SEND researchers identify key lessons for teaching children with special education needs in lockdown

We've just launched our new report (PDF link) with Nuffield (Amy Skipp, Vicky Hopwood & Rob Webster With Jenna Julius & Dawson McLean, NFER February 2021), on special education during the first national lockdown. We spoke to special school and college Headteachers and families of children that normally attend those settings.

We think there are key lessons from those experiences that SHOULD be informing how the current lockdown is being managed. But it does not seem that that is the case. We found that overall special schools and colleges could only provide places in school for around a third of their usual number of pupils.

"I am very grateful school did offer other children a place. This has really helped my kids mentally. It was very hard for them staying at home every day and school learning at home was difficult with both of them. I do feel they have benefitted by going back. The school has been doing a great job"

Parent interview

This was because of:

  • Lack of staff availability – staff were off ill or shielding or had to look after their own children. Specific staff were often trained to support particular pupils, so if the staff were unavailable the pupil could not be offered a place.
  • Poor guidance - guidance was not clear for special education – about what risks were present for pupils and staff, what activities could be continued or how support should be delivered - leaving Headteachers to interpret their own rules
  • Lack of space – small classes and old buildings along with two metre social distancing meant that fewer people could be in the school or college building
  • Ability to keep safe – around nine in 10 Heads said they had pupils who would be unable to adhere to safety guidance or maintain social distancing. Three quarters had pupils who needed the close contact required for personal care.
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An impossible choice

Around one in 10 schools or colleges offered no in-school provision before Easter, while around one in 10 special schools and colleges offered places for all of their usual pupils. But as most could only offer a limited number of places they had to decide which pupils to have in.

Headteachers described to us how difficult this was. They knew many families would find it hard having their children at home 24/7, but they couldn’t safely have everyone in. This was made more difficult as the Prime Minister had suggested that all children with an EHCP should be offered a place in school. 

Throughout, I've had to weight up the possibility of a virus that may spread in children and may or may not make some school members very poorly, with the certainty that lots of our pupils will find this massive change really hard and that this will be very difficult for many families to manage

Provider interview

What many providers ended up doing was offering more places part-time. Rather than having 1 child in for the whole week, they had 2 children in for half a week each.

"I came under attack from several parents. Crying, screaming, telling me that I had no care about their children, I had to explain to them the situation was excruciating, But I felt I had to leave them high and dry.

Provider interview

This meant that the majority of families with children with EHCPs no longer had their child going to school, getting routine and specialist input, or mixing with their classmates. At the same time most of the vital support families depend on (therapy for their child, respite support, social interaction, work, family) stopped. Some families saw this as a positive experience. Many families saw some positives from the experience. But at the same time many told us how hard it had been. Some children’s anxiety and issues with behaviour management increased. Some children’s speech, mobility or social skills deteriorated. Some parents told us how difficult it was managing their child (with often increased needs), other children, their work and own anxieties and being expected to home-school. 

Amy Skipp
Amy Skipp

School support for families at home

Special schools and colleges varied in how they supported families at home. Many said they offered a range of support for home learning, but also that they supported families in other ways. This included calls and visits to the family, and supplying equipment, resources, food and other help to the home. 

Headteachers identified how resource intensive it was to provide this support.

Resources needed tailoring to pupils’ individual needs and family circumstances, at the same time as pupils were being supported in school.

Parents often reported that they did not feel the support they got with home learning was sufficient, or that they had other issues with teaching their child at home. Headteachers reported around 1 in 3 families had limited IT access. 

"My child has challenging behaviours and constantly refused to engage with school with after a while. It was tough"

Parent interview

"It is extremely difficult to educate a child with complex learning needs at home, due to limited resource and knowledge, My child especially needs the school surroundings in order to learn."

Parent interview

It is impossible to educate a SEND child who requires a 1-1 and also work full-time, especially with another child who also requires attention and education. There is a reason he needs specialist teaching and a 1-1. Also, I am not a therapist either. He needs the therapy"

Parent interview

EHCP duties were suspended until September. This resulted in pupils with EHCPs losing crucial input.

  • 83% of pupils at home, and 65% of pupils attending school or college, got either no or only a small amount of healthcare support through lockdown.
  • 77% of pupils at home and 57% of pupils attending school or college got either no or only a small amount of social care and support (including respite care and home help) through lockdown. 

I will write a future post on what was provided over this time for in-school and at home pupils. 

Were schools better prepared for SEND in lockdown 2021?

When we carried out the research we were focusing on how, and how soon, life would return to normal. It seems unbelievable that 10 months on another national lockdown including restrictions on education was announced. Surely this time we were better prepared and had learnt lessons about what had and had not worked last time?

Again, at the start of this lockdown it was set out that ALL pupils with an EHCP should be offered a place in school or college; that it should be a full-time place; and this time, with full EHCP support provided.

Yet there was no further detail on how this should be made to happen.

  • How has the issue with staff availability been addressed?
  • How can full health and care support be provided effectively and safely?
  • Are there any additional risks for staff, pupils and their families of being in school?
  • How should those who can’t return to school be supported? 
  • Will funding for ‘catch up’ be appropriate for pupils with SEND?

Latest data shows that across all pupils with EHCPs attendance is currently around 36%. 

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Our key learning recommendations

  1. We set out 10 key recommendations for action that must be taken now. In order to provide specialist in-school and college places for a greater number of pupils with EHCPs, during the pandemic:
    • More school staff need to be available, including those with appropriate skills and training to support the particular needs of children with SEND, to cope with higher than normal levels of staff absence and delivery restrictions.
    • Government guidance needs to set out explicit advice for specialist providers (taking account of the ways they work and the normal activities they carry out).
    • Specialist providers may need access to more physical space to deliver their support in line with safety guidance.
    • Risks for pupils with special educational needs and those who work with them, and how these can be addressed, need to be clearly set out. This is in order to reduce parents’ and providers’ concerns about children and young people attending special schools and colleges.
  2. Special schools and colleges are likely to need to continue to provide home learning support for a significant proportion of their pupils (due to isolation, shielding and part-time in-school provision). This means:
    • Special schools and colleges, and families of pupils who usually attend them, need to be equipped to fully support some pupils with EHCPs at home.
    • Extra resources will be required to continue providing remote learning support for pupils with EHCPs at home as this is extremely resource intensive for school staff (especially if they are also trying to support pupils in school at the same time).
    • Families of children with SEND who are not able to attend school and college, need equipment, IT access, resources and support to be able to attempt home learning.
    • Special schools’ and colleges’ ability to deliver remote learning for these pupils needs to be assessed and lessons on effective practice shared.
  3. Health, care and social support services for pupils attending special schools and colleges need to be maintained in any future lockdowns, including for pupils who cannot attend their school or college. Failure to do so is likely to result in pupils’ needs increasing.
  4. The effectiveness of remote delivery of health, care and social support must be urgently assessed, with lessons on effective practice shared.
  5. It appears the first national lockdown could have had greater effects on pupils with EHCPs facing socio-economic disadvantage. Steps must be taken to prevent this in future lockdowns and provide the extra support for recovery these pupils will need.
  6. Schools, colleges and parents reported that the disruption of the first national lockdown, the lack of support, and lost opportunities for development caused mental, physical and emotional harm to pupils from special schools and colleges. To prevent issues worsening and before educational and developmental loss can be addressed, schools and colleges must be supported to focus on addressing pupils’ mental, physical, and emotional needs.
  7. School, colleges and parents reported that the first national lockdown placed great strain on families. Consideration needs to be given to what help they need to recover and how to ensure that during any future lockdowns they are not left isolated and trying to cope alone.
  8. To help pupils with SEND recover from the disruption of this period any support and funding to help recovery (such as catch up7 and tutoring8 funding) must be appropriate to the needs of pupils with EHCPs and special education providers.
  9. Local and national government need to help special education providers to: recover from the pandemic; develop new ways to deliver safe, full-time, in-school, fully supported places; support pupils at home; and devise plans for future lockdowns that recognise that their needs are very different from those of mainstream schools.
  10. Pupil attendance at special schools and colleges and the extent to which they receive the support set out in their EHCPs needs continued monitoring to check if/ which pupils are not returning or receiving their full, legally required support.

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