SEND in schools 2021: Waiting for the other shoe to drop?

SEND in schools 2021: Waiting for the other shoe to drop?

Yesterday, the Department for Education (DfE) published its annual set of statistics on special educational needs in England. If you want to dive into the data yourself, you can find it here. If you just want the main facts and figures, then check our full infographic at the bottom of this article. If you want somewhere in between, keep reading…

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What do these figures cover?

Each year, the DfE collects census data from state-funded nurseries, state-funded schools, hospital schools, independent schools, alternative provision and non-maintained special schools. Most of the SEND-relevant data is collected in mid-to-late January each year. Once they’ve collected it and checked it, they publish a statistical release in late June.

This data is useful, because it covers a really broad range of children and young people with SEND, and collects a lot of different types of information about them: where they go to school, whether they have an EHCP or not, age, gender, ethnicity and more. It’s the best set of data out there covering school-aged children with SEND who don’t have an EHCP.

However, it’s not comprehensive, and it’s worth bearing a few things in mind when looking at it:

  • The data comes from school censuses, so it just covers the school population. There are hundreds of thousands of children and young people with SEND who aren’t in school. So if your kid is in further education, a sixth form college, a supported internship, or is out of school-based education completely, you won’t find them covered here.
  • The data includes a breakdown of different types of special educational need and disability – but the terminology that’s used to classify SEND doesn’t always play nicely with specific labels and needs. You can’t use these numbers to work out the number of school pupils with Down Syndrome, or ADHD, or Developmental Language Disorder – and some of the categories are inadequate catch-alls. Take any statistics on Moderate Learning Disability with a lorry-load of salt.
  • The census data comes from tens of thousands of individual schools, who each have their own take on how to classify a particular type of SEN, or whether a child actually has SEN at all. A recent report from the Education Policy Institute shows – convincingly – how inconsistent SEN identification can be at school level.
  • And finally, bear in mind that these numbers were mostly collected in January 2021 – at the height of the last wave of the pandemic, at a time when most pupils were not in school, and when school staff across the board were working under enormous pressure. It’s probably not a great idea to try to draw big, bold conclusions from this year’s statistics.
Headline SEND figs (accessible PDF version at the end)
Headline SEND Figures 2021, Click to enlarge. Free to share with credit (accessible PDF version at the end)

So what can these numbers tell us?

At a national level, the school SEND census numbers don’t shift dramatically from year to year – so it’s mostly a case of flagging up key points. If you start to lose the will to live, remember the infographic at the bottom!

  • There were 8.9 million school pupils in England in January 2021. Of these, about 1.4 million were reported to have some type of special educational need. That’s 15.8% of them – it’s a very slight proportional increase on last year, and the 2021 figure is the highest proportion of pupils with SEND since the 2014 SEND reforms. But bear in mind that this is still much lower than the late 2000s and early 2010s, when over 20% of pupils were identified with SEND.
  • Three quarters of these 1.4 million pupils are classified as being on SEN Support – roughly 1.1 million pupils in all. They don’t have an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP), and for the most part they are supported from the individual school’s resources. In all, 12.1% of the school population is on SEN Support, a barely-visible increase on last year.
  • The others – around 326,000 – have an EHCP. On the infographic, that’s a tiny proportional increase: last year, 3.3% of all school pupils had an EHCP, and this year it’s 3.7%. But look a bit closer, and this isn’t such a tiny increase – the number of school pupils with an EHCP has risen by over 10% in a single year, and it’s 37.5% bigger than it was five years ago. 

The increase in EHCP numbers is causing conniptions in both local government and central government. If you want more detail on EHCP stats as a whole – not just for school pupils – then check out this post from a few weeks back.

It looks like the biggest increases in both the numbers and proportions of pupils with SEND are in Key Stage 2 of primary and Key Stage 3 of secondary – with much less change outside this age range over the last few years. In Year 6 – the last year of primary – around 19% of pupils were reported to have a special educational need in January 2021. 

Where are school pupils with SEND educated?

SEND Figures 2021 Click to enlarge Free to share with credit

Most pupils with SEND are still in mainstream schools. Over 80% of pupils with SEND attend a state-funded mainstream school or nursery. A further 6% of pupils with SEND go to a non-specialist independent school. 

This is worth remembering when people talk about SEND funding, as they do more and more these days. There are parts of the SEND sector that are under acute financial pressure – particularly the high needs and Post-16 areas. But a big majority of pupils with SEND are in state mainstream, and most of them are supported primarily from mainstream school budgets.

For many years, there has been a large-scale drift of pupils with EHCPs from mainstream schools to special schools. That drift has slowed in the last couple of years, mostly because state special schools are now beyond full. The number of pupils with EHCPs in mainstream has increased, and the proportion of them in mainstream has increased too. The number of specialist SEND units and resource bases in mainstream has also inched upwards – from 1,389 in 2020, to 1,418 in 2021.

At the start of 2021, for the first time in many years, over half of school pupils with EHCPs were in state mainstream. Looking at the financial data from councils, the most common area where they overshot their high-needs SEND budgets in the last financial year was in ‘top-up’ payments to mainstream schools.

It’s hard to tell whether the growth in the numbers of mainstream pupils with EHCPs is because mainstream schools are overall becoming more capable of supporting the needs of these pupils, with extra funding – or alternatively, whether some of these pupils are simply being kept in a holding pattern until more special school placements become available.

What are the most common types of SEN in schools?

Types of need 2021. Click to enlarge Free to share with credit

Speech, language and communication (SLCN) is the most common type of primary SEN in state schools. Almost 295,000 pupils were listed as having SLCN as a primary special educational need in early 2021, with social, emotional and mental health needs (SEMH) the second most prevalent category. For pupils with EHCPs, autistic spectrum disorder is the most common type of primary SEN identified in special schools.

It’s unwise to draw too many conclusions from this. Labels don’t often map neatly to need, and a lot depends on the process of identification at school level. All the same, it’s disturbing to see that nearly 95,000 state school pupils are on the SEND register without any sort of clearly identified need.

You can also indirectly see other problems with SEN identification in the gender data. Similarly to previous years, two thirds of state pupils with SEND were reported to be boys in 2021, with one third reported to be girls. Over three-quarters of state school pupils with ASD as a primary need were reported to be boys - which probably tells you more about how ASD is diagnosed and its resulting needs are accepted in the school system than it tells you about prevalence by gender. The only primary type of need with a near 50-50 split was deafness.

And you’ll need to also take care when looking at SEN identification by ethnicity, as lots of different factors drive variations here. Overall, 15.8% of school pupils were reported to have special educational needs in January 2021. In some groups – such as Irish Travellers and Gypsy / Roma Travellers – the proportion was 26% to 30%. For other groups – pupils with reported Indian or Chinese ethnicity – the proportion was as low as 8%. 

Are we waiting for the other show to drop post-pandemic?

Overall, it’s very hard to see the impact of the pandemic in these figures. Comparing January 2021 with the pre-pandemic world of January 2020, there has not been a big bump in the number of state nursery or school pupils with reported SEND. The number of pupils with EHCPs has grown, but at a roughly similar rate to previous years. You’d barely guess that a life-changing pandemic happened since the last set of figures, and you’d not know at all that it was raging at a peak when the figures were collected.

And that’s a problem with just looking at cold data. It’s very, very likely that there are metaphorical shoes that have yet to drop, and you can’t see these in the stats. 

Sure, it’s useful having numbers like the DfE stats – but they can’t tell you much at all about the quality of support that school pupils with SEND got in 2020 and early 2021, and they can’t tell you much about whether their needs changed over lockdown.

For school pupils who are on SEN Support, the most common primary need for the last few years has been speech, language and communication (SLCN) and social, emotional and mental health (SEMH). We know from our own surveys (and those of others, like the Disabled Children’s Partnershipthat pupils’ access to speech and language therapy and mental health support dropped hugely during the pandemic – and that for pupils on SEN Support, it virtually disappeared.

In our autumn 2020 survey, only 8% of parents and carers of children on SEN Support reported that all of their child’s SEND provision had been restored to its pre-pandemic state. 

Speech and language therapy (SaLT) was even worse. Only 4% of parents and carers in our survey reported that their child on SEN Support had had all their previous SaLT provision restored in the autumn, and over 70% of them reported that nothing was now in place at all – whether via a teaching assistant, or via a specialist therapist. 

In our autumn survey, only a quarter of pupils on SEN Support had even part of their nurture group support restored. Over 60%of pupils on SEN Support who had previously been supported via nurture groups no longer had a chance to access them when they returned to school in the autumn. 

At some point, these shoes are going to drop. This level of unmet need is almost certainly already having an impact on many children and young people with SEND - and in time, it’ll have a big impact on the system that’s designed to support them too.

Find the DfE figures here

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Full Infographic for SEND 2021

Click to enlarge Free to share with credit (accessible PDF version at the end)

Click to download Accessible PDF of the infographics

Also read:


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Matt Keer
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