EHCPs in England in 2023. More plans but only half on time—and more efforts to take them away. Plus our annual LA Hall of Shame

Yesterday, the Department for Education (DfE) published their annual statistical summary of Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) in England.

These figures can usually tell us a fair bit about what’s going on in parts of the SEND system – particularly the parts that the DfE want to fix in their SEND Improvement Plan.

All the same, it’s worth remembering what these figures can’t tell us:

  • The stats don’t cover children and young people without an EHCP – you’ll have to wait a couple of weeks for those figures. Roughly three out of four school pupils with SEND don’t have an EHCP.
  • This data comes from a local authority census return - it mostly just tracks EHCP paperwork and processes. The stats don’t tell you anything directly about the quality of support, or even whether the EHCPs delivered any support at all.

Proceed with caution

And this year, we’re advising you not just to bring a pinch of salt when looking at the stats – you’ll need an entire lorry’s worth:

  • Two years ago, the DfE told LAs that they wanted more, and better, data on EHCPs - burrowing right down to the level of individual plans, rather than just asking local authorities for aggregated summaries of the main numbers.
  • This year was the year that LAs were supposed to deliver on this ‘person-level’ data. It will come as no surprise to you to learn that many LAs simply haven’t delivered.
  • Because of this, the DfE’s SEN statisticians – with commendable restraint – have warned that the 2023 dataset comes with “a unique set of data quality risks.”

We don’t know which individual LAs have failed to deliver, although our updated EHCP Hall of Shame at the bottom of this piece might give some clues. But what this means is that it’s difficult to trust some aspects of this year’s EHCP data. It’s particularly tricky to compare what the data says this year with what it said in previous years, particularly for things like placements.

Don’t blame the DfE’s statisticians for this. They deserve our sympathy – just like us, they now know how difficult it is to get valid and reliable quantified information out of local authorities at an individual level.

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

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

More of the same…

  • EHCP numbers continue to rise. There are now more than half a million of them: In mid-January 2023, there were 517,026 active EHCPs. That’s 9% more than last year, a growth rate that’s been steady for several years now.

The number of children and young people with SEND who get support through a statutory plan has now more than doubled since the SEND reforms were launched in September 2014.

In the first few years after the reforms, most of this growth was down to the expansion of plans in the post-16 sector. These days, the growth is biggest across school-age pupils – particularly primary.

  • The number of pupils with EHCPs still appears to be growing faster in mainstream schools than in special schools. We can’t be super-confident this year – but it looks likely that around 40% of pupils with an EHCP are in mainstream, with around 33% in special schools - a gap that’s widened a fair bit over the last five years.
  • The growth rate in the numbers of pupils with EHCPs in both state and independent special schools appears to have slowed a lot this year: 2% and 4%, respectively. On the state special side, this is because the sector is bursting at the seams – but this year, it doesn’t look like that’s been translated into much greater use of independent special schools.

A guesstimate of how many children are without SEND (or any) educational provision?

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 ‘awaiting provision’, those getting education other than at school (EOTAS), and young people classified as not in education, employment or training (NEET).

This year, we can’t do that with any confidence at all – and that’s mostly because LAs haven’t ponied up data that’s reliable enough.

To illustrate the point, 2023’s data suggests that there are over 35,000 children and young people in these categories. Not good – but on top of that, this year there are also over 15,000 children and young people with an EHCP whose placement is listed as ‘Unknown.’

For the ‘unknown’ category, LAs are effectively telling the DfE that they have no idea where over 15,000 children and young people with EHCPs are educated or traineddespite the fact that these kids have legally enforceable plans that you’d have thought had a placement listed in Section I.

Assessments, new EHC Plans and EHCPs removed

SEND system leaders have broadly come to the conclusion that the numbers of EHCPs in the system are a problem. Looking forward, there’s not much in this dataset that’s going to cheer them up.

  • In all, 66,356 new EHCPs were created in 2022. That’s 7% up on 2021’s rate.
  • There were roughly 114,500 initial requests for an EHC needs assessment in 2022. That’s massively up on 2021, a 23% increase. That’s not going to make SEND system leaders happy at all.
  • From the data, it looks like around 35,000 EHCPs were ceased in 2022, for all sorts of reasons: people moving house, 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.

SEND system leaders are very keen to get LAs to cease EHCPs at the earliest opportunity. The 2023 EHCP data suggests that many LAs are now acting on this pressure.

  • The number of EHCPs ceased because the LA believed that needs could be met without a plan was reported at around 4,000 in 2022, nine times higher than the 2021 figure. But it’s difficult to be confident in that, because of the data collection problems this year.

Meanwhile, at a national level, LAs continue to refuse initial EHC needs assessments and EHCPs at roughly the same rate that they’ve done for years:

  • Nationally, around 22% of initial EHC needs assessment requests were refused in 2022
  • Nationally, in 2022, LAs refused to issue an EHCP after these assessments 6% of the time.

Legal timescales ignored

  • The percentage of new EHCPs finalised within the statutory 20-week timescale fell to its lowest national level in 2022: 50.7%, compared with 59.9%.

That’s a steep drop – and remember, this is a statutory requirement, not a target. But once again, we can’t tell for sure whether this is a real drop in timeliness at a national level, or whether it’s simply because the data is unusually kludgey this year.

Anecdotally, it’s also worth noting that we’ve heard lots of recent examples of LAs gaming these stats: for example, LAs completing the paperwork within the required timescale, but without conducting the vast majority of the assessments that are required by law. Or, finalising a plan only to put it straight back into draft.

As ever, with all of these figures, there is a huge amount of variation across LAs. Check out our Hall of Shame for examples of the worst performers: in slower time, we’ll update this article with some interactive maps that’ll allow you to see how your own LA says it's performing.

Ethnicity & Gender

This year, the 2023 EHCP stats had a go for the first time at estimating the breakdown of children and young people with EHCPs by ethnicity and by gender.

Once again, bear in mind that this data is new and that it might well not be very robust:

  • Somewhere in the region of 68% 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 – over 10% - 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.

This dataset also included splits by gender for the first time. The gender splits were remarkably definitive and binary, so again treat with some caution:

  • 71.8% of children and young people with EHCPs were classified as male by their LA;
  • 28.1% of this cohort were classified as female by their LA, leaving:
  • 0.1% (a few hundred people) with a gender that either wasn’t given, or wasn’t known.

SEND Inclusion dashboards

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 that the DfE want 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.

Generally speaking, it’s a good thing to have better and more precise data. The DfE’s efforts to shake up EHCP stats collection are a good thing, and should be commended.

The current SEND system has been in place for over eight years. The DfE has given LAs two full years to get their act together on generating better EHCP stats. It looks like many LAs have simply failed to deliver.

That’s a problem for a whole variety of reasons. It’s a problem, because it looks like the kids that’ll be most affected by these data issues are those that the SEND system is already failing the most.

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

But it’s also a problem because it undermines the value of the inclusion dashboards that SEND system leaders are so very keen on.

Strategic-level users of dashboards like these rarely have the time, interest or inclination to ask whether the nicely-visualised data they see is reliable, whether it’s comparable from year to year, or whether they should be making big decisions off the back of shaky numbers. They would never admit it, but these dashboards are the corporate equivalent of Easy Read material.

The integrity of the data powering these inclusion dashboards is one of the first questions that the newly-established National SEND & AP Implementation Board should be asking. Given the failings of the system, we were hoping that this Board would be populated by a wide range of voices and perspectives. Instead, it’s a depressingly predictable collection – essentially, the same cadre of system leaders who drove the SEND system off the cliff in the first place. And the two NNPCF co-chairs.

In theory, the data collection process should be improving over time, and the kinks should eventually get ironed out. But at ground level, we’ve all had enough of lengthy SEND improvement journeys to last a lifetime.

See the EHCP 2023 infographic

Click image to enlarge. Accessible PDF here

EHCP Hall of Shame

Click image to enlarge. Accessible PDF here

Also read:

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Matt Keer
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