'academies' as a generic term.

'Academies' are schools which are not under local authority control. There are about 5,500 of them in England out of a total number of c.23,000 schools, so they represent just under a quarter of all schools. There are circa 550 multi-academy trusts, which are groups of academies operating under a single overarching 'Trust', of which the largest (the one I work for) consists of 67 academies. The smallest multi-academy trusts have just 2 or 3 member academies.

There are then of course all those stand-alone academies which are not part of larger trusts. Each academy and academy trust will have its own distinct philosophy and operating practices. Some will be highly inclusive (some have special schools as part of the trust and I know at least one which is made up of a group of special school academies) and some may 'appear' or dare I say 'be' less inclusive. With academies there's always politics because the academy programme is a government driven initiative with the expectation that all schools will eventually become academies. My point is that we can't use the word 'academies' as though they are all the same, just as we can't say schools are all the same. We need to qualify with 'which academies?',  'which trusts?', ‘which schools?’

To emphasise this point, in my time I've come across plenty of examples of schools which are non-inclusive, either in their philosophy or in their practices. I've even come across non-inclusive special schools in the sense that have tried to avoid taking children with more complex needs or, on the basis of paperwork, decided that they can't admit a child without meeting them or the parent.

I've heard some stories about academy trusts opening pupil referral units which are used to 'move out' children with special educational needs (without actually excluding them). I've heard that some academies (and schools) don't want to take special needs children who may lower their academic results. When you come from a philosophy that values all children equally and thinks that we have to do even more for those who have special educational needs,that's really hard to take.

The truth is there is great inclusive practice in both academies and schools and there is poor inclusive practice across both.

Does our education system value all children equally?

For children with SEN, those who exhibit challenging behaviour and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, there is some evidence that as they approach GCSEs they are removed from school/academy rolls. An article in The Guardian on 21 January 2016,  reported concerns that league–table pressures were acting as an incentive to moving students unlikely to perform well off of the school roll. Some schools are thought to use ‘unofficial exclusions’. The numbers of pupils educated in both pupil referral units and special schools is on the rise. In a speech to the Special School Summit on 26th January, I said that special school numbers have risen by over 13,000 in the last five years.

So what’s behind all this? We have a system which incentivises schools around attainment data. Schools and academies are generally judged on the attainment of their pupils and not on their progress or the difference they make to children’s lives over time. This is non-inclusive in itself because it values higher attainment and places greater value on children who achieve higher results.

Academies and academy trusts are coming under particularly strong scrutiny in this regard. There is a constant message that data determines their success or failure. It is therefore no surprise that some schools and academies, and some academy trusts, might be engaging in non-inclusive practices and I am pleased that the issue is being highlighted. It continues to amaze and sadden me that sometimes it’s the children who need the most help who are regularly failed by our education system.

Malcolm Reeve

Malcolm Reeve

Director of SEND & Inclusion at Academies & Enterprise Trust
Malcolm is Executive Director for SEND & Inclusion at Academies Enterprise Trust (AET) - the UK’s largest academy chain. He has worked in the field of SEND for 30 years and in that time has worked in adult provision, mainstream schools and special schools. He has worked in with children throughout the age range and with learning difficulties ranging from moderate to profound.
Malcolm has been a Headteacher of three schools and one federation. He is a National Leader of Education, a Member of the National SEND Forum and Patron of the Centre Algarve holiday centre for people with special needs.
Malcolm has been a Headteacher of three schools and one federation. He is a National Leader of Education, Chair of the Federation of Leaders in Special Education and a Member of the National SEND Forum.
Malcolm Reeve
  • Elizabeth Nicholson

    Sadly not a complete surprise. Talk amongst parents of SEN locally highlighted the practice of exclusion from admission to our local Academy. Difficulties in having specific needs met or access to specific therapies such as OT was also highlighted. On first visit we were impressed by the SENCo all she had to say and the facilities offered. On mentioning our view to a friend she highlighted the difficulties another parent was having which prompted us to return a second time. This gave us opportunity to question further and we were alarmed to learn that OT & Sensory Integration was not practised, despite having a sensory room! Our son is diagnosed as ASD/DCD-Dyspraxia/SPD/Dyslexia/Heightened Anxiety and mild Hypermobility. Primary education has been a nightmare as has accessing specific provision within a plan. Access to Sensory circuits Daily and specific literacy support has turned our son’s life around, he is generally so much calmer day to day but he still responds to stimuli and struggles with change.

    What alarmed us further still was that on probing further the SENCo stated that should our child struggle to maintain calm and be incapable of maintaining a majority of his learning within the mainstream class environment he would be moved on!!

    It seems reasonable adjustments to meet his need were not truly available, AS facility placed or not meant that this school would in all likelihood fail to provide the environment in which our child needs to learn.

  • Fiona Davies

    Both my boys with autism were failed by their academies who did not put enough support in place…. they were out of formal education for best part of a year because of this;
    after me taking a career break and surviving on savings I have got them into specialist school and college, but the youngest has just started transition which will now have to be gradual. I won’t be able to return to work for some months yet.