SEND in schools 2019-2020: It’s just so depressing

The school census figures for SEND have just been published for 2019-2020. Before we get to that, I want to draw your attention to the new department for Education guidance for specialist settings just issued for a return to school in September. 

“Since May, as a result of the pandemic, it has been necessary to modify Section 42 of the Children and Families Act 2014 so that local authorities and health commissioners must use their ‘reasonable endeavours’ to secure or arrange the specified special educational/ health care provision in EHC plans. We are committed to removing these flexibilities as soon as possible so that children and young people can receive the support they need to return to school. As such, unless the evidence changes, we will not be issuing further national notices to modify the EHC duties, but will consider whether any such flexibilities may be required locally to respond to outbreaks.”

Guidance for full opening: special schools and other specialist settings

So, EHCPs will be back in force for September unless, perhaps, your area has a local lockdown, whereupon provision may be swiped away again, and repeatedly, as convenient. To reiterate what I said on social media yesterday, Mr Williamson, SEND children’s education should not be seen as subject to “flexibility”. It should not be the first thing to be thrown under the bus in an emergency. Think ahead– actually collaborate with the sector (instead of just pretending to listen) to ensure that LAs have new, evidence-backed protocols to support children with SEND, based on what the very best schools and LAs did during this time. Listen to what's gone wrong (see the latest Education Committee hearing here which prompted Chair, Robert Halfon MP to say he found it "...very, very depressing," ) and we will also, very soon, be sharing the data from our survey to back this up. And make sure you are prepared for next time. And Mr Halfon is right, it really is deeply depressing. And it needs to change - we need the SEND review to report and we need solid and sustained action and significant, very significant investment.

I may come back to this in the coming days, if I can drag myself back from the depths of despair.

The SEND schools

Okay, that said, let’s turn to the latest school SEND numbers…The world may have undergone enormous change in 2020, but the latest figures from the school census for SEND won’t reflect them. That’s because they were snapshotted at the end of January, before the pandemic took hold in England. 

In line with the trend over recent years, we see a rising headline of an increase of 0.2% for both the numbers of children in schools with EHCPs and those on SEN Support. 

You’ll note I make the distinction of “in school”, which means these figures are not the total number children with SEND. That’s because this is from the annual school census, which, while including young people in school sixth forms, those of the same age in further education colleges (including sixth-form colleges) or specialist placements are not counted. They also exclude anyone with an EHCP on an apprenticeship or supported internship. Also, while school-based nurseries are included, under-fives in privately-run facilities are not. 

So you can safely assume the actual numbers are considerably higher because one of the areas where there are growing numbers of EHCPs is in the 16-25 age group. If you want to see the latest figure for EHCPs as a whole, you can find our EHCPs and the Hall of Shame article here

That said, here are the headline figures: 

  • 3.3% of ALL pupils in schools in England have an EHCP plan, a rise from 3.1% in 2019
    • This means that there were 8.7% more EHCPS in January 2020 (Total: 294,800) than in January 2019 (Total: 271,200). 
  • For SEN Support, 12.1% of ALL pupils were on the SEN support lower level of help, without an EHC plan, in January 2020. That’s up from 11.9% in 2019.
    • This means there were 3.0% more children (Total: 1,079,000) in January 2020.
  • This means 15.5% of ALL pupils have an identified special educational need (either an EHCP or on SEN Support), an increase from 14.9% in 2019.
    • This gives a total of 1,373,800 pupils with an identified SEN/D

Where are they?

  • Overall, pupils in primary schools make up 49.9% of all SEN pupils, DOWN from 50.8% in 2019.
    • State-funded primary schools saw a 0.2% rise in the numbers of children with EHCPs to 1.8%.
    • There was a similar 0.2% increase to 12.8% of pupils on SEN support. 
  • Overall, pupils in secondary schools with SEN account for 32.0% of all pupils with SEND, UP from 31.4% in 2019.
    • 1.8% of pupils in state-funded secondary schools have an EHC plan in January 2020, a 0.1% increase. 
    • 11.1% of pupils have SEN support, rising by 0.3% from 2019. 
  • While there are fewer children in Pupil Referral Units/Alternative Provision as a whole, there has been a large increase in the percentage of pupils who have an EHCP, up from 13.4% to 16.4%. This is still a very concerning low number. If a child is in alternative provision, it’s most likely to be because they’ve been excluded or at threat of exclusion. If their emotional or SEN needs are such that they can’t be supported in a regular school, why weren’t they ALL assessed for an EHCP before being booted to the AP sector?
    • There’s been a decrease in pupils in Alternative Provision on SEN support from 67.6% to 64.9%. (incl pupil referral units, academy and free school alternative provisions. 
  • There are more pupils in independent schools, bringing the percentage in line with schools as a whole. Independent schools also have a greater level of pupils with SEN without a plan than the national figure – 13.7%, a one per cent rise. 
  • The number of children in special schools is still rising, increasing by 5.3% on last year, as it has been since 2006. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing – if children are getting the right support, that’s good. The negative is that children had to be in specialist provision to get the support they deserve (and are entitled to)
  • 9.3% of all pupils with SEND are attending state-funded special schools, excluding general hospital schools, and a further 0.3% of all pupils with SEN are attending non-maintained special schools. This is a small increase on 2019, when 9.1% of all pupils with SEN were attending state-funded special schools, and the same percentage, 0.3%, were attending non-maintained special schools.

TL;DR? Skip to infographic (but you'll miss some important stuff)

Copyright SNJ 2020

What kind of SEND?

  • The most common type of need for pupils with an EHC plan is, as ever, autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) and for pupils with SEN support is speech, communication and language needs (SLCNs) 
  • You’re more likely to have an EHCP than be on SEN Support if you have autism than most other conditions, other than severe learning disability (SLD) or profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) which are much lower incidence.
  • Also as ever, SEND is more common in boys than girls, with 73.1% of EHCPs and 64.6% of pupils on SEN support being male. The question for why this continues still has no definitive answer. But these ratios are stark and concerning. Are boys over-diagnosed? Are girls under-diagnosed? What is happening that boys have a much greater likelihood of an additional learning need than girls?
  • There are vast numbers of children with SLCNs, Moderate Learning Difficulties (MLDs) and emotional needs on SEN Support and only a fraction with EHCPs. Are these children being well served at the lower levels of SEND? Have all of these children had assessments by the LA’s educational psychologist to ensure the support they are being given is evidence-backed and is working? 
  • There are over 40,333 children who are on SEN Support but whose type of SEN hasn’t been assessed. That figure grows year on year. These are not just younger children but all the way up the age range. Are these children just being noticed as having additional need? Why are these children not having an external assessment to determine what support they need? Is there ed psych or relevant expert available? Are schools just chucking any old intervention at them to see what sticks? Wouldn’t you want to know if this was your child?

Losing support in the transfer to secondary

“SEN support decreases from age 10 This pattern is driven by SEN support, which increases in primary ages to 15.2% at age 10, before decreasing  to 12.9% at age 11 and continuing to decrease at a slower rate through secondary years to 11.4% by age 15.

The percentage of EHC plans continues to grow with age, throughout all schools ages

The percentage of pupils with an EHC plan, however, continues to increase as age increases, all through primary and secondary school ages, from 2.4% at age 5, to 3.8% at age 10, and to 4.0% by age 15.  “

The above is telling – when children move to secondary, they start to lose the support that they may (or may not) still need. However, by the time they’re 15, either those still on SEN support have not improved and now need a plan as they approach GCSEs (which arguably, they should have got years before). Or the needs of those who had the support removed as they moved to secondary, have become so great without any help, that they now need a plan. Of course, this is conjecture – but the figures do fit.

The message though, is that parents (even though they shouldn’t have to) need to try to check that their child’s SEN Support doesn’t vanish in the transition to secondary. But more importantly, primaries should remember that any issues that may already exist will only be amplified in a large secondary. Even if you ‘think’ they’ll be okay, speak to the parent and the future school and agree a plan together, to ensure the best chance of success for the child.

 What’s the reason for this increase?

It’s not entirely clear why this trend is rising, but I don’t think it will be one single reason. One thing you can’t pin it on is the increase in EHCPs for 16/19-25 year old because, as mentioned, these figures don’t include this cohort. 

Better training in spotting SEND? Unlikely. It’s heartening to see on Twitter the number of young trainee teachers interested in SEND. However, the School Snapshot survey from May showed that while 92% of teachers reported that they know when to engage the SENCO, only about two in five teachers (41%) think there's appropriate SEN training in place for all teachers. Meanwhile, only 60% said they feel able to meet the needs of pupils receiving SEN support, a drop of 16% on the previous year. Those in primary, however, generally felt better equipped than secondary teachers. 

“Less than one in five teachers (19%) agreed or strongly agreed that ‘at present, mainstream schools in England can effectively support the learning of children with EHC plans’.”

Schools’ Snapshot, May 2020

While this document showed there was a range of activities teachers used to try to help children with SEND, no one course of action was dominant. This is surprising, considering the range of support out there, including the SEND Gateway, Nasen and Whole School SEND. 

  • Parental knowledge, asking for support? It’s quite possible. As parents search online for answers when they notice something “not quite right” with their child, their knowledge grows and they may raise these concerns with school. Whether they get anywhere depends entirely on the school.
  • Increasing incidence of SEND: This is also likely. As I’ve said before, children who are born prematurely, or who have other congential conditions, are surviving longer, thanks to medical advances. But often these children are left with neurological or physical disabilities that, in turn, need to be supported so they can thrive and succeed. Education development is lagging behind the science, it seems.
  • Increasing levels of deprivation? When a child is raised in social deprivation and poverty, they are more likely to have learning and nurturing needs. A decade of austerity can only have made this worse. So perhaps it’s no surprise that these increases have been seen only since 2017. And the figures are clear – the number of children needing free school meals is increasing every year whether the child has SEND or not. 

“The percentage of pupils with an EHC plan who are eligible for free school meals is 34.6%, more than double that for pupils with no SEN (14.9%). The percentage of pupils with SEN support eligible for free school meals is 29.9%. Each of these figures shows an increase on 2019, in line with increases seen in the overall pupil population for free school meals.”

  • A changing world, and a changing society? Humans don’t stand still and neither does society. Children need education delivered in a way that’s fit for the 21st Century. If many of these children with identified SEN can learn better by different teaching methods, such as is done brilliantly in specialist settings such as More House School in Frensham, we should be taking note. Unless and until society demands (and government ensures) that mainstream schools have sufficient investment to ensure every child can thrive, maybe we need to throw away the idea that mainstream is 'best'.

This is a very important conversation to have, because the inclusion of all is vital. But you need to ask what inclusion actually means and what the aims are. If a significant number of pupils have been shown to have lower anxiety when learning at home, we need to rethink the whole concept of education. Inclusion in mainstream school is often inclusion in name only. It is more important to feel included, welcome, well-prepared and valued in adult society, following a happy and successful education. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that the old ways are no longer working for us – not in terms of equality, diversity, economics or sustainability. We urgently need a new conversation about how best to prepare ALL our children for an increasingly uncertain future – and we must put their needs first. 

The Infographic

SEND in schools 2020. Copyright, Special Needs Jungle. Free to share, download and print for non-commercial use only

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Tania Tirraoro

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