Pupils in special settings suffered significant effects of the pandemic but the “Recovery Plan” won’t help them

Throughout the pandemic, we have been monitoring what has been happening with special schools and colleges and the pupils who attend them. Our previous research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, identified issues during the first lockdown. This report looks at what happened during the second lockdown when schools closed to most pupils from January to March this year and some of the effects of this period of disruption.

It is based on a survey with a representative sample of headteachers in special schools and colleges in England, and depth interviews with them and parents.

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Significant effects on special settings

Parents told us about the way the pandemic and changes to school and society had affected their children.

Headteachers reported:

  • Overall, pupils with EHCPs in special settings are around four months behind where they should be in their literacy and numeracy skills. This is greater than the 2-3 months reported for pupils in mainstream settings
  • Overall pupils with EHCPs are around five months behind where they should be in their emotional wellbeing and 4.5 months behind in their behaviour and self-regulation, social and communication skills, and independence, self-care and life skills.

This means pupils not able to transition to new settings or live independently, exhibiting challenging behaviours including suicide attempts, self-harm and other injurious behaviours, and struggling to maintain friendships and interact with their peers.

  • In settings for pupils with physical disabilities, pupils are five months behind what's normally expected in their physical development.
  • Some pupils who could walk before now cannot stand. Physical conditions have worsened such as clawed limbs, eating issues, muscle tightness and core strength.

Headteachers from settings facing greater disadvantage reported greater losses – a further three to 4.5 months behind their peers, making them eight months behind what would normally be expected in some areas of their development (particularly mental wellbeing and behaviour).

Figure 1: Mean reported developmental losses for pupils in special schools and colleges (in months)

We know that reporting ‘months of progress lost’ is not a very suitable way to describe the experiences of pupils. However, this is how ministers and policy-makers are discussing the impact on mainstream pupils and we need to be able to take part in those same conversations and raise the issues of pupils with EHCPs on an equal footing. 

Some pupils who could walk before now cannot stand, physical conditions have worsened such as clawed limbs, eating issues, muscle tightness and core strength.

Multiple causes for lost progress

Obviously, everyone has found this period difficult and there have been effects on us all. So we wanted to understand what specifically was leading to the type and size of effects being reported. We found 3 main reasons:

1. Pupils in special settings have experienced significantly disrupted learning

Despite the Government stating that all pupils with an EHCP should be offered a place in their usual setting, this was not possible. DfE data shows attendance during lockdowns was around 35%. Special settings did not have enough staff available, enough space, or enough guidance and support to be able to open fully. Most of them offered pupils part-time places – but we found that a quarter of pupils did not attend at all during the lockdowns. Even now, one in 10 pupils have not returned.   

These pupils need their full support package in place and they need consistency in order to be able to access learning. They need routine and repetition. They need people specially trained to support them. Without this their ability to learn was hampered.

And for those at home there were greater issues. Many settings tried multiple ways to support home learning but:

  • Some families did not have IT access
  • Some pupils cannot engage with a screen
  • Some pupils see school for learning and home for ‘not learning’
  • Some pupils’ wellbeing suffered and their challenging behaviours increased
  • Many parents were not equipped to provide specialist learning support
  • Many parents were trying to work as well as support their child
  • Many parents had other children at home who they also needed to care for

2. Required health and care support is not being provided

EHCPs make it clear that for pupils to access learning, thrive and achieve they need support with their health and care needs. Since the start of the pandemic the provision of these services has been severely disrupted. The legal duty to provide this input was suspended March – September 2020, but in many cases it has not been reinstated since.

  • 1 in 5 pupils with EHCPs attending school are still not getting their health and therapy input – their speech and language therapy, physio and OT
  • 1 in 4 pupils with EHCPs attending school are still not getting their social care input – personal assistance, respite, access to equipment and support for independent living.
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Home-based pupils have lost out even more

The situation for pupils at home is even worse:

  • Over three in five pupils with EHCPs not in school are not getting either the therapy or care input they are legally supposed to. This is concerning given how numbers of pupils at home are high due to bubbles closing.
Figure 2: Percentage of EHCP health and care input fully delivered across different periods of the pandemic

Families reported how significant the loss of respite and social support services had been to them and their children. We had multiple examples of families in crisis not being able to get any help.

3. Special schools and colleges cannot provide their usual support

Restrictions on how schools and colleges must operate are still limiting what pupils can do even if they are attending their setting. On site bubbles are being kept separate, social activities and after school clubs cannot take place, and some interventions cannot be delivered. Off site activities are very restricted – many settings have had to stop swimming, trampolining, trips out, use of public transport, horse-riding, visits to the shops and community centres.

Heads and parents detailed how vital these activities are to properly supporting pupils with EHCPs – they are not just enrichment or ‘nice to haves’ but essentials for development of basic skills. 

Similarly, restrictions on society mean that families are not able to do the things they normally would – which would help children’s self-regulation, mental wellbeing and happiness.



So what’s being done about it?

The Government has proposed multiple ways to address the ‘losses’ pupils have experienced in its Educational Recovery Plan but headteachers and parents reported that these suggestions were not suitable for pupils with EHCPs.

The National Tutoring programme, for example, is academic input from an external tutor – some felt this would not work as pupils rely on adults who know them and understand their needs and how to support them. Many felt the focus on academic "catch-up" was misjudged, and not the primary need of these pupils now. 

Summer schools and extending the school day were again seen to have the wrong focus – that pupils now need fun and mixing with their friends, not more learning. There are issues in special school staff running these as they are exhausted, and it’s not clear how transport would work (as most pupils will live a distance from their special setting and rely on home-school transport).

But everyone agrees that help to recover is needed: for pupils, their families and the settings that support them.

The recommendations made by headteachers and parents were for the Recovery Plan to:

  • Focus on more than educational attainment
  • Specifically address emotional wellbeing and mental health – of pupils and staff
  • Increase health and care input for pupils with EHCPs
  • Extend support to families – ensuring they also recover and are able to support their children
  • Be informed by experts – trusting Headteachers to decide what their setting needs and how best to allocate funding
  • Allow sufficient time for real recovery – not being a ‘one off’ or short-term solution
  • Address pre-existing funding shortfalls in SEND, which have been exacerbated by the changes brought about by the pandemic.

We have made a series of eight recommendations to local and national government based on our findings. We believe that the Recovery Plan should have children and young people with SEND at the heart of it, and point out that if we don’t address these identified issues now they may lead to more damage in years to come.

We will publish more detail in September, but you can read our research summary here
We are – as ever – very grateful to all the parents and special staff who took part in our research. We want you to know we have heard you and we value you, that is why as researchers we will do everything we can to try and improve the situation you are now facing.   

Download the report as a PDF here

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Amy Skipp

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